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Do You Need a Degree to Have a Successful Career in Programming?
Date 6/26/2009    Tags Advise, Rant    (0)

When it comes to programming (and often IT positions in general), I hear a lot of talk about whether or not a degree is important (and necessary) to succeed in the field and some young aspiring programmers wonder aloud if they can do better without any schooling (after all, Bill Gates dropped out of college and he's doing pretty well).

I have a Computer Science degree and it has been infinitely helpful in getting me to where I am today. But it didn't have to be that way and I don't pin all my success on having a degree. Several people I've worked with over the years (sometimes with the same position as I have) either haven't had degrees (though most have some college) or had degrees in completely unrelated fields (English, Business, Underwater Basket-Weaving).

I believe there are two main purposes for getting a degree, to learn the material covered in your degree program and to prove to others (prospective employers usually) that you learned the material covered in your degree program. To shorten that up a bit, degrees are to learn and to prove to others that you learned.

You can become just as talented a programmer going not going to school as you would going to school and could learn just as much in the same or even less time (college will force you to take extra unrelated classes that learning on your own won't require; for instance my knowledge of 1800's child rearing has been of little benefit at any of my jobs nor is my knowledge of music from the Middle Ages). Some people learn differently than others and thus require a teacher's assistance or group collaboration or being in a structured setting. For those people, at least working toward a degree is a must. For the rest, you're going to need to be self-motivated to do a lot of coding and reading on your own. Not everyone is up for that task.

To get a good job you will need not only experience but some way to prove that you have that experience. Just telling a hiring manager that you can do this or do that isn't going to work and few companies have the time or resources to put you through a true aptitude test to determine your levels of know-how.

Having a degree can be a huge plus in this arena since it shows prospective employers you have a certain set of skills and abilities that they can reasonably trust. Fair or not, there is also a certain amount of prestige that goes along with having a degree that will cause those in hiring positions see you in a better light because of it (especially if you've got a degree from an elite college or the same college those at your prospective job attended).

Without a degree, you need some other way to show an employer what you can do (otherwise you probably won't be hired, unless you happen to know someone in with the company). This can come in the form of job experience (if you don't have any, it can be hard to get your first experience) or more likely work on various different projects (personal or collaboration or better yet both). Certifications are a possibility too, but their value is very flawed due to the ease with which one can obtain exact tests to study from or other materials that target the test answers rather than teaching the concepts.

Once you get into the job market for a few years, it becomes less and less important as to what your background is and more important as to what you've done. I have my degree/college listed on my resume but I don't think I've had a single question at my last couple interviews about this area, instead I've been pelted with questions about programming and business rules and whether I used this technology or that technology. The companies care more about what I can do for them now then how I learned to do those things.

It's impossible to say that going to college is better for your career than striking out on your own (there are advantages to both routes). I believe f

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