For a long time, degrees have been a hallmark of a candidate's commitment to a field and their excellence in that subject. In tech, it’s no different, with many job specs still listing a degree as a requirement for consideration.
But according to the HackerRank 2020 Developer Skills Report, the dial is moving on education and tech. Their report, which featured over 116,000 developers from 162 countries, revealed that a third of hiring managers have hired a developer who has learned their skills purely from bootcamp software and other sites like YouTube.
We spoke to a few developers and tech leaders on their route into technology, the importance of a degree in technical fields and advice for those who might be looking to break into tech with or without a degree.
Sam Saunders is the IT Manager & Systems Administrator at mobile healthcare solutions company siHealth. A self-taught developer and IT professional, Sam started learning to code while working as a full-time delivery driver in London. He used his evening and weekends to study and build up a portfolio from a few projects he managed to win. Now in a hiring position, Sam has a rather unique perspective on the importance of a degree when looking for technical talent.
“I think it's definitely helpful to have a degree in tech because a good degree tends to touch upon all the areas you’ll need to know about.”
This framework, or strict curriculum, that many computer science degrees come with is where the limitations of degrees start to appear. Whereas someone who learns while working other jobs may pick up skills like active empathy, time management and general business maturity, those studying towards degrees are learning only what is set in the curriculum.
“Things like scope changes and deadlines shifting – those things I was dealing with everyday.”
We’ve worked with many junior and entry-level candidates who have managed to secure positions without degrees. A strong portfolio, commitment to learning and development and a strong CV all contribute to the decision to hire – but for more senior positions, we see fewer roles filled without higher education.
Steve Donchie is the Director of Global Security Operations at Aegon. For Steve, degrees are generally expected for senior-level roles, but for other roles, they could be seen as advantageous but not required.
“If I was looking for my replacement – i’d be looking for a degree.”
Steve, who at the time of writing was working on filling analyst positions, believes the value of a degree doesn’t necessarily lie in the subject itself but rather in the skills a student picks up while studying.
“It's more about the disciplines that you learn, how to plan and how to communicate.”
When people consider the value of going to university they usually go to the breadth of experience available. An often undervalued benefit however, is the availability of like-minded individuals. Like-minded individuals who may well go on to be some of the best connections you’ll make in the world of work – something Sam feels he missed out on.
“I think I also missed that interaction with like minded people. These are people you work with everyday – people you learn, grow and compete with and it’s a safe, educational space to do all this before you go into the workplace which has less safety nets.”
If you were to look at the careers of the most successful people in technology you might well find some surprises in the education sector. With the broadening of technology to include niches like cybersecurity, data and analysis – you can find your way into technology from almost any degree.
Computer Science has, for a long time, been listed as one of the UK’s most popular undergraduate degrees. Most recently, however, courses and degrees focusing on cybersecurity have recently started to become more popular with some offering apprenticeships with organisations taking an advanced position on security.
Surely, given the option, a student fixed on entering the world of cybersecurity would be better getting a cybersecurity degree? Well, that might not always be the case as Matthew Bryant, CISO at Monese, puts it:
“Security is about understanding how to break things, understanding what happens when things go wrong. And so it can be difficult for somebody to do a degree or take a course in security and then immediately understand how weaknesses exist in complex IT systems. Experience is essential.”
Some of the most talented and distinguished technical security people on the market right now have had long careers as software engineers and developers and bring with them lived experiences of testing software and learning it inside out.
Likewise, when it comes to data and the skills that organisations look for in their data analysts, we see a lot of candidates coming from a science background where they will have demonstrated the core, functional skills (deep analysis, writing insightful reports) that contribute towards being a success in that role.
To get around this lack of experience that highly specialised degrees provide, ‘transition classes’ and ‘graduate apprenticeship’ programmes are picking up steam. These programmes, which allow a student to apply the lessons they learn in a real-life, working scenario, are backed by massive companies.
Steve, in addition to operating as the Director of Global Security Operations at Aegon, works closely with Napier University to utilise the Cybersecurity Graduate Apprenticeship. Working closely with university staff, Steve has worked to get the benefits from the course that addresses one of his primary concerns with university graduates: their business acumen.
“One of the gaps I see is great if you're bringing people in, particularly and I see this more in the role that I'm doing now, when you're bringing people in who may have worked in managed service security providers. They might have technical skills, but what they lack is that blend of technical and understanding what an organization is like and how the organization works, what the expectations are, or some of the non technical skills.”
For Aegon, It's about developing people towards the skills to make building relationships easy and sharing information effectively. As a result, the first year of a four year is mainly focused on generic business operations activity. From that basis they progress on to more specific security topics.
Doing one day a week in the classroom, and four days a week working at Aegon graduates come out with a degree in cybersecurity and four years experience of being part of an information security and financial services company. After that, they come in with an entry-level salary and clear route of progression through Aegon, a company that is benefitting from what can only be described as a ‘fresh perspective’ on a sector (cybersecurity) that can have a bit of a stale reputation.
"Fresher people who are spending some time in the classroom and being taught and they bring these questions back to the team. They've questioned the way things are being done. Why are they being done that way? and that in turn can make for the more experienced people maybe step back and think: ‘Well, actually, you know what, that's a good point. Why are we doing this way? Why shouldn't we be looking at it?’
Most companies' hiring policy will favour mindset – attitude and capacity to learn – over qualifications, or even work experience. The primary goal at interview is to find the people who will love their job, have the aptitude to gain the appropriate skills and the motivation to develop their own careers.
With the sheer amount of knowledge out there, in the form of YouTube videos and coding boot camps, you can kick-start your technology career from your sofa – but so can everyone else. Finding a job in tech is about mastery and commitment, something that Sam prioritised as he began to receive rejections from tech companies after interviews.
“I would get rejections and press them for feedback. I used that feedback as a list of skills I needed to master for the next round of applications.”
Rather than letting the disappointment get the better of him, Sam opted to double down on the feedback and turn it into his next learning. From there, Sam was able to find his Niche while maintaining a broad understanding of most frameworks and languages.
“I think it's more of just picking your niche and mastering that particular thing. So if you want to be a Python developer, like then learn the language inside and out and make sure you know, what you’re talking about when it comes to language, I find a lot of developers nowadays try to be the master of everything and it will get quite confusing, quite a lot of things overlap.”
Some of us can look back on our time in education and pinpoint the precise moment they were inspired to go into the career they find themselves in now.
The fact remains that education has a tremendous effect on who we are as people and if we aren’t giving technology a fair representation at this level than we likely aren’t going to see a diverse range of candidates at the business end.
Sam, who’s Daughter is currently going through school, can see the curriculum broadening every day.
“She's been learning coding at school with stuff like scratch, basic coding or just coding a small game. It's very simple, but the logic is there, and I can see how they're still teaching how things like variables and loops are working, which is great because that definitely wasn't available when I was younger.”
Certainly, if you’re having any conversations about the future of tech you’d be hard-pressed to leave out discussion on AI, automation and their role in the future of the tech job market.
Kai-Fu Lee, technologist and former executive at numerous large technology companies, believes that about 50% of our jobs will, in fact, be taken over by AI and automation within the next 15 years. Accountants, factory workers, truckers, paralegals, and radiologists — just to name a few — will be confronted by a disruption akin to that faced by farmers during the industrial revolution.
Danilo McGarry is the Global Head of Automation at market fund services company Alter Domus. Danilo, an international Keynote Speaker, Author, Podcaster and recognised "Industry Thought Leader" by The Times, believes agrees with Kai.
“I would say concentrated things like Python, but try to look at automation at some point if you're a developer because that's big.”
But rather than forcing people down certain paths, the automated future will, in fact, put a deeper emphasis on human-to-human soft skills.
“As a result, soft people skills are going to become super important. EQ (Emotional Intelligence) is going to be the thing that people are valuing for management in particular”
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