Working In IT with No Computer Science (or Other Technical) College Degree
As I read with great interest in the latest issue of our very own Certification Watch (Vol. 22 No. 15), guest freelance marketing professional Eileen R. Tauchman presented a provocative item in CompTIA's IT Career News blog last week (April 5).
Tauchman's post is titled "IT Job Myths Busted: Not Everyone Has a Computer Science Degree." I strongly agree with Ms. Tauchman's premise, in fact. Thinking back over my 30-plus years of working in and around IT, my gut feel is that somewhere around half of the IT pros I know and/or have worked with have a computer science (CS) or related degrees.
Logically, of course, that means somewhere around half of them don't have an IT degree. That being the case, what to make of Ms. Tauchman's arguments that, strictly speaking, a CS or related degree isn't needed for many IT jobs? First a personal story, then some ruminations and answers to that question.
My Own Checkered Story
I moved to Austin in 1976 to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology. I was in that department for three years, earned a master's degree in the field, and completed the coursework and comprehensive exams to qualify as a Ph.D. candidate. But then I faced two related realizations: 1) I wanted to stay in Austin, and 2) there are (or were) no jobs for anthropologists in Austin.
So I changed fields and jumped over to the computer science department because it offered great job opportunities in my newly-chosen hometown. Fast-forward 39 years and I'm still in the Austin area, and still working in the computing field. Luckily for me, my strategy worked. I spent three-plus years studying computer science, and earned a bachelor's equivalency, and got about two-thirds of the coursework necessary for a master's in CS under my belt.
I never got a CS diploma, though, so I guess I fall on the "no CS degree" side Ms. Tauchman's divide on purely technical grounds. I did get a letter from the University of Texas College of Liberal Arts saying that I'd met all of the departmental requirements for a Bachelor of Arts in CS, though, so maybe not, when combined with my real bachelor's degree from a certain little university in central New Jersey.
Back to an Old, Familiar Dilemma: IT Certifications vs. IT Degree
I started writing for Certification Magazine back in the mid-1990s, and was on their masthead as the Technology Editor (and a regular contributor, to the tune of two or more items a month) for more than a decade.
One of my jobs there was to answer reader questions submitted via e-mail (or snail mail), and one of the most frequently-asked questions I addressed in that role was some version of this: "Which is better to gain IT employment: a CS (or other relevant) degree or IT certifications?" My short answer to that question was always an enthusiastic "Both!"
My longer answer to that question involved explaining that employers like technical degrees for people who will occupy a technical or IT position, but that they also like evidence of current, marketable, job-relevant IT skills as well. That meanss that you can trade relevant hands-on experience against an IT certification and come out at least even (sometimes better).
But it doesn't always means you can trade a CS (or other relevant) degree against current, marketable, job-relevant skills. Employers may be willing to concede your degree indicates you can learn such things.
Their willingness to hire you for a specific position, however, may depend more on how quickly they need you to hit the ground running and start getting things done, versus how much time they can give you to ascend a learning curve and become productive. This varies from employer to employer, and from position to position.
The Real Value of IT Certifications
Once you've been out of school for 5-7 years or longer, what you've learned and done recently is more important than what you studied to earn any degrees you may hold, whether in IT, related disciplines, or even something completely different. Current IT certifications provide tangible and arguably useful evidence that you do indeed possess some relatively current, useful, and perhaps even valuable skills and knowledge.
That depends on the certification, of course, and its perceived value in the eyes of a prospective or current employer. But that's what gives IT certs cachet and utility in the marketplace, and what can help tech newcomers land entry-level jobs, or help current IT pros expand their skills and knowledge portfolios and climb the career ladders of their choosing.
Because IT certifications generally require regular renewal or recertification, however, these are largely short-term benefits. They're a lot like having a garden, in that one must work at certification often and regularly in order to keep one's skills and knowledge portfolio current, relevant, and interesting.
The Real Value of a College Degree
Let's not quibble that we can trade a cert portfolio against a college degree for certain IT positions. This is indisputably true. But also, let's not overlook that some employers out-and-out require degrees (or even certain levels of academic achievement) for certain IT positions.
For example, I worked as a software developer and development manager for Schlumberger at their Austin Research Center from 1984 until 1986. They wouldn't interview ANYONE for a job in that organization unless they had earned a Master's degree.
Even though mine was in anthropology, combined with my graduate work at UT and my prior job experience, it was enough to get me hired. And, shoot: Had I been willing to move to beautiful Sugarland, Texas, in 1986, to take over a software development and distribution group there — I was not — I might still be working for Schlumberger today.
The bottom line about college degrees is this: First, some IT jobs simply require a degree to get your foot in the door. Second, and more importantly, employers tend to look at college degrees, no matter which department they issue from, or what kind of degree it might be, as evidence that a person can undertake a lengthy (2-to-6 years, depending on the degree involved) program of study, meet its requirements, and earn the diploma.
They like that in their employees, especially those employees who show potential to grow and climb some kind of career ladder in the hiring organization. College degrees matter, both for the short game (immediate future) and the long game (growth and professional development over the course of a career).
Back to the Perennial Question: Either-Or Gives Way to Both
Hopefully, this helps to explain why I addressed the familiar dilemma (IT certs vs. college degree) several paragraphs back with my reliable "Both!" answer. Employers want prospective employees to be as well-trained and -rounded as possible. Thus, they really do want degrees for the values they bring to the table, and certifications, ditto.
I have to observe that, for those with no degree at all, but who expend the time, effort, and money to earn IT certifications, they can (and do) fill various IT job niches in the overall IT workforce.
Overlooking certain exceptional individuals, however, I'd have to say that general observations about such people from a population or demographic perspective apply to those who work in IT without degrees just as they do to the entire workforce. There is a strong and positive correlation between educational attainment and lifetime earnings.
This means that those who aspire to work in IT and get there by dint of certification without a college degree will earn less money over their working lives than those who aspire to work in IT and pick up a degree (and probably also build a certification portfolio along the way) as they walk an IT career path.
As long as those who can't afford or don't want a degree can understand and accept this, then there's nothing wrong with opting into IT based on skills and knowledge acquired on the job and via certification. It's especially valuable for those who might turn to IT as a second career after losing employment in some other sector of the economy.
Just remember that facts is facts, and one would be foolish to believe that the kinds of IT opportunities extended to those who lack degrees will be the same, and pay as well, as those IT opportunities extended to those who have them. �Nuff said.