Is a College Degree Needed to be a Great Software Developer?

The question is complicated by today's tough job market, in which non-degreed applicants don't even land an interview.


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“Where did you go to school?”

I was having lunch with a new co-worker on our development team and just making small talk. Danny took a bite of his brown-bagged tuna salad sandwich, and as he chewed his garbled answer came out as “Ohio State.”

I was impressed and said, “Oh, you’re a Buckeye. They have a great computer science program.”

He looked confused as he swallowed.

“Buckeye? No, no… I didn’t go to college. I worked for a big insurance company that put high school graduates through a computer training program to be systems operators and I taught myself how to code.”

“Oh,” was all I could muster. I had never worked with another software developer that didn’t have some sort of technical degree. There had been a few music and English literature majors who minored in computer science.

But no degree at all? Was I being a tech snob? Or was there a valid concern about the capability of someone who didn’t have formal training?

As I overcame my initial dumbfounded lack of anything to say, I learned that Danny did have formal training in many aspects of information systems, just not the “art” of building software. Initially, his experience came from reading books and doing pet projects – at home.

His prior job allowed him to move from the operations room into an entry level software developer role and he had done that that for the last few years. So it turned out that Danny had plenty of real world coding experience.

However, just because someone can write code doesn’t mean they ‘re a skilled coder worthy of being referred to as a true software developer, working on a leading edge, mission critical project that was pushing the boundaries of the most educated team members’ skill set.

The irony came later when I was talking about this with a few of my other coworkers over beers.

“Can you believe Danny has no college degree?,” I said in an incredulous tone.

One of the guys popped off saying “No way! He better not be getting paid as much as me!”

Although I didn’t expect that response, I have to admit I nodded my head in agreement with everyone else.

One of the other guys, Vlad, someone I found extremely cocky, piped up with “So what is your degree, Spiegel?”

I answered “Information Science.”

He laughed out loud. And said, “Like you should be talking about the qualifications of a software developer!”

I stammered, “What do you mean, Vlad?”

He answered “Do you really think you are as qualified to build sophisticated software as someone like me who has a computer science degree from a university with a top five program? ”

I was getting hot under the collar staring back at Vlad, but it was my own damn fault for digging this hole by stirring the pot. I collected myself and flatly stated, “Yeah, we all know you are brilliant, Vlad. But I have proven my code is as good as yours and you know it.”

Vlad starred back at me and slightly smiled. “Then why not wait and see what kind of code Danny writes before you judge him?”

This was an unexpected lesson being taught to me by someone that I thought only cared about himself. I just muttered something like “Okay, we’ll see.” Luckily someone changed the subject to this innovative new language called Powerbuilder.

I have to admit that the first time we did a peer review of Danny’s code everyone was impressed. As we walked out of the conference room, Vlad smirked at me without saying a word.

Over the years, I have learned time and again that where someone went to school or what their degree was – or even whether or not they had a degree – didn’t always make a difference. Formal education was an inaccurate indicator of the level of accountability, work ethic and even intelligence.

I have met many very smart developers who didn’t get a formal education or go to the best school because they simply could not afford to do so.

Or, in many cases, the person was a late bloomer where they just had no good sense of what they wanted to do after high school. Through hard work and perseverance they clawed their way into the great profession of building software.

So why is it when I look through a pile of resumes to fulfill a job requirement, that one of the first things I look at is where they went to college?

The fact is that when sorting through resumes, you have to filter them and rank them by some criteria. Back in the booming late 90’s, I would hire anyone with a pulse and an interest in computers. But in a recessionary environment like we’re living in today, there is an overwhelming response to just one job opening.

Next Page: Developers, degrees, and the job market

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Tags: developer, software, programmers, IT Jobs/Salary

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