Debating Degrees: The Value of A Degree in A Tech Career

 

For a long time, degrees have been a hallmark of a candidate's commitment to a field and their excellence in that subject. In tech, it’s no different, with many job specs still listing a degree as a requirement for consideration.

But according to the HackerRank 2020 Developer Skills Report, the dial is moving on education and tech. Their report, which featured over 116,000 developers from 162 countries, revealed that a third of hiring managers have hired a developer who has learned their skills purely from bootcamp software and other sites like YouTube. 

We spoke to a few developers and tech leaders on their route into technology, the importance of a degree in technical fields and advice for those who might be looking to break into tech with or without a degree.

 

Dom Davis, CTO & Co-Founder at Tech Marionette

Dom Davis is the CTO at data aggregation and analysis startup, Tech Marionette. Dom attended university but, for health reasons, had to drop out without completing his Computer Science degree. 

Choosing instead to follow his own path, Dom - who has had a lifelong technology passion - was able to get back in touch with his co-founder who invited Dom to join an Investment Bank as a developer. Holding this position for 13 years, Dom went from strength to strength, achieving things few do. Regardless, he still found resistance when the time came for him to move on. 

“Even with that experience, I was turned down for some job interviews because I didn’t have a degree.”

Citing the ridiculous job descriptions that find their way on to the market that ask for 5 years plus experience in a nascent language or framework for little to no remuneration, Dom believes there are several fundamental problems with degrees designed to tool developers or technology professionals up for the world of work.

 

University Students Have to Unlearn Things

A guest lecturer at the UEA and a hiring manager who has dealt with newly graduated candidates, Dom has hands-on experience with the current standard of curriculum. Oftentimes, Dom finds candidates are not only missing out on important lessons in real-world software development, but they’re also stuck in bad habits because of the way university courses are structured. 

“In University you have fixed time. A six week project takes six weeks. So you spend the first 2 weeks planning, then you execute. But then they come to us and are expecting this whole trajectory but that isn’t realistic in a modern, agile business.”

Students, fresh out of a computer science degree are computer scientists. Unfortunately, that’s not what tech companies like Tech Marionette need. 

“Computer science is a lovely topic. There’s lots of very interesting stuff but it makes no difference whatsoever to delivering a good product.”

Instead, Dom suggests, university curriculums, and by extension students, would be better off focusing on topics more in line with software development in a business setting. Topics like behavior driven development and other skills that help a developer speak to a business and learn what they require. 

“You need to be taught how to react to change, and then basic skills like being able to use git. They won’t know everything, but it’s about getting into the mindset of work.”

 

Degrees show Commitment - But Is That Important Anymore?

One of the main arguments for educational requirements are around the fact that completed degrees show a level of commitment hard to demonstrate at a junior age. However, it doesn’t stretch belief to argue that commitment is becoming less of a factor in the modern search for talent.

Take a handful of tech CVs now and compare them to tech CVs from 20 years ago and you’ll likely find one major difference - the amount of time candidates spend at companies. The simple fact of the matter is tech candidates who remain in the same place for too long miss out. As a 20-year-old tech recruitment agency, we have seen this first hand. A sentiment Dom echoes.

“I would not be concerned if someone CV had two years at every single job. If you stand still, you're falling behind. So you need to learn new stuff. Yeah. Unless you're lucky enough to be in a job that is also introducing you to new stuff.”

 

We’re Going to See More Contenders - But Not Soon

The growing number of alternative routes into technology shows signs that perceptions around education are shifting. But it’s going to be a while before they can really disrupt educational standards.

“So this whole sentiment about degrees is not changing anytime soon. Yeah. Now, I would say to candidates, students, go to university not necessarily for the degree but to actually experience the fun parts.”

Despite having reservations over the standards of the courses, Dom does still believe going to University is an invaluable experience for young people and will, at least for now, hinder your job search.

“(not having a degree) is definitely going to hinder you. And that's going to be true for a long time. I would wholeheartedly agree on going just from the amount of people you meet and contacts you make.”

 

Giulio Trimarco, Senior Software Manager at Graphcore

Giulio Trimarco is the Senior Software Manager at Graphcore. A self-taught developer, Giulio has no formal education that pertains to his career having left school to go straight into military service. 

After that, Giulio had very basic programming on his CV and a passion for technology borne out of his relationship with his Father. 

“My Dad worked in telecommunications and he was speaking to me all the time about server rooms and computers. When I was 9 he brought home a BBC Micro and something just clicked in me and I have been working with computers ever since.”

Now managing two teams, a software QA team and a release team, Giulio is responsible for coordinating software operations across the whole software development department at Graphcore.

 

Not Everyone Learns in the Same Way

Giulio, who doesn’t have a degree and has never been asked about his education during any formal interview process, believes that a person's experiences and personality are more important than education because not everyone learns in the same way. 

“I could never learn from studying a text, for example. But I have a lot of dedication for work, I won't stop until I understand something and have done it in my way. It’s important that we remember the capacity to learn is not just from books.”

Listening and collaboration, for Giulio, are crucial and these are skills better honed and suited to a workplace setting than a library or a classroom.

“Sometimes you just need a spark and someone to point you in the right direction, you can roll your sleeves up and get it done any way you can.”

 

We’re Not Testing People On Real-World Problems

Education in general comes under fire for not teaching students valuable life skills.

Instead of learning critical life skills on how to manage money, how to negotiate, or how to communicate, kids are mostly taught to memorize information. This is helpful to learn, but not at the cost of not learning critical life skills.

When it comes to advanced education, a similar logic applies with many employers believing degree level education does a poor job of preparing students for their next step: the workplace. 

Giulio, who conducts interviews for his teams, isn’t just seeing this rub off on candidates, but also the interview processes of many companies who are becoming increasingly less practical with their testing.

“I see a lot of algorithmic testing - but that doesn’t solve a real world problem. It’s just an academic use case: how would you solve this? And all you have to do is write a single line of code. This is not representative of a working scenario.”

 

Mark Wharton, Chief Architect at Iotic Labs

Mark Whartonis the Chief Architect at Lotic Labs. Computer science was very much in its infancy when Mark graduated with a degree in physics in 1983. Despite this, much of Mark’s early career was in programming training - something that would later inform his move away from traditional programming and into technical leadership roles. 

“I was a programmer for a while and I got really fed up with just looking at the screen talking to code. And I've always described my career as being”on the beach”. So if we've got technology as the sea and the user community as the land, I always seemed to find myself in the middle as the bridge between engineering and the rest of the business.”

With Mark’s background in training, we were keen to hear about his opinions on the value of education in a tech career. 

 

The Theoretical Background Helps More Now Than Ever

With Mark’s position as a hiring manager both now, at Iotic, and in the past, he’s interviewed many candidates with a diverse range of different skills and experiences. When we asked Mark about his thoughts on the importance of education in technology he found himself recounting a career that was split down the middle, with his younger self believing that it didn’t matter as much as raw talent and experience and his current self putting more weight into an educational background.

“If you think about what coding is right now, it’s more about putting things together into architectures that work. If you’re going to do any coding, it’s really important that you get into the right paradigm. With that in mind, I do think you need more of a theoretical understanding and an education will give you that.”

Mark leads a team of skilled architects who, to his admission, are way more grounded in computer science than he is - that only reinforces the way he feels about the importance of theoretical knowledge in a modern tech career. 

 

There Is A Snobbery Around Uni That Is Counterproductive 

University, rightly or wrongly, can be a bit of a bubble for students gearing up for the world of work. On one hand, you need very specific environments and standards to accurately assess a student. On the other, you need to expose them to the rigours of the real world to truly see if they’ll sink or swim. 

It’s hard, but not impossible, to do both. 

For Mark, who’s two best colleagues in terms of output both didn’t do well at University, part of the problem with formal education is the standards on which they judge success. 

“There’s a certain amount of snobbery around university and it’s counterproductive. This is especially a problem for red-brick universities where candidates often leave with an overinflated view of how clever they are.”

When the criteria for success is a test under controlled environments or a project that may have taken them an entire course to finish, graduates are often woefully underprepared for the agile working environment. 

“You can get someone who’s managed to get their theoretical training under their belt but they’ve tempered it with real-world experience - but it’ll always be a  bodge because nothing is perfect. There needs to compromise on either side because if you spend your life seeking perfection you never get anything done.”

 

Roundheads and Cavaliers - Finding The Balance

There’s a balance to all things - no less in technology team building. For Mark, who has spent many years of his career building technical teams, this balance is key and links back to their education background. 

“If you've got the really superduper theoretical people, they tend to be a purist and they don't care about whether it gets done as long as it's done perfectly. And then you get the kind of bodgers and hackers who will try their best to make something work. You want to try and get somewhere in the middle - or a mix of the two.”

Roundheads and Cavaliers, as Mark calls them, are two of the ‘types’ of people he tries to bring together when building technology teams. 

“Roundheads read manuals. They spend three weeks thinking about something, write 6 lines of code and it’ll work. Cavaliers get their fingers straight on the keyboard and work through things.”

Of course, different challenges require different approaches. You may need a Cavalier if you need something done quickly because it’s just a demo. Some jobs may require more of a theoretical approach which the Cavaliers might struggle with. 

“Somewhere in between is the utopia and that ‘in between’ doesn't necessarily have to even be in the middle.”
 

The Future?

Although it’s unlikely organisations opinions on the value of a degree will change soon, those who have their heart set on a career in technology but don’t have an educational background shouldn’t be disheartened. 

Through our conversations with the contributors involved in this article, we think it’s clear that there is a place for anyone who shows commitment and hard work to an area they feel passionate about. 

And with the sheer amount of contenders and bootcamps popping up, it’s never been easier to get a high level of theoretical knowledge. 

Ben Toynton

Senior Consultant & Team Lead

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