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Degree or no degree?


I'm an incredibly lame blogger of late, I know.  Let's just say I'm taking a little "break."  I think every blogger is entitled to a break every now and then. :)

But anyway ...

An interesting conversation going on in the comments section of Microsoft's JobsBlog got me thinking about that age-old communication gap between jobseekers and employers ... this being JobSyntax's (whose mission it is to bridge that gap) 1 year anniversary and all!

In Why I Wish I had Studied Computer Science/IT/Technology in College, Janelle discusses the decline in computer science college enrollment .  She lists a few assumptions - don't need a degree to get a job;  your major isn't important; the material is too outdated and irrelevant - and asks readers why they think the decline exists.  This is a topic that I'm also very passionate about, and I have to say I've just always assumed the decline existed because people who may be interested are too gun-shy of the technology industry.   They think opportunities will dwindle and/or be off-shored - so there isn't a strong future in the field.   Certainly, those reasons were mentioned, but they weren't the majority.

While the blogosphere hardly serves as scientific research, it does provide good data points.  And the data points here tell me that there's yet another disconnect between what jobseekers think and what employers think.  A large share of the responses mirrored this sentiment:

A formal degree in Computer Science is not really essential to get into the Software/IT industry. What is more important is having passion for what you are do.

Now, I'm all for passion, and I'm not here to kill the dream, kids.  (And to be fair, the person who wrote this specific comment has an advanced degree in CS.)  I have seen many people have great careers in the technology industry without degrees.  But I was just really surprised to hear that same reasoning echoed over and over again.  It NEVER occurred to me people may not be majoring in CS because they don't think they need to.

In my experience working as a technical recruiter, I have encountered maybe 2 or 3 hiring managers who have said a CS or related degree is not a requirement ... or least a very, very, very strong "nice to have."  (And those hiring managers were usually ones who didn't have degrees themselves.)  As a recruiter, education is usually the first thing my eyes notice.  And back in the day when I'd mined resume databases or job boards, "computer sci*" OR "computer eng*" were always in my search string.

I'm not arguing that you aren't qualified if you don't have a degree ... but I am arguing that you will be perceived as unqualified if you don't have one.  The standards and requirements will only continue to increase - and those without degrees (and lacking experience to back it up) will only find it more difficult to break into the field with a good job.  You may find a job - but you also may find that those 4 years of time and tuition costs were more than worth it in the end.

Like I said, just an interesting response.  "I don't need a CS degree" was something I never expected to hear.  In 1999?  Sure.  In 2007?  No way!

Am I off-base?


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Published Wednesday, April 18, 2007 9:20 PM by gretchen
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Erik said:

I don't think you're off-base at all, but I have a slightly different view being someone who started off going for a CS degree and dropped out and works at Microsoft.

I think your best statement was this one:  "and those without degrees (and lacking experience to back it up) will only find it more difficult to break into the field with a good job"

I personally believe that having a CS degree is more about a foot in the door than it is "something you have to have".  I don't have a degree and I was able to eventually reach my goals.  That said, it took me a lot longer to get where I wanted to be without the degree than if I had put in the work to finish the degree.  For me though, that was ok.  I got many years of experience without having to learn in a way that didn't fit my personality.  No offense to those who have a degree, but a CS degree doesn't make you smarter, it makes you more knowledgeable across the board.  There's a difference.

How's about a question back to you, Gretchen?  :)  What do you see in a candidate with a CS degree that you don't see in a candidate who has equivalent experience without a degree?  Also, in your past job I assume you helped hire both people with degrees and people without...was there a noticeable difference in their careers?

Good post!  :)
April 19, 2007 12:32 PM

gretchen said:

Good questions.  To your first one about differences I see in candidates with and without a degree ... I would say none that I could definitively point to.  Like I've said, I've met - and hired - many great people who graduated and who didn't.   But I think it goes back to that perception piece.  To generalize, someone who has a degree may be *perceived* as having more refined communication and problem solving skills.  And that's an assumption I see candidates without degrees frequently having to overcome.  

As to differences in their careers ... I'd say, yes.  Someone with a degree typically is able to get their foot in the door, like you said, a bit earlier and more easily in their career.  They tend to work for companies of a higher caliber and in roles with more complexity. (just to generalize.)  That's why I don't think skipping a degree should necessarily be considered "fast-tracking" it because, while someone may get 4 extra years of work experience, the long-term trajectory will probably be slower.

A good example is the way the US government equates work experience to education to determine if someone can qualify for a work visa, like a H1B.  If someone has a 4 year university degree in a related subject (CS, EE, Math, etc), they are generally ok.  If they don't have a 4 year degree or their 4 year degree isn't related to the computer industry, the government will look at work history.  As a rule of thumb (for the government), 3 to 4 years of work experience is equal to 1 year of university education.  So, in that scenario, you'd have to work in the industry 12 to 16 years to have, on paper, equal qualifications to someone who just graduated.

In my career, I've evolved toward a marketing role - even though it's still in the recruiting space.  I've found a similar prejudice ... everyone has a MBA!  (I don't.)   The thought is that business school teaches you to think like a marketer.  But I've been in marketing classes with grads from top MBA schools and guess what?  I've been way more competent.  Doesn't make me more attractive on paper though.  Those folks would probably get an initial shot at a job any day over me, just because of their degree.  That doesn't make me any less qualified; just less desirable.  
April 19, 2007 7:08 PM

gretchen said:

And just to follow-up on my last comment.  While I know a MBA would make me more desirable as a candidate in my career, it doesn't motivate me to go back and get a MBA either.  I have no desire to go back to school and I won't.  And if that means that a company won't hire me because I don't have a MBA, then I probably don't want to work for that company.  I know it limits my options, but I know I'm qualified without the degree.  So I see the logic on the other side, too. :)
April 19, 2007 7:12 PM

Erik said:

Perception being a key difference is a great point!

Re: "And if that means that a company won't hire me because I don't have a MBA, then I probably don't want to work for that company."

I interviewed with a very large international company right before interviewing with Microsoft (for the 3rd time  ;)) and that's exactly what they said to me.  In fact, they told me they were going to hire the other candidate who was less qualified than me, but had a 4 year degree.  They said he would make it further in the company than I would.  My attitude was the same as you suggested.  I was glad I didn't get the job, because with an attitude like that, it was not a company I wanted to work for.

It is really too bad more companies don't hire based off of the intelligence of the person and not their qualifications on paper.  Perception is reality.
April 20, 2007 12:17 AM

amybethhale said:

Gretchen, first time commenting on your blog! I love this topic because I think there's a big difference between theory knowledge and application knowledge. A college degree is just a (very expensive) piece of paper that says you started something and followed it through to completion. How many people actually work a job in their area of study these days anyhow? I know I sure don't - I earned my BS (ironic hehe) in Exercise and Sports Sciences, and I am an internet researcher for a recruiting company! While completing college could say something about your follow-through, I have to agree with my friend Jeff who used to be a professor at a prestigious Midwestern university: he told me that unless your career path requires you to have a specialized degree, it's not worth spending the tens of thousands of dollars to go to college. Just go out into the world and earn your experience.

On the topic of computer science, my thought on this is that about 3 days into your first semester, the content's going to change. By the time you complete semester one, the technology and theories you've just studied your butt off for are probably already obsolete, and if you do make it to the bitter end and earn your degree, the things you learned about in your first year are already starting to collect dust in some old used computer chop shop. I'd hazard a guess that kids entering universities see this, and figure they can learn more from their peers and from trial and error (that's how I learned all about computers myself; my PC has crashed and I've have to reformat the harddrive at least 4 times). A perfect example is my friend Michael - he was designing gaming software when he was 15. He started doing consulting work in high school for a computer software company and by the time he entered Duke University, he already had three years of experience under his belt. He taught himself the skills he used to consult. Granted, he did go to college and earn a degree in Computer Science, but he was already doing what he was learning to do in school! I wouldn't be surprised if he assisted in teaching some of the courses while he was there as well.

Thanks for your awesome blog by the way :) I'm going to add this to my blogroll!
April 23, 2007 11:46 PM

The Week In Recruiting (Reading the blogs so you won’t have to) « JimStroud.com said:

April 24, 2007 8:28 AM

Robert Baumann said:

Hi Gretchen,

I agree with you that a Computer Science degree should not be thought of as unnecessary.  If a person does not have a CS degree, they are seen as being underqualified for many positions.  Companies hiring engineers are looking for people who are committed to the profession, and a B.S. demonstrates that commitment.  The engineering programs at schools are also teaching sound principles of software engineering which you don't just pick up from reading about the latest technology - topics such as analyzing requirements, proper exception handling and best practices around code maintenance, SDLC/process, estimation, and creating good software specifications...  these are skills which most people that haven't gone through a degree program and say that it's not useful, ignore - until they get burnt.  

Reading a book about the latest technology such as WPF and creating a simple "Hello World" program, certainly does not mean that you are ready to take on a commercial software project.  

I agree that school is valuable.  You can't learn all of the required skills without a degree, unless you spend years in the industry and learn software engineering principles the really hard way.
April 25, 2007 12:55 PM

Erik said:


The things you're talking about like what skills you learn by getting a CS degree and how companies look for commitment, etc are all good in principle and I agree with you, but you seem to be portraying them as absolutes and nothing is absolute.  There are many exceptions.  Not all companies have that perception (even if it's most).  The skills you listed can be learned from other books.  People who don't have degrees (myself included) don't necessarily read "just  about the latest technology".  I don't think anyone in their right mind would expect to pick up the latest WPF book and be ready for a job building WPF apps.  My personal view is that smart people will succeed regardless of how they learn.

"You can't learn all of the required skills without a degree, unless you spend years in the industry and learn software engineering principles the really hard way."

"the really hard way" is completely subjective.  To me, learning in an environment where you listen to a lecture, take notes and regurgitate is a "really hard way" to learn.  That's why I never finished my degree.  It wasn't for me and I found it very difficult.  Don't get me wrong, I love to learn, but IMHO, education (in general) today is not tailored to all types of learning (visual, audial (sp?), kinetic) and until it is, is not the best way for EVERYONE to learn.
April 26, 2007 1:38 PM

Edge said:

G, Erik wrote, "They said he would make it further in the company than I would." Now you may know me by now but for everyone else who doesn't...

Where's the data to support this?

I'm an engineer - Tau Beta Pi for what it's worth - who crossed over to the dark side (that would be HR and recruiting) and no one ever asked me if I had a degree in people. Driver licenses don't make good drivers, recruiting certifications offered by associations don't make for ethical recruiters, and CS degrees can never guarantee a free ride to coding heaven.

In a world where many pre-teens know more about computers than people with advanced degrees, I'll go with people whose lateral thinking skills are unparalleled, who can both appreciate and wallow in abstractness, who are innately inquisitive - without a degree - than someone who offers just the degree. Yes, there must be specific skills present but these are easy to test for.

If you've ever read "Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter (1980), you know what I mean.

Sometimes, pattern thinking is a real curse...

See you next week, Gretchen!

May 3, 2007 5:13 PM

Erik said:

Edge, I'm actually really glad they told me that.  It helped me know that I wouldn't want to work at their company anyway.  :)
May 3, 2007 6:09 PM

The Week In Recruiting (Reading the blogs, so you don’t have to) « JimStroud.com said:

June 10, 2007 12:49 AM

http://jobsyntax.com said:

March 24, 2008 2:56 AM
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