Rise of the ‘self-taught’ developer disrupting recruiting, education

This article, with my commentary, first appeared in CIO Dive, by author Justine Brown.

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Programming languages can rapidly shift and evolve, leaving many a developer and company scrambling to keep up. But software developers and engineers do not rely on dated coding skills they acquired in school. Instead, 69% of today’s developers are primarily self taught and do not hold computer science degrees, according to the a 2016 developer survey from Stack Overflow, a online forum where developers can ask for and provide coding advice.

Of the more than 50,000 developers from 178 countries that responded to the survey, 13% said they were completely self-taught. Another 31% said they had no formal college or university training. Instead they had learning to code through boot camps, industry certification program or by teaching themselves, according to the survey.

The trend of self-taught programmers appears to be on the rise. The programmers who indicated that they were self-taught increased from 41% in 2015 to 69% this year.

As more self-taught engineers appear on the job market, some companies have to modify their recruiting efforts to keep up.

“The pace of technological evolution requires us to think beyond traditional recruitment and learning models and redefine talent,” said Narayanan Nair, chief people officer at Ness Software Engineering Services.

“Those without a degree have taken the initiative to learn coding” and can have determination and grit.

“Education and previous experiences tell an important part of the story,” Nair said. “However, to remain current, software engineers today must also constantly adapt their skills to a changing technology landscape and business needs,” which calls for equal parts critical thinking, attention to detail, and personal motivation when “learning and reinventing their skill sets.”

“The future of work is changing profoundly,” agreed Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing and corporate strategy officer at Reduxio. “Tech companies must look far beyond conventional approaches in the war for the best programming talent.”

Changing recruitment practices for some companies has become the rule rather than the exception.

“Given the demand for developers, tech companies have re-examined the way they recruit and have gotten very creative,” said Amir Pirnia, vice president of engineering at startup Hixme. “This includes opening their candidate pool to self-taught engineers or even those that have learned in boot-camp settings. Actions, experience and reputation go further in this industry than a degree alone.”

Creative new recruiting approaches may soon be the rule rather than the exception. For example, Uber is sending people a coding game to play during their rides in an effort to find new software engineering prospects. If riders accept the test, they get three coding problems to solve. If they score well, riders are then prompted to get in touch with the ride-sharing company.

Jason Aramburu, CEO and founder of Edyn, said companies absolutely need to emphasize these sorts of coding challenges during the hiring process.

“At Edyn, we don’t hire any engineers without a thorough technical evaluation first,” Aramburu said.

Not just for startups

The propensity to hire self-taught programmers may depend somewhat on the type of company and how long it’s been around, however.

Pirnia said for his startup, it was important to begin with a solid foundation, and hiring candidates with a few years of experience and proven success was important.

“The pace of (tech) evolution requires us to think beyond traditional recruitment and learning models.”

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“We don’t recruit right out of school, and because we want to establish a foundation for the company, we are less likely to hire self-taught developers in the company’s early days,” said Pirnia. “This solid foundation is critical to grow a startup, otherwise you run the risk of having to re-engineer everything when the company is ready to scale, and most organizations do not have that luxury.”

Pirnia said Hixme’s approach to recruiting is consistent to experiences he’d had with other startups, including Legal Zoom. But as the company grows ,their hiring approaches could change.

“Once things are up and running, however, there is absolutely value in adding and mixing-in a wide variety of backgrounds for diversity and to keep fresh perspective on thought process,” said Pirnia. “For startups in particular, at the right time a self-taught person could end up being an ideal fit, because they had the drive and commitment to teach themselves what they need to learn and then seek to make the most of their investment.”

Drive over degree

Self-taught programmers could prove particularly appealing to companies because they demonstrate a high level of drive and ambition. And in development-rich environments there’s always an aspect learning new coding languages and skills.

“When engineers join a company, they have to learn to use new tools and apps specific to that company,” said Monika Fahlbusch, chief employee experience officer at BMC. “Those who are self-taught will have an advantage in adapting to a new environment over those who were not self-taught.”

Almost 70% of today’s developers are primarily self-taught.

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“Those without a degree have taken the initiative to learn coding, and often have the determination and grit we look for when recruiting,” added Pirnia.

Even those who have a degree need to be lifelong learners because programming tools can rapidly change and evolve.

“To remain relevant, you have to stay current — and that means regularly taking courses,” said Grandinetti.

Forcing a change in education

The trend toward self-taught programmers has the potential to disrupt the traditional education model.

Pascal Babin, director of engineering at Talend, said that while there are some fantastic engineering schools out there, there is still a dearth of good computer science courses. And those that do exist have a hard time keeping pace with emerging technologies such as Big Data and the Internet of Things.

“The long-term solution is really about schools having a more dynamic and flexible curriculum that can keep up with innovation and changing employer needs,” said Babin. “Perhaps we’ll even see more schools like the new Open Source School in France popup to address very specific market talent gaps.”

Babin suggests companies more proactively work with the education sector and directly with high schools and colleges to help build out and shape curriculums while contributing to course development.

“New approaches to IT education is increasingly important as there is an increasing perception that people with traditional degrees are too ‘academic’ in their approach relative to their more non-traditionally educated peers,” said Grandinetti.

As an example, Georgia Tech, a top 10 ranked program, expects students to work in the field while earning their degrees, Grandinetti said.

Companies need to ask themselves how they can foster top talent and build from within.

“Not enough talent coming out of traditional colleges and universities means that companies need to create other methods to grow their current engineering teams, like internal bootcamps,” said Fahlbusch.

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