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Computer science degrees: Still relevant but not required

Christopher Null Freelance writer

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about one-quarter of IT workers in the United States do not hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. And while many businesses will interview only candidates with a certain level of education, most do not specify what type of degree is needed in their job descriptions, which range from software engineering to DevOps roles to software test automation engineers.

This prompts the question, one that’s often heatedly debated online: Do you need a computer science degree to have a career in software or IT? 

To find out, we asked several hiring managers and team leaders. Here’s what you need to know.

Multiple paths to technology careers

Virtually everyone we spoke to agreed that there aren’t many hard rules in terms of education requirements for new hires. There are multiple legitimate paths to a career in technology, and while a computer science degree can be helpful, it’s not necessarily essential. And even when it is, the degree is prized more for the commitment, perseverance, and professional values it reflects on the candidate than for any technical proficiency it bestows.

For an entry-level hire, knowledge is advantageous, but Stewart Webb, senior software engineer for PrimeCarers, said he is mostly hiring based off how much interest candidates have in the role.

“They need to be capable of going out and learning new technologies and solving their problems somewhat independently. A computer science degree definitely lets me know that this person can learn things independently, but there are other ways to demonstrate this, too.”
Stewart Webb

For Casey Jordan, co-founder and CTO of Jorsek LLC, soft skills are at least as important as technical knowledge in differentiating candidates.

“The most important things are: Is the candidate personable? Can they communicate well? And after those, Do they have the hard skills to do the job?”
Casey Jordan 

“A good hire needs all three, but, if need be, candidates can learn the last one on the job. However, the first two are harder to pick up experientially and aren’t exactly prerequisites in academia,” he said.

The reduced emphasis on computer science schooling is the result of a growing consensus that the degree, with its focus on algorithms and computation, is too theoretical and doesn’t always deliver the practical skills needed on a software or IT team. For many hiring managers and tech leaders, even specialized computer science degrees don’t provide the context or depth an IT professional will need when confronting real-world scenarios. The majority of these candidates will benefit more from learning the necessary skills on the job than in the classroom.

The reduced emphasis on computer science schooling is the result of a growing consensus that the degree, with its focus on algorithms and computation, is too theoretical and doesn’t always deliver the practical skills needed on a software or IT team.

“I wish more academic programs would emphasize the importance of communication and teamwork. In my experience, most people don’t acquire high-level technical skills through school; they learn how to learn while at school, which helps them [eventually] develop the hard skills a technical career demands," Jordan said. "But they truly develop those skills on their own through trial, error, and trying again.”

Explore the alternatives

The question, then, is whether or not a computer science degree is the best or most legitimate way to acquire that knowledge. Computing methodologies and frameworks such as DevOps tend to evolve rapidly in the business world, and college and university courses often struggle to keep pace. At the same time, there’s been an explosion of self-directed learning opportunities, online courses, and bootcamps, all of which have proved to be more efficient and affordable ways to acquire technical knowledge and skills than pursuing a four-year computer science degree.

“Bootcamps are very trendy right now, and they’re the exact opposite of a CS degree,” said Charles T. Betz, Forrester principal analyst and adjunct professor of IT delivery at the University of St. Thomas. “They teach you ‘this is what coding is.’"

“The fallacy that some computer science falls into is that you don't really understand coding until you understand the theory of computation. That's like telling a person that they can't read unless they understand detailed college-level grammar." 
Charles T. Betz

"Coding really should be seen as a question of literacy, just the ability to structure an information processing flow, an algorithm, if you will,” he said. “You can do that without understanding Alan Turing's theories. You don't need to have that level of understanding to be competent.”

But a candidate's bootcamp experience may not be enough for some employers. The quality of the program and, as with universities, the prestige of the school can be a critical factor in whether or not a candidate lands that first job.

“Universities have a long track record,” said WalkMe founder and CEO Dan Adika. “If someone’s coming from Harvard, Berkeley, or Stanford, you know you’re mostly getting the best of the best."

"The universities in question are very strict with their admissions policy. Bootcamps haven’t yet reached that level of prestige. But if you’re coming from a bootcamp that we trust, then yes, it might get you in the door.”
Dan Adika

Adika, who notably lists “never” under “Education” on his LinkedIn profile, is more enthusiastic about candidates who DIY their way into their first job than relying on classes. He recommends they build something or contribute to open-source projects and then link to that within their CV to highlight their job-ready capabilities.

"Have something on your CV that makes you stand out as a builder,” he said. “Your hiring manager will be interested in whatever you’ve built, and if it’s good, you’ll get their attention.”

It’s the skills that matter

Ultimately, it’s more important how you market your technology expertise than how you got it. Companies today appreciate any relevant experience candidates have, especially if it shows the innovative ways they have nurtured their technology skills and demonstrates soft skills such as agility, collaboration, and perseverance, said Nikolay Todorov, managing partner of Accedia. That can be accomplished through training academies, online resources, hackathons, personal passion projects, or some combination of these.

“At the end of the day, it is you and your ambition to learn that gets you in the door. From this perspective, anything—a bootcamp, CS degree, online course—may help you.”
Nikolay Todorov

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