Does a Formal Degree Really Matter in Tech?

Many professions require college degrees or even advanced degrees, professional board exams, and licensing, but being a developer or IT professional does not, at least not in the US. Specific educational requirements make sense in many fields. Of course, you would not want surgery performed on you by a doctor who did not have the proper education and licensing. On the other hand, it’s difficult for universities to keep up with the latest programming languages, and they don’t necessarily teach all the skills needed to be successful in tech.

Even though many tech workers do not have degrees, some organizations require that applicants for technical positions have computer science degrees or at least a degree in any field before getting through to the first interview. This can keep some companies from finding talented and skilled individuals who might otherwise be perfect for the positions. Even more concerning is that experts predict the shortage of tech workers will escalate over the next few years, and this requirement could be a contributing factor.

Lack of a formal degree in computer science or engineering doesn’t seem to hold back the many developers and IT professionals who are successful in these careers without them. Tech workers often have degrees in such diverse fields as social work or music. I recently found myself at a developer event eating lunch with a newly minted Microsoft MVP, who is also an attorney.

Since completing a degree, even a nonrelated degree, is often required, what does it really bring to the table? A degree does show that the individual can commit to and successfully complete a multi-year program. Hopefully, they will learn to work with others in groups and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will prepare them to work in any field they choose later.

Those who have degrees in nonrelated fields, or no degrees at, will often learn their technical skills from online resources. Many of these resources are free or are relatively inexpensive. Those who choose this route may need even more discipline since they are accountable to only themselves. Some people earn professional certifications such as Microsoft’s MCSE. The quality of the Microsoft exams seems better than it was a few years ago, but real-world experience is still very important.

In the US, some nonprofit training organizations partner with corporations by offering paid apprenticeships once the candidate has been trained and tested. This eliminates many of the high barriers for talented individuals who lack traditional degrees. I volunteer with such an organization and have seen positive results.

Bill Gates, an exceptional student, famously left Harvard before graduating to found Microsoft. Steve Jobs quit college and eventually started Apple. It would be naïve to think that the average college or university student could replicate the success achieved by either of these two gentlemen by abandoning higher education. Most people will not accomplish anything on that scale, even if they do graduate. Gates and Jobs each represents the perfect intersection of vision, genius, and being at the right place at the right time when the industry was about to bloom.

A formal degree is a requirement at some organizations, yet many developers and IT professionals are successful without one. Let us know if you think a university degree should be a barrier to employment for a technical position.

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