Do You Really Need a Computer Science Degree in Today’s Market?

When Equifax crashed and burned due to a massive security failure earlier this year, there was lots of blame to go around. Some of it fell on Equifax’s chief security officer Susan Mauldin, who was accused of being unqualified because she had a music degree as opposed to, say, one in computer science.

However, many tech pros don’t have “appropriate” degrees. Some of the tech industry’s leading figures—including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg—dropped out of college well before obtaining a degree. In other words, lack of a formal computer-science degree shouldn’t hold you back from finding a solid job in technology.

“Most computer programmers have a bachelor’s degree; however, some employers hire workers with an associate’s degree,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For other types of tech pros, the agency noted, the requirements are potentially more nebulous: “Some firms hire analysts with business or liberal arts degrees who have skills in information technology or computer programming.”

Sure, if you want to be a network architect, you’re almost certainly going to need a computer science (or related) degree. But for many other tech jobs, a computer-science degree is a nice addition, not a necessity. What matters to many employers is ambition and a willingness to learn on the part of tech candidates.

As Mihai Corbuleac, a senior IT consultant at Bigstep.com, a full-stack cloud company, explained: “Talent and skill are the priorities. We always appreciate and are more likely to hire a programmer with a bachelor’s degree, but only if he/she is indeed a skilled or a talented person who is eager to learn more. Sometimes an academic degree can make the difference between candidates, but for several senior positions we might put relevant experience first.”

He isn’t the only one to emphasize skills over formal computer science degrees. Jon Brodsky, U.S. manager for Finder.com, a consumer-assistance company, said: “We believe tenacity and drive to succeed win out over education credentials. We have a very high standard and move very fast, so we test that potential team members can actually do the job at hand in the interview process.” All roles at his company require a basic knowledge of HTML and CSS, while web developers need to know JavaScript and PHP.

“So long as they have a proven ability to do the work required, we don’t care where the skills came from—self-taught or college educated—more that they are the right team fit,” Brodsky added.

Indeed, many companies want to see proof that a tech pro can code the code and not just talk the talk (so to speak). This proof can sometimes eclipse the presence of a computer science degree (or something similar) on the pro’s résumé. Amine Rahal, founder and CEO of IronMonk Solutions, a digital marketing company, said that his business does not “require a degree from our programmers. It is simply considered a bonus, just like speaking a second language or having volunteered your time in the community.”

Experience can come in many forms, whether a previous job or personal projects. Posting code on Github and other repositories is always a smart way to highlight your work, depending on your area of specialization. If you’re a mobile developer, you could also show off an app you worked on, for instance.

“I’ve hired a dozen or so sysadmins and techs as VP of my MSP, and degrees really don’t mean much on their own,” said John Watkins, VP and CTO of InRite, a managed services provider (MSP). “We have had guys who look great on paper, but just crammed for the ‘exams’ in their IT course work, meaning they don’t know Bash from cmd. Knowledge, experience and formal education are all important pieces of the puzzle, but a degree doesn’t guarantee a good technical worker.”

What guarantees a good technical worker? Critical thinking and problem-solving. “In the tech industry, you’re often faced with many roadblocks, both technical and non-technical,” said Kinjal Dua, Mobile Developer at Clearbridge Mobile. “Good developers know how to think on their feet and find the best solution for a given setback or technical bug. It’s easy to find developers with a degree; however, finding one with these soft skills is rare.” Having the ability to solve problems quickly in a fast-paced environment will make a tech pro worth their weight in gold.

Those skills will inevitably come out during the candidate’s technical interview, provided the interviewer knows what to look for. Joe Fuller, VP and CIO of Dominion Enterprises, the company behind homes.com, looks for tech pros who demonstrated an interest in tech early in their lives; in his experience, that’s a better indication of future success than certificates or degrees. If, at the age of twelve, you set up a home network from hand-me-down hardware, that might be worth mentioning (briefly) in the course of an interview; you might also want to bring up any stories that highlight curiosity and self-starter attitude.

Jason Hayman, Market Research Manager at TEKsystems, an IT staffing provider, suggests that some organizations are looking beyond not only education prequisites, but also IT certifications. “Google and Amazon have started invading the world of academia for skills and to implement new initiatives such as A.I. by hiring college professors skilled in A.I., or looking at disciplines such as Physics and Astronomy due to their heavy background in mathematics,” he said. “We try to place candidates that have a traditional four-year degree with a focus on IT, but we are finding that it is getting more difficult given the low supply and high demand for many open positions.”

For some cutting-edge technologies, degrees simply can’t keep up. A recent Dice analysis of job openings found that the hottest skills in 2017 included Docker containers (with demand spiking 1,017 percent) and React.js (806 percent). Chances are good you didn’t take a college-level course in either; if you want to learn something like that, you have to head out and read the documentation (and explore the code) yourself, or else take a micro-course.

If you have proof of technical skills, previous jobs, or work for non-profit organizations and local groups, all that may serve you as well—and sometimes even better—than a four-year STEM or computer science degree. Employers are clearly looking beyond your school’s reputation and your GPA to your skills and expertise.

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One Response to “Do You Really Need a Computer Science Degree in Today’s Market?”

December 21, 2017 at 4:57 pm, Charles Hines said:

I was a work study officer and management services officer , and worked for a parliamentary group for SMEs. i’m also a musician. I have basic computer skills and use others to guide security in the wild-wood out there.

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