You Don’t Need To Go To College To Become a Software Engineer

Ryan Vanbelkum
May 17 · 5 min read

That’s right, I said it. You don’t have to spend 4+ years and thousands of dollars to become a software developer. Now, I’m not saying it’s bad for you to do this. Everyone forges their own path. I’m just saying it’s not necessary, and here’s why.

image: https://recruitlook.com/what-colleges-are-the-right-fit/

It’s all about experience

Most tech companies have realized that it’s all about the value you can bring. Your experience is usually one of the best indicators. Having gone through a four year university myself with a software degree, I will tell you that I was lost at my first job. Sure, I knew the basics. I could could code in a couple of languages, knew some buzz words, but had no clue how software development worked at a real company. Luckily I started at a company as a junior developer and worked my way up. I can honestly look back and say I could have learned the same skills through a coding boot camp or online program in a fraction of the time. Also a fraction of the cost 😉. My first job was the only time my degree mattered. It got me in the door. There are also plenty of companies that will give you a shot without the degree. Build a portfolio. Write some software and show hiring managers your GitHub account. Someone will give you a shot!

Your masters in Computer Science may not translate to employer value

I’ve seen the following scenario play out multiple times. A developer applicant has a masters in CS. Never actually developed software for a living, but applies for or expects a senior level position (and the salary to go along 💰). Obtaining high levels of education is great! Just know that academic achievement doesn’t necessarily translate to employer value. I did just fine in school, but was lost when starting my first job. I was essentially taking a pay check for them to teach me how to code in the real world. This employer was betting on my potential. My advice, build a portfolio. Start some personal projects. Build up your GitHub account. Contribute to open source. Find an internship. All great things that you can show an employer other than your academic transcript.

Student loan debt

This should go without saying. Student loans are getting out of hand.

“Outstanding balances have grown more than 500% since 2003, according to New York Fed data, bringing the total amount of student debt to $1.5 trillion and counting.”

Not everyone is fit for college. This doesn’t make you any less intelligent! There are many other avenues. If you feel college is a good path for you, and you can pay for it, great! If not, look at other options.

Where to start

There are many alternatives to college if wanting to learn how to work in the tech industry. Do a quick Google search for “coding boot camp” and you will see. In most major cities there are in person courses, and online courses are always available. There are a number of free courses, but the paid versions are typically a little better, with more content and interaction. A number of online learning sites will also offer certificates that prove your completion. Here are a couple to mention

This list is definitely not exhaustive. I have taken online courses myself, and have had a good experience. I once interviewed for a job where the company wanted me to know a framework I wasn’t familiar with. I took a weekend to go through an online course on this framework, and later scored the job.

Getting that first job

So you’ve taken a different approach to college. You’ve gained some skills and built some projects on your own. How do you go about getting that first job and gaining some professional experience? My advice is to make sure you highlight what you’ve worked on in your resume and to your hiring manager. Include links in your resume to show these off. Include your LinkedIn, GitHub, any websites or projects you’ve contributed to. Make sure your personal projects are saved in GitHub (or other repository) and are accessible for people to see. I’m sure you’re not saving any state secrets in there 😉. Let them see your code and be proud of it. Also be sure you are familiar enough with what you’ve written to walk them through it. Be confident in your projects. Remember, you’re promoting yourself and your value to a company. If all they have to look at is your education experience (or lack of), your resume will fall to the bottom of the pile.

Case study

A couple of years ago I had just started a new job. I was getting settled in, learning my role, and meeting my co-workers. On Fridays it was common for the company to order lunch for everyone in the office. A group of us were sitting around a table. There were a handful of new engineers, so our boss asked us all to introduce ourselves. When asked where we were previously working, a young kid to my left answered that he was stocking shelves at a local grocery story. Intrigued how you go from milk man to software developer, I had to get more details. This engineer was fresh out of high school. Having been self taught and doing some personal projects, he convinced the hiring manager he had what it takes to fit a junior developer role. He was very smart, and very ambitious, the rest he learned along the way. He was also making way more than any 18 year old should be making 🙂.

Summary

College is great! You can learn a lot, but it is not for everyone. Our society tells us that you must attend a four year university after high school. That is simply not true. Especially with the rising costs of tuition. Sitting in a lecture hall and shelling out 💵 may make you more educated, but not necessarily a better programmer. Education is all about the value added. Most people are attending school to increase their value in the work force. The tech industry is starting to tell us that that value can come from multiple places. So if you’re aspiring to become a software developer (or any IT job, really), think outside the box!

Ryan Vanbelkum

Written by

Front end engineer @ Grubhub. JS, HTML, CSS, ect. ect. ect. ryanvanbelkum.me

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