10 Reasons you don’t need a computer science degree, even if it is from a top 1% university

Introduction

The thought of University tends to drum up certain expectations. Of academic rigour, investing in your career, and maybe even having the knowledge to skip a few rungs on the career ladder.

Having lived through the experience of a computer science degree at a top 1% university, I can tell you quite confidently, that is just not the way things work out.

At the same time I as I was filling in my UCAS application, Mike Turner, 18 at the time was handing in CVs to a small start up in Swindon. Three years later, at the end of my placement year, he was my boss.

Bringing home a salary more substantial to mine, Mike also had accumulated less debt, was more established at the company and he was better programmer than I was.

He achieved more than I did in the same time, despite me being on my way to a fancy first class degree in a top 1% university.

So if you are, like I did, deliberating between the huge financial burden of university and an innate feeling of obligation to receive that good looking piece of paper with a computer science degree on it. Here are ten reasons you shouldn’t worry too much:

Course content is never up to date

Third year module on cloud computing? Not in this decade.

Most universities update their course content every three to five years. Which, for most courses works brilliantly. Not computer science. The software industry probably moves forward to a degree that should change your course content annually, which is practically impossible to maintain.

A month of experience is worth a year at university, and employers know that

You’ll likely find yourself sauntering into your first job after university or on your placement thinking you can code. You can’t code. The demands of a 9–5 job in a software company will blow your mind in comparison to the demands of your university course. Catching up and keeping up is a difficult task, whether you have a degree or not. My suggestion to get ahead, as ever, is to burn the midnight oil in the warm embrace of your laptop light and absorb a well-written pdf from an industry leader.

An artists (mine) representation of where I was placed to start at the beginning my placement because I had two years of university experience vs. where I would be placed if I hadn’t gone to university at all.

With two years of university experience

— > — — — — — — — →

If I had started my placement without going to university at all

> — — — — — — — — →

Online courses are extremely comprehensive

There are extremely successful career men and women , who bring bread to their tables creating online tutorials. And the difference between them and your university lecturer is that their livelihood is dependent on their content being good, comprehensive, up to date and easy to understand.

These people, are in a better position to sheppard your career and practical skills in the right direction before a university professor can.

You will hardly ever find yourself looking for a viable hamiltonian path in the real world

Most jobs require practical real world skills. You do much better to drink 12 cups of coffee and absorb a good book on practical unit testing than take a year long module in things like pathfinding optimisation. Unit testing is the cornerstone of good code and good risk mitigation, whereas pathfinding optimisation is an ad hoc piece of knowledge that is researched by the worlds finest mathematicians.

Career trajectory

And when they have a good solution, it will become available to you. Which brings us to the next point.

APIs, Tools and libraries oh my

The great thing about development is that at any point in your programming career, you are standing on the shoulders of giants. Whether you are using simple java generics, or converting a CSV to a graph-able format.

Chances are somebody who knows that area better than you has already worked very hard to program and make that functionality available to you. You should use it.

In fact, using external functionality is good practice. Besides the obvious fact that the more you use somebody else’s functionality the less code you have to write. Experience will teach the wisest developers that the less code you write, the less bugs you will have.

It’s not as much work as you think it is

A biweekly 2 hour programming session will not make you the next Waz.

Your course will start from the beginning.
The very beginning.

Enjoy your first year learning about for loops and switch statements.

University won’t diversify your skill set as much as you think you will

Your university programming module will probably teach you (very) basic Java, C, C++ and Python.

But javascript? node.js? Scala? Front-end frameworks? Server-Client architecture? Java 1.8? You’d be lucky.

People are happy to help

Despite the stereotype of a programmer being a grumpy egomaniac. My experience has taught me that the industry is full of great professionals that are happy to help you out explaining concepts and discussing design decisions.

Staying humble and asking the right people the right questions will be the critical factor in pushing your career forward.

A degree is not the best way to show the world that you know what you’re doing

It can be argued that a good degree, from a good university provides a relatively reliable piece evidence that your a smart and self motivated person.

A well stocked gitlab account with an array of your own projects, proves for a fact that you are self motivated and can show an employer exactly where you are in terms of your ability, in any field.

Conclusion

My comp sci academic trajectory was following a pretty normal path, up until my final year of college.

  1. Enter a new environment
  2. Feel completely useless and naive
  3. Work hard to understand the things that you are unsure
  4. Start to become a bit more capable
  5. You think you’re a God
  6. Repeat

I had accepted this standard emotional rollercoaster as the new format of my life, as any good coder might. And with experience and hard work you might find yourself skipping a few steps.

However joining university felt like I was skipping a few steps a bit too quickly. And moving in the work from university, felt like I was catapulted back a bit too ferociously.

And yes, there are things university can expose you to that you might have never encountered naturally.

And yes, things do get a bit more interesting as you hurtle towards final year.

And yes, university is great fun and you meet a lot of great people.

And if you feel like you will have a big degree shaped hole in your heart if you don’t go to uni, that’s fine too.

But you don’t need degree to succeed in this industry,

you don’t need to panic if you didn’t get your grades,

You don’t need to compromise and take your 10th choice university on clearing

And you don’t need to place yourself in crippling debt to get anywhere in IT.
This isn’t zoology.