Last week the Wall Street Journal poured cold water over one of the most popular rags to riches pathways in the world: the idea that talented programmers could get hired for great jobs as software developers at top tech companies—without necessarily having a college degree to prove their competence.
According to the Journal and Burning Glass Technologies, “it turns out that tech companies are more likely than other employers to require college degrees when hiring software developers.” The story noted that “Seventy-five percent of job ads for those roles at technology companies specify an educational requirement, compared with 58% of openings posted by the full universe of employers that are hiring software developers.”
For all I know, those numbers are probably true, but they don’t tell the whole story. Not even close.
Silicon Valley — and the clubby world of top tier software developers — famously runs on connections as much as it does on pure coding smarts. Developers gain reputations in the developer community based on the open source code they contribute to high profile projects, the talks they give at key events and conventions, and most critically, the programs they create.
The best programming jobs in Silicon Valley — from the plum internships to the regular hires with the big signing bonuses — go to the coders who are active in the software development community, not to people who submit resumes over the transom. Well known coders get recommendations and referrals that circumvent the requirements on the job ads, which are mostly written to reject as many unqualified applicants as quickly as possible, not to find the best ones.
If you’re hoping to get a job with an online application based only on your resume, then sure, that sheepskin can make a big difference. But if your programming accomplishments include more than just schoolwork, if you’ve created software that is known and admired in the community, then that degree requirement simply isn’t relevant for you.
Who you know and what you made
In fact, good grades in your computer science class most likely won’t even get you in the door. Recruiters at the top companies want to see initiative, and demonstrated ability to create programs that achieve and perform at scale. If you can show that, and/or have a referral from someone in the company or known to them, no one is going to care whether or not you graduated from college. In fact, recruiters for the top companies spend their time combing the software community looking for those people, and when the find one they’re not going to let lack of a degree get in the way.
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