In our Tech-Sperts series, Zach Campbell, a seasoned Senior Full Stack Engineer at Benchling, is back with a thought-provoking topic – do you really need a degree to work in tech today?
Zach's journey explores the ever-evolving landscape of technology education. He candidly delves into the value of formal education and the changing dynamics of tech learning. Keep reading to find out his personal perspective on whether a traditional degree is still a must-have in the rapidly shifting world of technology.
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For years, student debt had been this imaginary thing that, so long as I never looked at it, didn't exist. Sure, a chunk comes out of my salary every month, but so does Boris Johnson's Wild Party Relief Fund, so I never thought much of it. Then one day, after having my curiosity piqued in the office as to the remaining value left in my loan, I went and made the debt a reality by observing it.
With the weight of the loan now sitting on my shoulders, and the number of 0s being particularly offensive, it left me contemplating whether a degree in the programming sector is required, advisable, or even worth doing out of passion in this day and age.
As always, this is a heavily biased personal experience opinion piece that shouldn't be taken as fact and that I promise is not sponsored by Codecademy (use code DIWhyDoADegree to get 20% off your plan).
A Degree of Familiarity
From the ripe old age of 4 years old, we're thrust into a 14-year-long endless barrage of education, exams, classes, coursework, memorisation, and finding the self-motivation to care about the Spanish language. So, when faced with the concept of either beginning the unfamiliar chapter of 'work' or continuing along the educational path we're so comfortable with, it's unsurprising we find ourselves suddenly undergoing another 3-7 years of lessons and learning.
This makes sense for many subjects, as the bachelor's is an extension of the previous A-Level or foundational degree; a continuation and further specialisation of the skills you've previously been refining, taught by experts in the field with knowledge and guidance that cannot be found by simply attempting it on your lonesome. These are skills that are required to further yourself in your respective field, a much-needed foot up into the role you've dedicated your past years to achieving, a role in which you can flex the proverbial muscles you've been training for so long in the gym of the university.
However, just how much of the previous paragraph is true for programming?
Is Programming DIY?
If you were to take someone who had never studied French before and dump them in the first year of a French degree, they'd be absolutely lost in a haze of "la's" and "le's." Alternatively, if you were to do the same thing with a programming degree, they'd be fine: why is this? It's because a software degree starts from the very beginning, taking you through the basics of OOP, networking, computational theory, etc. There is no specialisation, and if I'm honest, it's an incredibly basic entry for a level of education considered prestigious.
What this means is that it's incredibly easy to emulate the learnings through a self-start process, using online learning tools such as freeCodeCamp, Codecademy, W3Schools, Khan Academy, and the list goes on. In fact, it goes on so far that some guides list up to 106 various places you can start or refine your journey. After that, you can do one of thousands of personal project ideas found online like creating a simple Netflix clone, making a Content Management System for a passion of yours, or even coming up with something truly unique like an app that can tell you if something is a potato or not. These look fantastic to prospective employers and provide an opportunity to present your wide berth of abilities across the UI, API, UX, DB, data analysis, communication, or DevOps layers.
Scaffolding your CV out on your own has never been easier, but is it as good as the degree stamp of approval?
Is the Curriculum Really Vital?
Some of the first advice I ever got when building my post-university CV was to avoid putting uni projects in where possible. I always found it a bit ironic that we put so much pressure on getting that degree checkbox ticked, and then do our best to avoid putting any evidence in that we actually did some work. Personal projects, people skills, and actual work experience are far more valuable on the CV, and there's absolutely no degree requirement to get those unless they started a PP/PS/WE course when I wasn't looking (there's a stand-up comedy degree at Kent, so it wouldn't be that far-fetched).
The biggest issue with not having a degree, however, is the automated CV scanning systems. If the configuration is set to reject applicants without a degree mentioned, then candidates won't ever be able to get their foot in the door to prove that they are more than capable of doing the work without the fancy piece of paper that gets bent in the post. To me, this sounds like something that shouldn't be such a clear-cut pass/fail check, and an area for employers to consider improving their flexibility.
The Cost of Education
University is an incredibly expensive endeavour, even if you don't blow your entire maintenance loan on Freshers' week, and there are often a lot of hidden costs lying behind the concept of 'only pay once you earn.' This can be justified if you're one of the lucky Scots who gets free university tuition, but when you're already racking up to 9 grand a year in debt for your future graduate self, this can be a pricey pill to swallow.
What people often fail to mention is the cost of supporting yourself for 3+ years. Food and rent aren't free (unless you have very patient parents with a spare bedroom and a magically restocking fridge), and they're getting even less free day by day. Estimates on monthly costs range from £800-1200 a month for bills and food, and on a maintenance loan income of £500-833 a month, the math doesn't quite add up. This either puts the onus on your parents to partially fund your degree lifestyle or requires you to get a part-time job to make up the difference. Working during your studies can be incredibly taxing as a degree is a full-time effort, so this can jeopardize your learning and put your final outcome at risk.
The External Drive Factor
If someone were very bored and decided to ask me what the most valuable skill a person can have in this industry is, I'd say it's self-drive. Building software is filled with times of attrition and struggle, moments where you don't believe you're capable of solving the momentous task you've been assigned, and other moments where the work is so dull it seems like you're slogging through just to get it done. During these times, it's crucial you have the motivation to keep it together and get what needs to be done, well, done. Education is the antithesis of self-motivation, at least up until a doctorate, as there's always someone holding your hand (or pushing you from behind) to complete your work: giving you the right places to look to gain the knowledge needed to complete the very specific tasks they set you.
The working world is like being thrown in the deep end, especially if you join a smaller startup-like endeavour, and you're expected to not only find the solutions needed but often to identify the problems that need solving in the first place. This isn't coherent with the skills learned in education and often relies on people using personal projects or previous work experience to make up for the gaps.
The Social Network
If you ask someone outside the software sphere, programmers aren't exactly known for their communal aspects. The reality, however, is the software industry is a very well-connected and social industry, and I have made many friends in both university and on the coding factory floor. The former is the same for many people and is honestly one of the biggest selling points for doing a degree; making friends after education is hard, and enforced proximity to people definitely helps. This is a fantastic way of building future networks of future software engineers, which is much more efficient than cold calling people on LinkedIn.
Self-teaching and online courses can be a very isolated and lonely way of learning programming if you take them as is; however, the sheer volume of meetups, online forums, and conferences dedicated to software in Belfast alone is staggering with examples like BelfastJS or NIDC. These are an amazing substitute for that social aspect found in university and are an even better way of building your career network.
My conclusion is twofold: one for potential employees and one for current employers.
To those who want to join the software field, think hard about whether education is the right fit for you. If you have the drive, you want to save some money, or even if you just want to do this as a side gig to learn while you earn doing something else, you most likely don't need a degree. Google is your friend, and there are vast communities of people ready to help you learn and interactive websites to guide you through your self-learning journey.
For those who are actively hiring in the field, broaden your horizons. There is a wealth of talent out there ready to tackle the problems of the programming paradigm that may fail your preliminary CV checks, and you should be embracing the new world of self-teaching, and even more so encouraging this world by doing more schemes like Kainos' Earn-As-You-Learn.
Software degrees need to become more than just exceptionally expensive coding camps in order to justify their existence vs. self-teaching, and maybe attract some people who already have work experience and want to specialise in their craft. And who can maybe afford the cost of printing credits.
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