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Is the CS degree on its way out for software engineers?

Over the past 10 years there’s been a noticeable decline in the number of software developers coming into the job market with a computer science degree under their belts.

That is largely because a booming job market for programmers is allowing them to get away with it. “There’s a bit of a gold-rush phenomenon,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president at global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. 

“The unemployment rate is about 2% for software developers," he said. "It’s a time when companies have a lower bar, so people feel if they can show a certain level of proficiency, regardless of a degree, this is a good time to jump in.”

Challenger, who works with companies looking to hire coders, as well as with coders looking for work, said he’s seen a drop in the number of entry-level programmers with a computer science degree. His observation is backed by recent numbers from the Stack Overflow Developer Survey, which questioned more than 51,000 software developers from more than 213 countries earlier this year.

The survey showed that the number of developers who have a computer science degree, as opposed to a different degree or no college degree at all, has dropped to 49% from 56% a decade ago.

While that is not a precipitous drop, it is a noticeable one that is being felt in the industry. “It does appear that younger developers have a slightly higher probability of studying a subject which isn’t related to computer science,” said John Muskett, a senior consultant at Stack Overflow Insights.

Experts weigh in on the trend and explain what it could mean to candidates and the industry.

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If not computer science in college, where then?

While computer science still is the most popular degree among professional developers, there’s a shift in how newcomers to the field are thinking about education. The Stack Overflow survey showed that 32% of developers said formal education was “not very” or “not at all” important to their career success.

Many, not surprisingly, are opting for education outside of a traditional college setting. Muskett pointed out that 48% of those surveyed said they would take or have taken an online course, and more than 10% have taken part in a bootcamp. And a whopping 94% of respondents said they consider themselves at least partially self-taught.

That’s not surprising to Dave Fecak of the technical recruiting service Fecak Inc. “Yes, I’m definitely seeing people entering the field without a computer science degree,” he said. “They might have come out of school with another degree or through bootcamps or just self-learning.”

Some programmers started out in other fields, such as business or science, and simply migrated to tech as their interests changed, said Fecak. Others start programming on their own and just work their way into the field.

Either way, he said, it doesn’t hurt their careers to start out without a computer science degree. “A lot of these companies are running everyone through the same tests,” said Fecak.

“If you have the same bar for everyone coming in the door, then it doesn’t matter how they get over that bar. Once someone has been in the industry for a few years, I don’t think it will matter as much.”
-Dave Fecak

Simply put, after 10 years of working in the industry, it will matter very little if someone has a music degree or a computer science degree.

When not having the degree hurts

Challenger says that while companies are driving the situation by offering strong salaries to programmers without computer science degrees just to get coders in the door, this situation is unlikely to last.

Sure, the “gold rush” situation could go on for another 10 years, but then programmers without a strong background could find themselves in trouble, he said.

“Having a bachelor's degree provides a lot of security and opens up more opportunities."
Andrew Challenger

“There’s real value in the long run. Even though right now it’s a gold rush and people are not going for degrees or finishing degrees because they can get jobs without it, I’m working with people who have been employed for 25 or 30 years, and now the industry has changed and not having a degree really hurts them in terms of being able to switch careers or switch trajectories,” Challenger noted.

Not having a computer science degree also could leave a programmer without a solid understanding of a company’s overall network, said Dan Olds, an analyst with OrionX. “I think the lack of a deep computer science background could negatively affect their job performance and futures,” he said.

“A coder who doesn’t have a firm idea of how a system works and how an operating system works is a coder who won’t be able to extend themselves beyond the boundaries of their own application area."
Dan Olds

“I often wonder if today’s new crop of software developers are as good as what we’ve seen in years past,” Olds added.

Degrees allow engineers to branch out

Sherif Koussa, founder of Software Secured, has a computer science degree and worked as a developer for nine years before switching to security.

He’s glad he has the degree but says there is more than one way to get into the coding field and have a successful career. Developers without a computer science degree could be missing some basics that they would have to learn on their own, but those basics are not impossible to get, Koussa said.

“I do have a CS degree, but it didn't teach me how to write good code. It just taught me how to solve problems, which is a greater skill to have.”
Sherif Koussa

Aritra Roy, an Android developer and product engineer at GO-JEK, said it doesn't matter that he has a computer science degree. “In terms of getting a job, the degree has not helped me much,” he said. “Companies (mostly startups) I have worked for don’t focus much on the degree you have but how capable you actually are.”

However, Roy did note that if developers want to work for a multinational company, they should have a computer science degree. If they want to work for a startup, though, they should just know their craft.

“If you can showcase how good you are at what you do, then they will be more than happy to have you on board. If someone is really good at their work and knows how to teach themselves, then there is nothing stopping them.”
Aritra Roy

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