Do You Really Need a Degree?

By Deane Barker on March 1, 2004

Bill Gates recently went on a tour of colleges to encourage students to major in computer science. Apparently the number of declared computer science majors is declining, and Bill wants to shore up the numbers.

I got to thinking about this, and I wonder if the plethora of really high-level languages has anything to do with the numbers. For instance, I don’t have a degree in computer science — it’s in political science and philosophy (I was gonna be a lawyer…). With or without a degree, however, I’m certainly a competent application developer.

Admittedly, I’m not a “close to the metal” programmer, and I can’t wax eloquently on theories of computer science, but — and this, in my mind, is the important thing — I can build applications that work well and solve problems for end users. Perhaps I can’t give you the formal names and theories for some of the coding techniques I use, but I use them. Well, in fact.

Do you really need a computer science degree to be a programmer these days? With platforms like PHP, J2EE, and the .Net framework, non-formally trained programmers are writing some awfully good programs. Sometimes they even have the benefit of limited knowledge — how many apps do you know that have been shot in the foot just because someone thought about them too much?

You can see the barriers to entry vanish if you combine these langauges with the fact that programming is more accessible than ever before. You can get a PHP-enabled hosting account for $20 a year. That, a domain name, and Notepad, and — voila — you’re programming in a realm where everyone can see you, and you can distribute your code.

The days of needing heavy (or even medium) iron and compilers are long gone. So is the need to be in a university of larger company. Anyone can program at some level these days, and — perhaps more importantly — join a programming community.

Now, I realize that we’ll always need low-level geeks to write the stuff we run on, but is that base is getting smaller and smaller as platforms consolidate? Is higher-level programming where the future jobs are? And do you really need a degree for this? Just wondering.



  1. Do you really need a degree…

    I would say that the answer depends heavily on what you are doing.

    Does an application developer need a degree. Not if they are good at learning things. The exception would be where the job application requires one.

    Does someone that is looking to good into computer engineering need a degree. Almost definitely!

    It all falls in between for other positions. Some are more likely to want/need a degree than others, but it is dependant on the job, not the degree itself.

  2. I sure hope its needed…I just graduated in December and I am on the job hunt. I would like to think that my training (I have a BS in Computer Science) has helped me to pick up languages faster and not just understand the language, but how it all works and the underlying principals.

  3. I imagine that the decline in computer science students probably has less to do with languages like PHP and Java, and more to do with languages like Indian, Chinese, and Korean. As more US businesses outsource their programming work overseas, the US job market for these positions shrinks, and prospective college students choose to align themselves with a different field rather than face the possibility of graduating with a computer science degree and finding that there are no jobs available in that field of study.

    There’s probably a Buger King somewhere in San Jose where the register runs great because the night manager used to write the software.

  4. It’s not absolutely necessary to get a degree in order to get a programming job. However, I can say that a degree increases your chances of employment no matter where you go, be it for programming or an entirely different field. If an employer has a choice between someone with a degree and someone without one, their choice is a no-brainer. I can certainly say that, as a junior in computer science at a university, that I’ve learned very little that applies to my job as a PHP/MySQL programmer. However, I can guarantee you that I’ll be able to command a higher salary once I finally get the piece of paper in hand. While I certainly value my skills as a programmer, they won’t feed my family unless I have a job that pays reasonably. Does it require a very high-level programming job? Not necessarily. But will I be more likely to get ANY job with the degree? Most definitely.

  5. As someone that’s been on the other side of the equation, I’d have to say that while a degree helps your chances, it certainly doesn’t make things a ‘no-brainer’. Would I consider a person with a degree over a person without one? Yes, if neither had any experience. But if I had a person just out of college with good grades and a degree vs. a person with no degree but several years of experience and a good track record and references, I’d take the no-degree person. Why? As you mentioned, the degree training doesn’t provide much in the way of skills you use on the job. So even with the degree, I’m still taking a chance, whereas the experienced candidate is a sure thing.

    A degree certainly helps you right out of college, but after a couple of years, the experience starts to count for much more.

  6. As an IT Manager, I just turned down hiring a CS graduate in favour of another individual with no degree. In fact, having a degree had very little bearing, if any, on the hiring process. I look for 2 things when I make a hire:

    1. Something I call “Learnability” – this is a combination of a) how easily someone can learn new technologies and b) their desire to learn those skills
    2. Experience – what has this person done with their talents?

    As for #2, I don’t care if the person has used their skills as a contractor or with another company, as long as they’ve got something significant to show for it.

    So to answer the question – degree or no degree? It makes no difference to me. It’s more important what kind of character the person has, that they are hard workers, and that they have the intelligence to get the job done.

  7. I have a degree in computer science. Got it 3 years ago. Since then I’ve been looking for any job that would have me use a computer ie. tech support, web design, database administration, DATA ENTRY! etc. Anything. Trying to land a job for 3 years. Still no job. Not only that but I am laboring, using my muscles and back making low hourly wages. Theres no rhyme or reason to any of it. I just read an entry from a 16 year old who has no degree and is make $45/k. I make about $15/k. I’m now 25 years old, I have a son to take care of, I have a degree and 2 certifications and I make barely above minimum wage. The way I see things now: fuck it, let them do what they will to me.

  8. I have seen a lot of comments on this topic and it seems that the people with CS degrees believe that they are essential while people without them say they are mostly irrelevant if you have experience.

    I have a degree in English and decided to get into Web Development about 5 years after I graduated. I went back to school and did a 1 year certificate program to learn the essential web skills and was able to get an entry level job in the field soon after. 5 years later, through the dot-com bust and outsourcing trend, I have remained steadily employed and well paid.

    Even though I have done pretty well without it, I have been kicking around the idea of going back and getting a BS or MS in Computer Science because I fear that one day I’ll find myself 50 years old, laid off, and unable to get a job interview because I never got the right piece of paper.

    However, I have been putting it off because it is hard to motivate myself to go back and take remedial math prerequisites after coding 8-10 hours a day. At this stage in my career, I really don’t see what a degree program could teach me that I couldn’t learn twice as effectively on my own or in a professional-level training course.

    The truth is that programmers are a dime a dozen nowadays so customer service experience, a strong work ethic, good portfolio and references, and solid interviewing skills are the “x-factors” that count more than ever.

  9. Like TDavis said, Interpersonal skills are not a dime a dozen, I have an A.S. degree and networked my way into a System Analyst position. Mainly because of my character and busniess skills, both of which God give me(can’t learn). In todays world it takes more than just a degree with certs, you have to have an excellent outlook about yourself (people can sense this about you). I just moved to Berlin, Germany and took a Java Developer position, a Client-facing Developer position. THE SKY IS THE LIMIT, don’t settle for second or third best; strive for first place everytime and you’ll be OK

    YOU’LL SEE – Nicholas

  10. Hi there,

    After reading comments left by the CS graduate who has not found computer work (3) years after earning his CS degree, I decided to comment. In 2002, I earned a Bachelors in Management Information Systems, then I graduated with a Business Master in 2004. Four and a half months after graduating, I completed the MOS Master certification track thinking some IT recruiter would contact me to interview for a data-entry job. Gotta get in the door first, right?

    In 2006, I remain jobless and employers have been asking what I?ve been doing since graduation. Truthfully, I have been living in poverty and trying to gain access to economic opportunity but that?s not what I reply. Since I have been doing freelance work and can present some projects, I do that instead. Nonetheless, interviewers are countering with ?we don?t have anything at the moment for beginners…we will keep your resume in the database?”.

    Several technical internships later (with good references) and having submitted hundreds of resumes for entry-level IT jobs, I too am disappointed with no ROI and increased debt due to my hard-earned university education. I feel the only returns will come in the form of one day starting a family and realizing I am more capable of helping my children adapt to the technology driven classroom environment because I studied.

    Would I choose a unversity education if I could go back in time, probably not. I would go for something more practical – something computer related but with a lot less overhead (rising cost of education) and more predictable ROI since I now know the debt to earnings ratios being forecasted do not apply in all cases – no, selective admissions and graduating from an accredided program has not guaranteed me anything (hindsight). No one can acurately forecast the value of education unless that person (Mr. Gates) is your current employer and he is encouraging you to go study something in order to become eligible for promotion.

    To the guy who remarked, “let them do what they will to me”, it is disheartening to hear your story though you are certainly not alone, Sir. I sincerely wish you the best. It really sounds like you deserve a chance to do something you like. Keep trying!

  11. Hi, Would just like to comment about the people who got a CS degree and cannot find employment. I graduated in 1999 with my BS in Computer Science and have yet to find a job in the field. Nobody wants to hire someone with limited computer science work experience. And the longer it goes on, the tougher it is to find a job because of the time I’ve been away from the field. It is a catch 22. So the situation keeps getting worse and worse. It is really sad how companies no longer want to invest any resources into training people. I graduated with honors with a 4.0 GPA and still nobody will hire me. I have been with my current employer since before graduation (8 years) making poverty wages, so I am a dedicated employee. What is wrong with this picture? Disheartening to say the least. And on top of all that, the degree is absolutely worthless unless I get a programming job. It would be nice if there was someone out there who would give me a job in another field (even entry-level), and just give me a little extra compensation for having the degree. At least I would be getting some benefit out of having the degree. But I have yet to come across a place like that either. What do I do?

  12. @Justin wrote: But I have yet to come across a place like that either. What do I do?

    That just boggles my mind. I’m right now in the process of hiring a position in my company. We would like to give someone a shot, but it has to be somewhat cheap wages to keep in budget. I’m talking $15 / hr., doing Java based programming.

    I can’t find a candidate! Seriously, we’ve looked and there’s just no one like yourself out there. Maybe you can’t find a job because you’re not in the right area? Maybe you need to move? Maybe you’re looking at the wrong companies? Try a brick and mortar traditional manufacturer. They’re always desparate for technical help!

    As to the topic at hand. I don’t have a degree and I’ve done ok for myself. I can get smaller company jobs, but just forget about getting any large company position. I tried IBM once. The recruiter was like, “so you have good experience, but you don’t have a degree…” click

    Does a degree matter? It probably just depends on what you’re going for. If you’re a self starter and self learner, and you have an entreprenuer spirit, then a degree is probably not required. Otherwise, you’re probably best to get one.

    I do wish I had a degree and was more serious in school when I had the chance. Now with family, kids and a busy schedule, I don’t know how I could ever go back, or even if I should.

  13. I was wondering are there any computer jobs that are available. Jobs that you don’t have to have a degree in yet, but you are will to go back and finish school if they will help you pay for school? Just wondering!

  14. If there were two planes sitting on the tarmac – one designed by people with experience and one designed by qualified aeronautical engineers, which one would YOU prefer to fly on?

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