Do You Need a Degree to be Successful in IT

 In TCM Post

A complicated question with no correct answer, this lengthy article reveals options and nuances of pursuing a degree. Throughout this article, I will explain the positives and negatives, and help you explore personal reasons to choose higher education or not, and how much “success” you can achieve.

This is “IT” – Start with Requirements
As always, start with yourself. Who are you? What do you want to do with your life? Think about your hobbies, your friends, and your family as well as your career, as those are important pieces of you and your life’s puzzle to put together. Go back to the first few blog articles to read about creating a plan and working on your priorities.

The vast majority of us are looking for a happy life and a great career to put food on the table, support families, be financially secure, make more money or have a better quality of life. I talked about the “97.5%” in a previous article. To repeat that thought, I’m focused on the majority of people like you that are in IT or want to start a career in IT to make a living. Take this viewpoint into account when reading my advice in this article. I am a realist. I try to support those who want to try to be an entrepreneur, but honestly, there are better resources for Silicon Valley startups than reading these blog pages. If you are looking to invent the next blockchain company or launch a social media startup, seek another mentor. If you do not have dreams of Silicon Valley stardom or being a billionaire, then this information is for you.

Financial Analysis
A large part of the debate about needing a degree for success in IT stems from Return on Investment (ROI) analysis. Some people believe you don’t need a degree and you can still land a job, work your way up and be quite successful. Others think that you need the “base” of knowledge and experience that college and a degree provides and those with degrees are more successful than those without. So be as analytical as you can and try to remove emotion from this portion of the exercise.

Start with some questions:

  • What is your idea of success?
  • Do you plan on starting a family?
  • Do you have hobbies that are as important to you as your job and money?
  • Would you be just as happy making $95K as you would making $150k?
  • What lifestyle do you give up when making $150k+ vs. $95k?
  • Are the tradeoffs worth it to you?

With some answers or at least notes about these questions, the next step is to figure out how to achieve the goals you wrote down and analyze if earning a degree accelerates or increases that ability to meet the goals. If a significant part of your life is outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, riding a motorcycle, running, fishing, etc., and doing these activities is what makes you happy, you may have a trade-off that means you won’t be as “successful,” which is fine. In this case, I would discuss with you the merits of seeking an MBA. The cost, time investment, and potential job responsibilities of those with MBAs may eventually not fit your lifestyle. An undergrad may still be ok for you, but at least now you have a metric that eliminates the need to spend extra time and money on a Masters program.

The point in your career that you obtain a degree will contribute to its value. A bachelors degree and certifications are valuable in your first half-dozen years when you are starting out and looking for entry-level jobs. A Masters won’t necessarily pay off immediately while you’re getting experience. However after 6-8 years as you’re heading towards management, a Masters becomes very valuable. It will allow you to advance in larger organizations and can result in higher salaries. The danger here is that you get your MBA immediately after your undergrad, then you find out after a few years on the job that you love to be technical, and you never want to get into management or be an executive. At that point, your Master’s degree and your money have potentially been wasted.

How you pay for a degree is obviously linked directly to the value. Scholarships can mitigate a large part of the cost of education and make it a no-brainer for those that get a full ride. If you’re not paying for college, by all means, get your degree and reap the rewards! College for you may also be inexpensive for a variety of reasons such as choosing an associates degree, community college, online degrees, family assistance, etc. Those are all excellent options and make sense given the timing of the degree. Finally, programs like the GI Bill can negate the costs and significantly increase the ROI of a degree. My advice here is that if you have access to free or very inexpensive higher education, do not hesitate, go do it!

No Degree Means More Effort
If you don’t have a degree or are deciding not to pursue a degree, you will need self-training and experience, and lots of it. I believe that you can excel and be as good as, if not better without a degree, than with one. I say this because I have seen it firsthand. The difference between you being mediocre and very successful is your passion for technology and your investment in yourself, and how savvy you are about making sure potential employers understand your passion and commitment. I prefer hardworking folks without degrees over lazy “smart” people all day long.

You will have to learn extensively on your own time and your own dime. Look back to previous articles for ideas how to do this, but there are so many free or cheap online resources to get you started. Resources like iTunes U, Udemy, Khan Academy, and even YouTube can provide you at least as proper hands-on training as a college course. Search iTunes U for Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and you can watch full free sessions of those introductory computing classes which lay out the basics. Don’t forget to TRY IT OUT. Register for your AWS Free Tier account and follow along with the Udemy or YouTube lessons, which will get you as much or more hands-on training than some college courses.

Finally, there is no debate not having a degree will make finding and landing a job more difficult. Soon I will be discussing LinkedIn and Professional Networking, so those of you without degrees pay particular attention to this upcoming article. The bottom line is that not having a degree is going to remove your profile from the radar of search engines and recruiters. You will be able to find a job, but you’re going to have to work harder at it and execute your job search differently than those with the piece of paper.

Value of a Degree
Given the continually rising costs of higher education, I have read many articles and had many discussions with folks questioning the value of a degree, and I question its value. Generally, I always recommend pursuing a degree. It will give you an advantage over those that don’t have one. It will contribute to your success in landing a job. Attending college and getting a degree can provide many benefits beyond the technical work such as making professional contacts, building your network, and developing life-long relationships.

Benefits of Having a Degree
Many companies include the requirement for candidates with degrees in their job postings. A degree will indeed help you “get you in the door.” A degree might pay you more. The case can certainly be made for holders of Masters degrees in upper management. The MBA may not necessarily help you land a management job. However, after years of building the lower-level technical experience, you’ll be a prime candidate for management.

Build Your Base
A degree will also provide you the basics about your area of study and provide the necessary building blocks for deep understanding. While I like to say you can be successful in IT without the degree and with self-learning, higher education, especially schools with great IT programs can significantly increase your understanding of a subject area. This is especially common with programming degrees versus learning about programming languages on YouTube. When you go through a four-year degree program, you’re going to be grounded in the basics and aware of many languages and concepts. I have seen folks without Computer Science degrees struggle with an attempt at a programming career, though as always, it can be done successfully.

What a Degree is Not
A degree does not prove that you know or have ever used technology. A degree is not a guarantee of success. A degree will not “make” you happier. These things are gained AFTER you get your degree and establish a career and are a life-long pursuit.

Those Without Degrees
You can lead a wonderful life as a Python developer working from home in a low cost-of-living area making plenty of money and never get your degree. All you need is some self-training and some good resume and interview guidance, and you’ll be on your way in no time. Many of the highest performers, executive, and entrepreneurs I’ve encountered only have a bachelors degree. We all know Bill Gates was a college dropout.

There are other ways to get in the door. I have seen, firsthand, many times, brilliant technical minds without degrees. This is not an opinion or my preference, but time and again I have seen folks without degrees be very successful in the IT field. What these folks have in place of a degree is extreme passion. The fire inside these folks that burns hot and pushes them to learn and work harder than everyone else is far more significant, and far more valuable than any degree. I firmly believe that.

At the same time, I have worked with many folks with advanced degrees. Masters and PhDs in the IT field. They are no doubt brilliant, knowledgeable, capable and very successful. Advanced degrees may be preferred at larger organizations for advancement. My preference has always been for the blue-collar working class. I’m old school and my dad (who spent 35 years working on the railroad in Pennsylvania) told me when I left home for my first job, “don’t you dare go down there and only work 100%. You work 200%, and then you find more things to do. And then do every one of them better than everyone else.” Hard workers willing to learn will always out-perform “smart” unmotivated individuals.

You’ve Decided to earn a Degree. Which School?
Not all University programs are created equal. Some companies know what graduates to target and will recruit the top-tier students straight out of Ivy League colleges. Again, my advice is not for those people, they don’t really need help finding jobs or figuring out what to do in life, or transition from another career at the age of 30!

State U vs. State Tech vs. Community College?
In my experience, the school doesn’t matter to the company, and they just look for the degree to check a box. I can tell you it didn’t matter to me when I was trying to hire help desk and systems administrators. I needed the degree as part of a company or customer policy, but I knew better than to focus on names of schools. So unless it’s top-tier Ivy League or MIT, Stanford, or you have a full-ride scholarship my recommendation is that a reputable university close to home that doesn’t break the bank is your best bet. Remember ROI. My opinion of community colleges and associates programs is the same. If they provide value to you during your job search and career, then they are worth pursuing.

Instead of focusing on the name or reputation of the school, when deciding, consider these questions:

  • Do they provide a certification path?
  • What types of hands-on opportunities will you have?
  • What types of professional networking will you be able to develop (Alumni associations, active business groups, etc.)
  • Where do graduates typically get jobs? What is the % success rate of employment to new graduates?
  • Who are your professors? (Adjuncts are likely members of the local IT community and can be great kick-starters for your LinkedIn profile!)

You’re Now In School. What Courses Should You Take?
The advice I give to most people is to take specific courses vs. generalized courses. Specific courses will have the best chance of building actual hands-on skill or work-related knowledge. You may have to go through a few general courses when you first start in college but try to avoid them if you can. The only time I recommend general courses is when somebody has absolutely no previous interest, passion, or experience in IT and they need to spend a little extra time absorbing the many aspects of IT, or of course those transitioning from other careers. To be more specific, by “general course” I mean courses that don’t focus on specific areas of IT like software development or IT concepts like Cybersecurity. I don’t mean “intro” courses, the type that gives you the building blocks for higher-level classes.

The best case scenario is a school and courses that provide hands-on opportunities. The more classes you try, the better especially if you’re not sure of your area of interest, you’ll be exposed to as many as possible. If you’re not sure what you like, try before you commit! If you do know what you want to concentrate on, then, by all means, select those specific courses that will most successfully prepare you for that focus.

Math Classes? I Suck at Math!
Math courses are almost always a part of Computer Science degrees vs. Computer Information Systems (the difference between the School of IT/Engineering/Science vs. School of Business). Although you’ll have Accounting and Finance classes as part of a business degree, there is quite a difference between math for accounting and Differential Calculus. The logic used in math is the type of logic your brain will encounter when working with, configuring and troubleshooting computer systems. So like a degree is an indication that you know how to study and work in a collaborative environment, having taken and been successful in math classes is an indication that you can be successful in IT.

However, it is not a requirement. In over 20 years I have NEVER used anything besides basic math in a multitude of both high and low-level positions. The math I have used has almost always been formulas in an Excel Spreadsheet, or I’m using the calculator app on my mobile phone. I have never pulled out a pencil and graph paper and drawn curves, graphs, or waves, or utilized advanced calculus that I took in high school and college. In all honesty, in retrospect, I would consider those classes a complete waste of my time. This does not mean that you should drop or fail your math classes! This means that if you’re not great at math, you can still be confident and great in IT.

Math Skills – IT Specialization
While a significant portion of us will never use advanced math in our IT careers, there are IT jobs that require those skills. If you plan on designing chipsets or working with encryption technologies, you’re going to need an advanced math degree from a reputable school. Many other specific IT jobs and industries are math heavy. Think Wall Street software development and network device design. We all know the buzz-word “Big Data,” which is basically capturing, storing, and reporting on large quantities of data to extract value from that data. To do this work well, you will need skills to perform quickly, securely, and correctly. Math skills.

More, Not the Most
I want to reiterate that I am focusing on more. More money, more happiness, more success. I am not focused on the MOST of any of those, nor am I trying to mentor millionaire entrepreneurs. A bachelors degree in a low cost of living area working remotely can be worth more than a Ph.D. in New York City when you run your lifetime numbers and consider the cost of living and quality of life. Please take a look at these Financial Independence blogs and articles. You’ll see that you don’t need as much as you think you need to live a very happy life:

Mr. Money Mustache
Tim Ferriss Blog – Lifestyle Costing
Joshua Kennon
WDS 2016: Pete Adeney (MMM)

Let me leave you with this…

  • Get your degree if the ROI is clear.
  • Focus on building blocks and hands-on skills.
  • There is no substitute for hard work and passion.
  • We may not all be book smart, or good at math.

What the majority of us can possess, something that is easy to develop, more so than an advanced degree – is a great work ethic. That work ethic added to passion will always produce more happiness than any undergraduate or masters degree.

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