Do I Need a Degree to be Successful in Tech?

Learning can—and should—take many shapes (Image Credit: Chilledcow) 5 minute read Published: 2021-09-05

Recently on a stream, I was asked whether I thought someone should get a degree in cybersecurity, or straight computer science if they were interested in a career in tech. This question is both nuanced and critical, so I felt it deserved more than an off-the-cuff attempt live on air. I don't pretend to have the answer that makes sense for everyone, but I would like to provide a few points to consider for all who might be facing this exact question.

To College Or Not To College?

Let's start with the foundational stuff. Do you need a college degree to get into tech? Of course the most accurate answer is, "It depends." Not all degrees are created equal, and not all sectors of tech—much less all employers—will conceive of credentials the same way. For this reason, I think it's best to consider the value of your college degree independent of a specific employer, or even a specific career. The degree needs to have value in and of itself.

Let me put it another way. The degree needs to have value to you, independent of what it can do for your hireability or earning potential. Earning a degree is a fantastic goal for personal growth. If that's what you want, and you are in a financial position to do so without incurring crippling debt (what up, fellow millennials), do it! And remember: the degree's value to others is split 60/20/20: 60% is just having it, regardless of concentration; 20% is the prestige of the institution; and 20% is the concentration. So you might as well obtain a degree in something you enjoy.

Choosing the Program

So you've decided to go for the degree. Dope. Time to choose schools to apply to. I am not a college counselor, but I've been around the block enough times to provide some easy hints for picking a program you'll enjoy, and that will pay off.

  1. Avoid for-profit colleges. Just don't do it. They are lying to you.
  2. If you are choosing the degree for a career, pay special attention to the career placement program. If it doesn't exist, keep looking.
  3. Speak to alumni! Find out what worked, what didn't, and what to really expect. Never trust the brochure.
  4. Do the math. At the end of the day, it's a cost/benefit tradeoff, so be damn confident the investment won't outweigh earning potential early on. You don't want to be drowning in loan debt for years.

Think Outside the Major

Let's say you've decided to enroll in a traditional 4-year program. While you're there, I implore you to take some courses outside your major! Yes, most colleges have certain requirements across a broad subject area, but I'm not talking about checking boxes. If you do choose to major in a technical field, you should absolutely take writing courses. Yeah yeah, I'm an unabashed English major, but seriously: the ability to communicate well will put you in an enviable position. Who knows; you might even read some literature that gets you to think more deeply about the world. I'd also recommend some philosophy or history courses. Don't become the tech person who thinks coding prowess translates into being able to solve all the world's problems.

It's Possible to Skip It

Look, college is not for everyone. And actually, these days, we should separate "college" in the traditional sense from "getting a degree," which can easily occur without setting foot on a campus. But even then, a 4-year degree (or however many years) can be a burden, both logistically and financially. And hey: some folks just don't like formal schooling. I'm actually one of them, despite, uh (checks notes) being a professional educator for most of my career.

If your goal is a career in tech, it is absolutely possible to get there without a 4-year degree. But it is not possible to get there without having some ability to demonstrate experience and expertise, which the degree is sort of a quick filter for. And of course, many hiring managers/HR departments will pass on resumées without that degree, so the possibility space is smaller. But between coding bootcamps, certifications, and opportunities to dive into some of this without incurring financial cost, yes it is possible. But forging a path like that on your own is inevitably more difficult than the preordained course of a degree.

The Big Ol' Grain of Salt

I can only provide wisdom through the lens of my own experience. And I have been damn lucky in my career(s). I've been given a lot of chances to prove myself when I didn't look like a good fit on paper. And I know I got those chances more easily because of systemic advantage. I need to own that, and warn you that it ain't easy out there—doubly so without Privilege™. But there are places out there that know how to hire thoughtfully, that can look beyond the resumée and see the potential in candidates.

If you choose to elide the 4-year degree, you'll have to look awesome in a lot of ways, but perhaps the most important will be an eagerness to learn. Learning doesn't have to be in a classroom; it doesn't have to "feel" like school. But you will have to put up or shut up. The self-taught path is arduous, but it can be a whole lot of fun too. However you choose to go, I want to wish you fortune and success. I also want to wish you an enjoyable journey. That's the part that matters more anyhow.