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K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.

The Need for a College Degree

I'm reading through Brad McGehee's How to Be an Exceptional DBA and in chapter 4 he talks about having the right skill set. Brad starts right out of the gate talking about formal education. To be a DBA breaking in may be more difficult without a computer-related four year degree, but it can be done. One of the things Brad talks about is that he knows quite a few DBAs who don't have a traditional computer science or information technology degree. I'm one of those. My degrees are in physics and mathematics. And while that may be considered closer than say anthropology or theology, the fact of the matter is that even a computer science degree doesn't strictly prepare one to be DBA.

However, the facts don't lie. Statistics published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the trend is towards more jobs requiring at least a four year college degree. As a junior high youth minister, these types of facts are of interest to me, because one of the things I want to make sure of is that my junior high schoolers know this sort of information so they'll be able to make good choices in high school and hopefully later on in college. If you look at the bottom of page 4, you can see that while the education cluster of "some college" doesn't change in projections from 2006 to 2016, the other two categories do. The number of jobs for high school graduates or less is expected to drop by 1.1% and that number ends up going to bachelor's degree or above. When you consider new jobs as well, though, it swings a bit more in favor of the college degree.

Then I weigh in the experience some of my colleagues without a college degree have had. In a couple of cases, they weren't hired because they missed that "checklist" item. In a couple of other cases, while they were gainfully employed, they were offered a smaller salary because they didn't have the degree. I know of one case where the difference was several thousand dollars a year. So putting these types of situations together with the projections, what can we say? Well, we can't say that you have to have a degree. But what we can say is that if you don't have a degree, it'll be harder, simply because it'll be harder in general. And even if one does get the job, not having the degree may cost one a tangible amount in actual salary.

So if you don't have a four year degree, should you care? I look at a degree much like I do certification: having it can help, but not having it doesn't automatically mean you fail. With that said, I know a couple of friends who, in their thirties, have embarked on the quest to complete their bachelor's degree. While they may be very good at what they do, they want the degree. It may not be for the job. It may be completely for them, to say they accomplished it. And I think that's a better attitude than believing you have to have the degree. If you're doing it for you, the classes mean more to you and you put more into them. When you're just trying to get through them to get the sheepskin, then you do enough to get the grade you want, but the class itself isn't very meaningful. I learned that especially as a dual major once I chose to take coursework outside of my majors. These were classes I wanted to take because I was interested in the subject, not classes I was required to take to complete one of my majors. And I found that I was more willing to put in the time to learn the material. Case in point: I think my favorite class after four years of college was abnormal psychology. Closely on its heels was cognitive psychology. Neither of those were required for graduation. So I lean more towards they why. Why are you doing it? That should be taken into serious consideration before beginning the journey to complete a college degree, whether at the bachelor's level or higher.

 

Comments

Posted by Ray Hastie on 25 August 2009

Excellent blog entry Brad.  As a programmer with 14 yrs experience and only an AAS (Computer System Electronics - actually a pre-engineering degree) I find that the requirements for jobs often state "or equivalent experience" but they usually count 6 years of work experience as the equivalent. That said, for those six years, a person is gainfully employed, but it does make it harder breaking in.  Consultants usually have it a little bit easier, because there the focus is getting the job done and not on a formal education.

Posted by Brent Ozar on 25 August 2009

As a college dropout (three semesters, woohoo!) and as someone who's tried a couple of times to go back, I would say that if you've got the time, you should finish it right after high school.  Otherwise, man, it's just about impossible to juggle life's demands and pursue a degree that won't raise your earnings.  The difference between dropout and a 4-year degree isn't worth the time it takes to go back.

I'm not as sure about Masters candidates though - that's a different game altogether.

Posted by Steve Jones on 25 August 2009

I'm a college grad, BA Economics, and it's helped me in the past. I did a little post-grad work, but like BrentO mentioned, it's hard. Hard to juggle, especially with a family and for limited benefits. I have some friends that have pursued MBAs, and it hasn't really made a difference from what I can see unless you go into management. Then it helps.

A degree is a leg up. It's like the game of LIFE. It shortcuts you into the workforce, though less so in the IT field. Talent matters a good amount, though still less than who you know.

If you can get a degree, I'd recommend it. It's a valuable experience and you learn a lot. That being said, right out of high school, some people aren't ready or don't want to. They might join the military, peace corp, etc. That's fine, and it gives similar experience.

Posted by Tim Mitchell on 25 August 2009

Brian, good post.  As one of those who went back to school after 30, I'm certain that it's helped my career.  It was difficult, no doubt - juggling school, family time with a wife and child, and a full time job was very challenging at times.  But like many other career decisions, that short term sacrifice will lead to long-term gain, and I can already see some of those results.

Would I have been as successful if I'd simply decided to spend four years of dedicated study of my trade?  Possibly.  Some organizations look past the pedigrees at what a candidate can do for them instead of considering the paper they bring along.  But for better or worse, a degree is still a universal symbol of accomplishment, a dynamic that's not likely to change anytime soon.

Posted by Philip on 28 August 2009

What does a college (university) degree give you that you?

1. The minimum skill set as determined by professional peers in order to work in the field.

2. It is definitive and independent proof that you are capable of working in the field, and it even provides a measure of how capable you are.

In the end a degree is called a “Qualification” because it qualifies you to work in the industry.  It ensures that you can do the job.

I’ve worked with so many cowboys who “think” they know IT because they have been in IT for years, yet come out with ideas and decisions that make it blatantly clear that they have no understanding of some fundamental aspect of IT.  

Case in point: A Systems Admin running a company of approx. 1,500 end users who didn’t know that Raid 5 was slower than Raid 10!  Sure he could keep the system running and he could configure routing… but ANY qualification would have filled in just this gap and made our entire system run faster.  How many more instance are there of “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Example2: A VB programmer we had at one work place place was self taught.  I saw some basic mistakes, so I asked her to do a free "online" MSDN VB test.  It was multi-guess with 4 answers to choose from.  She got less than 25%... a monkey picking randomly could have done better.  All the other developers got well into the 90% mark.

What's more, while doing an MBA I had numerous people who had run businesses for decades learning the fundumentals of businesses and slapping their foreheads stating "If only I knew then...".  They were in a profession, actively working away yet they didn't even know that they didn't have the basic skill set.  Learning on the fly doesn't give you fundamentals.  I would put money on IT people doing the same thing if they had to turn around and do an IT Degree.  You don't know what you don't know - THAT'S WHAT DEGREES ARE FOR!!!

So to my mind, if you aren’t qualified in IT then you aren’t qualified to work in IT.  If you don’t have a degree (or other certification) IN THE FIELD, then there is no proof you have the minimum skill set, nor a measure of how capable you are.

But that said, I agree that it is generally accepted that it is okay for IT people to have no formal qualifications.

I just can’t work out how this is accepted in IT.  I wouldn’t take my car to an un-qualified mechanic.  I wouldn’t have my house built by an un-qualified builder.  I sure as heck wouldn’t go to a Tax Accountant who wasn’t both qualified and certified.

It’s not like a person can’t pick up Tax Accounting by reading through books.  And I’ve tinkered around my engine and fixed things – even re-built a carburettor in my teens.  So you CAN learn this stuff as you go, but nobody would call you a professional.  And rightly so... but IT is different... apparently.

Why?  Maybe it is because there are so many members of the “profession” who aren’t qualified.  Maybe it’s because so few people “understand” IT that anyone who has a bit of knowledge appears to others to be expert.

Whatever the case, after seeing the divide between the skill sets of even advanced IT professionals with and without degrees I would NEVER higher another uncertified IT worker.  

But that’s just me.  Luckily there are others like me, which is why the market has such a strong push towards degrees for IT jobs.

Posted by Knut Boehnert on 28 August 2009

Joel Spolsky wrote in a foreword: "Maybe I really don’t know what it really takes to [well insert your own profession here]". [http]www.joelonsoftware.com/.../CoderToDeveloper.html[/http]

This really struck me as true too. A degree is a first step on a long road to become proficient, not the other way round. Yes, sometimes it is sheer luck at the right moment of time and place that gets someone to shoot up and become a star but for most of us it's a long road of learning, training and practising.

A degree is good to have not for the degree itself but for the attitude towards learning. The main thing I learned doing my degree was how to learn. As each teacher has a slightly (or not so slightly) different approach it gave me a broad way of learning skills.

Obviously some techniques work better than others - the main point for me is I found the ways that work well for me and this understanding still helps.

Posted by mnorton on 28 August 2009

Perseverance is the key to getting that college degree. I have to say that even though my degrees are not computer related that they have always helped in my job search. It says a lot to an employer about the person applying for the job even before you get the interview. I'm not saying that without it that there are not good candidates out there but in today's economy having a degree, experience and certification helps in finding a job, keeping a job or pursuing another job. It takes time to pursue anything worth having. Yes it's hard to juggle work, school, family etc but it's only for a short amount of time. Persevere through it and it will all pay off in the end.

Posted by JPluchino on 28 August 2009

A degree is good mainly because it demonstrates to others who may be considering you (eg for employment) that you have achieved a certain level of acedemic accomplishment.  A degree is not necessary for work in IT.  An attitude is.  If you are tenacious, curious, and think with an open mind; you can be an achiever in IT.

Posted by jcrawf02 on 28 August 2009

mnorton - short amount of time? I'm currently working and pursuing a Bachelor's in Computer Science, and even though I'm a sophomore per credit hour standards, if I took only one or two classes a quarter it could take me another 8 TO 9 YEARS to finish. Put another way, I don't have any children yet but if we got pregnant today, that kid would be in 2nd or 3rd grade before I received my diploma. Personally, I don't consider that a short amount of time. Perhaps you were referring to a degree when you're just going to school, not working also?

To brento's point, logistically it just makes more sense to complete your degree right after high school. You are young and inexperienced, so you can't get a very high-paying job anyway, therefore you're not missing out on much money by going to school full time; you have gobs of time in terms of life responsibilities (like kids/spouse/etc); and many kids still have family financial support in terms of rent/food/transportation/etc.

Did I mention I wish I'd finished my degree the first time through?

Posted by Dave Schutz on 28 August 2009

I think degrees are alot like certifications, they prove you can stick with it long enough to complete a program of study and pass some tests. I earned an A.S.E.E. when I was 20 and a B.S. Ed when I was forty. I wasn't ready to do my B.S. work when I was young and foolish. It's part of the overall package about a person. Education, training, and work experience make the best candidate for the job. How much of each every person needs is a good question.

Posted by Grant Fritchey on 28 August 2009

Speaking as someone who doesn't have a degree, or a single qualification, they are not necessary. But, degrees sure do help.

Unlike what has been said, a degree is not a demonstration of knowledge. It's a demonstration of the ability to learn. That's good, but it's hardly enough to move you up the chain. That requires hard work, perseverance, sweat, blood, tears, the whole magilla.

And, I'm a bit offended by pleitch's attitude. I've seen people without a single day of college that were better informed and more capable than people with doctorates. I've also seen people with degrees that are so frighteningly smart & capable that it makes one wonder if maybe school could be part of what makes them great. The degree isn't a magic wand that confers ability & knowledge. People have to work to attain those things, with or without a degree. It's the people, not the piece of sheepskin.

The thing is, when you're 22 and you want to prove you're worthy of getting a job, how do you do it? You can point to your degree as a demonstration of a work ethic and the ability to learn. But when you're 32, or 42, or more, in theory, you can point to X number of years doing work applicable to the job you're applying for. The degree matters less & less as time goes on.

At this point in my career, if someone turned me down for a position because I wasn't a college grad, it'd give me a good laugh.

Posted by Bill Nicolich on 28 August 2009

If anything, I think college degrees can go undervalued. That's not easy to prove, but there are hints.

I think the least disputed benefits are "stick-to-it-ness," subject matter familiarity when the degree is directly related and third-party recognition. Beyond that, the benefits are not as easy to quantify, but can be substantial.

1. There's the life experience of being tested by experts. While getting my minor in English, I submitted papers that were thorougly grilled - often torn apart piece by piece where I was required to go back and adjust repeatedly until the results were acceptable. In contrast, I've seen admittedly extreme cases at work where a programmer couldn't bear to have their work subjected to critique even though quality was a problem - presumably because of a lack of this kind of experience.

2. There's the cultivation of problem-solving skills. Getting my degree I was pushed to seek solutions to difficult and complex problems where I had to grow coping strategies like "eat the elephant one bite at a time" or "try a top-down approach because this bottom-up approach isn't working" and where I learned to question assumptions, proceed in a systematic manner, identify and avoid logical fallacies and the list goes on. I've seen workers in IT that presumably hadn't developed in these areas yet and could have with the help of the degree process.

Posted by Silverfox on 28 August 2009

Not sure I agree with any of this. Maybe this is a US thing, I know that in india, getting an IT degree is everything to most people as they see it as a stepping stone before they start work.

As most of the GDP of india is down to services. IT is big business and having a degree is important over there.

In the UK from what I can see, it helps if you want to go into management and it can help you as part of a graduate program working for blue chip companies. as they view graduates with the higher grades as potential employees who have the ability to go far in the organisational fast track.

But getting a degree if you already work in the IT industry, not sure what you actually gain. I would not benefit in the slighest. If you worked as a developer/DBA, where do you get the benefit by having a degree, it is not a reflection of your skill or expertise and technology is a moving target.

Academic qualifications are not tailored to offer expertise in any subject only the basic concepts.

I find it laughable that anyone can even think that having a IT degree. makes you qualified to work in the IT field, or that makes you better than someone who does not have the degree, exactly the same as microsft certification, I have seen a lot of people who are certified in various microsoft technologies who should never be allowed near a computer.

I take my hat off to people who have the time and determination to pursue getting a degree, but to me, it is more of a personal goal thing and something that looks good to an employer who understands what you have put yourself through to get it. it does not make you qualified to do a technical role and it should never be viewed in that reqard. like certification, for some employers, it is viewed as a nice to have, but no substitute for years of experience.

I have been in the IT industry all of my working life and i have no degrees and no certification, yet i have worked with some of the best people in the industry and been successfully contracting for over 15 years, proof in case that having a degree is not essential to have to work in the industry.

Posted by bwild on 28 August 2009

I have an MBA, CAPM cert (project management), and several years of management experience.  I have been looking for another job in some type of leadership role for three years.  I'm in  a medium-sized market, and the problem seems to be that the hiring managers are what I call "de facto" managers- they are managers because they've been with the place for 20 years.  I have interviewed at about 20 companies, and only two have actively mentioned my MBA (one was also well educated, the other was a very large corporation).  There was one interviewer that I mentioned it to proactively because I had had many interviews without it being brought up.  His response was "Yes, I saw that." (referring to my resume).  I may not be interviewing well these days perhaps, but the reactions I have seen lead me to believe that less educated don't tend to hire the more educated.  My guess is that it's political, not personal.  I could be wrong, but that's the general sense I get.

Posted by jeffkretz on 28 August 2009

Disclaimer -- I myself do not have a degree in either IT or another area.

For me, self-taught meant reading every text I could get my hands on while on the job, not just "learn by doing and hope you don't make too many mistakes."  I have about 40 texts on SQL, .NET, C# and Ajax on my shelf which I've read in the process of learning to do my job.  Perhaps that's not what people normally expect when they think of "self-taught."

On the other hand, I did work my way up to head of IT and development while at a telecom company.  When I was leaving this job a few years ago, I agreed to stay on and help hire a replacement.  I read many hundreds of resumes and interviewed dozens and dozens of applicants, and I was shocked by the lack of knowledge and skill of many of the degree-holding applicants, even those with purported experience.  

We went through three actual hires (all of whom with degrees) who didn't make it, before finally finding one who did (n.b. the successful one also had a degree, but NOT in an IT-releated field).

Perhaps my experience is unusual, but I used to feel I was lacking by not having a degree and thought about going back to school.  After this experience, I wasn't so sure.  Maybe these people only went to college for the sheepskin, rather than to actually learn something?

JK

Posted by tdevoe on 28 August 2009

I bounced around a few colleges after high school - not knowing where I wanted to go with my life. I finally went back and took a weekend college program which allowed me to finish in the normal time even though I was married with a kid.

As Knut Boehnert stated, it taught me how to learn, problem solve, to be confident and deal with responsibilities. In the IT field, no one will ever stop learning - certifications/training become obsolete ( or at least paritally obsolete) quickly. Every day is a learning experience and I've been working in this field for over 20 years.

That's what makes it satisfying . . .

Posted by K. Brian Kelley on 28 August 2009

With respect to IT, I don't believe you *must* have a degree, especially here in the United States. Silverfox, it may be different in India. And I don't believe a degree qualifies you to work in IT, not even a comp sci degree. My experience mirrors a lot of what has been said about degree holders and levels of competence. However, the numbers are plain: more and more jobs are moving to have a minimum requirement of a college degree. While I don't think that'll have a large impact over folks in the field with demonstrated experience, I do wonder about those trying to enter the field of IT.

Posted by tlehner on 28 August 2009

Competence has nothing to do w/ schooling, being self-taught, reading the right books, having the right mentors or some positive attitude.  Those things can all turn good into great, but if you're not starting with "the knack..."

www.youtube.com/watch

...then you should go into some other field, because you are, at best, just going to cause more work for your coworkers that actually have the knack.  Engineering of any sort is not for you.

If you still think there is one correct path to becoming a great anything, I'm guessing this path that you have in mind is just coincidentally very much like the path you have chosen.  Hmm...

If you'd like a more politically correct answer, read about Spolsky's "Smart and gets things done."  That's very well done.

Posted by Andeavour on 28 August 2009

I've got to agree with Grant. As a self-taught DBA with over 20 years in the field (coming from Unix administration into SQL 6.5) I find Pleitch's attitude a little offensive. Over the years I've worked with plenty of people who thought having a degree made them a genius, but who just couldn't cope in the real world.

As a freelancer I got one position specifically to re-write a sytem written by a Computer Sciences Graduate who had been hired purely based on his paper qualifications, but after 12 months had produced nothing workable and was eventually "let go".

In the UK where GCSE's seem to be getting easier every year and with them the standards of newcomers into the workplace falling (I am appalled by the quality of some of the job applications we get at my company), I think the importance of a degree is now vastly overstated. There are so many sociologists and "flower arranging" graduates now who feel that they are immediately entitled to a better paid position simply because they's spent some time running up a huge debt at University.

It should be seen as a simple step on the ladder, perhaps it helps wipe some of the grease off the first few rungs, but it shouldn't be a cherry picker ride to halfway up. That comes with hard work, and proving yourself "in the field".

Posted by wasntme on 28 August 2009

I agree that you should get the degree for yourself and not neccessarily just to get a certain job. But the degree does help.  And I am not buying the excuse that its impossible to get the degree unless you get it right after high school.  As a single mother who worked full time while I got my degree. I am living proof that where there is a will there is a way. Having that piece of paper shows your ability to dedicate yourself and persevere, no matter what the major is. I never imagined when I was in high school that I would end up working in IT.  As a woman, I think it was harder for me to even break into the IT field.  Without a degree, I dont think anyone would have taken me seriously.  

Posted by john.richter on 28 August 2009

Those who broke into the industry on the strength of their degree, tend to believe all the rest should have to buy the same ticket.  This is a common, if not almost a universal, attitude of college grads.  To think otherwise, is to devalue the piece of paper.  I also have been in the position of interviewing applicants--and in the process turning away 4 year IT degree holders who were clueless.  I remember taking one aside, telling him to buy a computer and learn how to use it.  Can IT skills be learned in school?  Sure, if that's what the student demands he learn.  Can they be learned at home or on the job?  Sure, if that's what the student demands.  The current craze of requiring degrees reflects, I believe, simply the assumption of hiring duties by HR--in years past, except in the largest companies, more IT pro's did interviews and hired.  HR people, being intentionally ignorant of the IT field, insist on the paper--this gives them something to cover their behinds when the new-hire fails.  By the way, I spent six years as full-time faculty at a local college.  That was long enough to see how the game was played.  And when I wanted entrance into the industry, even twenty years ago, some kind of degree, even a minimal one, was already part of dues.  Not that my time in school was a complete waste—I met my wife there.  But my IT skills?  Those I learned of desire and necessity.  Though I picked up a few while in college, I would have picked them up anyway.  I knew more than most grads when I started my classes.  One of the saddest things I have seen is doors closing on bright, talented people because they are not in the club.  I think this reflects a continuing degradation in society, a calcification visible not just in the IT field.  Historically predictable, but not a welcome thing to witness.

Posted by Adam Machanic on 28 August 2009

I have a degree in CS and I have to say that bits and pieces of what I learned did provide a very solid foundation for me on which to grow. I hope to have time to go back and get a MSCS sometime soon--not for my career, but rather just because I want to do it for the personal satisfaction of doing it.

Do you need a degree to succeed in our field from a purely technical point of view? Of course not. Can it help? Yes--the correct degree. A literature degree probably won't, but a solid CS, math, econ, or related degree certainly can.

Posted by achipforevershort on 28 August 2009

I have been in the IT industry for Over 15 years and I also do not hold any certifications nor finish College (I did complete 3 years in college before leaving though). I so far in my career have never been turned down because of my lack of pedigree. I am IT management now and i am compensated in the upper middle part of the salary range. I think college can help reinforce structured thinking and even teach people how to think critically but if you already are proficient in critically analyzing issues and resolving them college may not help. For me i felt that the computer science classes were not applicable to real world scenarios. Once I got out into the working force that fact was made very obvious. I occasionaly question if i shoudl go back but reading thru these replies only reinforces my belief that I made the right choice for me.

Posted by randal.schmidt on 28 August 2009

I have two degrees (AAS and BS) but from 25 years ago.  Do they still count?  Personally, I would rather have a 20-30 year veteran with 3 or 4 companies under their belt than a college grad.  Today, too much of college is just reading books (which I can do without a teacher) and taking a test on it.  That's not college learning!  Yes, I know because I had 3 of my kids go through college (one of them is still in his program),  He says he usually knows more than his professor (Graphic Arts) and has to correct him in class.  For example, the professor may know CS3 (Adobe stuff) but CS4 has been out for two years and that is what companies are looking for.  The professor taught CS4 from a CS3 perspective.  They are drastically different.  How does my son know?  He read the book and practiced the software.  Now tell me, is this what a $50,000 college debt is worth?  I remember taking a night class at a 27,000 student-sized university.  THe business "professor" was just a statistics guy from a large multi-billion company.  He was teaching Intro to programming for accountants.  Needless to say, I correctetd him so much in class, he offered to let me stop coming and he said would pass me.  So college is not all its cooked up to be?      

Posted by Jack Corbett on 28 August 2009

Interesting discussion.  I really like what Adam said.  I don't have a CS degree, but I think I would definitely be helped if I did have it.

I think the key is to have a good mentor when you begin in IT, I wouldn't have wanted to have totally started on my own.

Posted by markanderson on 28 August 2009

Some individuals have responded indicating that a degree is required or that they would not hire someone without one.  This only magnify the incorrect assumption that someone coming out of school can do the job better than someone who actually works in the field.  I can tell you that a degree is great, but it in no way qualifies a person to perform well, or does it give you any indication on what a person can do.  I think it's horibly unfortunate that this stigma is in the industry, what managers need to be aware is that like all things understanding of a topic is up to one's own individual sweat equity.  Having a degree doesn't guarantee that they can do the job, rather it is simply a leg up because the indistry has programmed everyone to think that this is somehow better.  I am in school now, and have been in this industry for over 17 years and can tell you that I can generally code circles around the folks that went to school.  You need to consider the other side of the coin that for some of us school was not the answer at the time.  We in that pool of folks are generally hungrier then the people that attended school due to the fact that we've had to compete against this nonsensical mandate that you have to have a degree to be in this field.  If you hired someone that can't code then maybe a better interview would have done some good.

Degrees are great, however they are not the true measure of one's ability to do the job or be a valuable asset to an organization.

Posted by webrunner on 28 August 2009

This debate has been going on ever since I joined SQL Server Central. I think it's a healthy debate, though I think that some kind of college degree is helpful more often than not. In other words, self-taught successes in IT are probably the exceptions that prove the rule.

Having said that, though, something about this blog entry made me realize that IT could use a formal apprenticeship model. Instead of arguing over whether a formal degree is needed or not, an apprenticeship program could help everyone.

As I see it, IT is a case where formal education provides a minimum qualification but does not guarantee that a person can do a better job than a self-taught person. Apprenticeship would allow someone to have a mentor who taught them the ropes of their specific real-world field in a way that a textbook might not address but also in a way that a self-taught person might miss as well.

Think about other apprenticeship fields, such as plumbing, electricity, etc. Would you trust a self-taught electrician? Probably not. On the other hand, would you trust a college-educated electrician who hadn't worked a day in the field? Probably not, either.

An apprenticeship would allow a qualified expert to take, say, a college graduate and a self-taught person and, over the course of some time, decide which one (one, the other, both, or neither) actually had the wherewithal to succeed in that field. And in a way that would keep the situation controlled (under the guidance of the expert mentor) without letting carelessness, mistakes, or ignorance harm the job being done.

In the end, all that matters is whether the person has the necessary skills and knowledge. Apprenticeship would give the self-taught a stage to prove themselves and employers a confirmation that a person with a college degree is up to the task.

-webrunner

Posted by markanderson on 28 August 2009

John Ritcher... AMEN brother... well said indeed.  Absolutley 100% correct!

Posted by David Lester on 28 August 2009

Just a thought, what if the value of a degree has nothing to do with knowledge or ability to do the job? I have talked with several IT directors who would only hire people with degrees, but they did not see the degree as value for knowledge or skill.  They see the degree as proof that a person will finish what is started, that they have motivation. They look at the degree as a sign the person who earned it pushed through the stress, effort and frustration college can be. It shows them what sort of employee you are likely to be.  In all the places I have worked, the IT department rated the technical knowledge as a third or less of the requirements to actually succeed at the job.  As in all jobs what really matters is proving you can work with others, meet deadlines, even do things you really do not enjoy, all without quiting or giving up.

What if the value in the degree is nothing more complicated than what it takes to get it?

Posted by Michelle Ufford on 28 August 2009

I don't have a 4-year degree. I was doing a lot of consulting work while in college, and I was eventually lured away from school in my 3rd year by the offer of an interesting job making more money than most of my colleagues would make after graduating.  In retrospect, I'm still happy with the decisions I've made.  

That said, there have been a few times where I wish I had completed my college degree, but those times are now behind me.  I really had an eye-opening experience when working with a new hire with a Masters of CS degree from Purdue University.  I had no involvement in his hiring; the owner of the company just said one day, "I hired someone to help you."  Now, this guy with a Master's in CS was very smart and hard-working, but he knew less about everything than I did.  He couldn't configure a router, had no idea how to set up a network, had never worked on a Windows Server, had little understanding of database concepts, and couldn't program in a single Microsoft language.  Basically, he was no good to me (we were a 100% Microsoft shop), and we eventually had to let him go.

So, while I agree that a college degree proves that you can learn and be dedicated, and it probably gives you a good, solid foundation in technology, it does NOT guarantee that you have any usable work skills.  I'll take the intelligent, hard-working, *experienced* candidate every time.

Posted by jmcgarvey on 28 August 2009

I think that some folks have gotten a little wrapped up in themselves.  I am in my late 50's and do not have any formal education beyond high school other than military and a few tech schools.  I am a Sr. DBA/Developer and love what I do.  I have worked very hard over the years to stay current, advance my career and provide for my family.  Maybe I do need to work harder than some of my highly educated IT associates.  So what, that is a choice I made and have to live with.  I learn something new every day.  

I think that everyone should get an education.  No excuses.  The way the world is now and if past experiences are an indicator an education is a must.  I realize that I am a dinosaur in the IT world today and would not want to do it over the way I did.  Having said that I think that those who made some of the more negative remarks toward both the under and over educated folks in our industry might want to adjust their requirements barometers a little.  Yes I have run into some whose skill set are not up to par and I did not hire them and I did not put them down.  This applies to both sides of the educational pointer.  It is not necessarily how many degrees a person maintains but if that person can transfer that knowledge to their finger tips.  Nothing more.  Anyone can talk the talk but we all know it’s the walk that counts.

If you insist on ranting against those who do not meet your educational level keep these final thoughts in mind:

1.All people are different and should not be judged by one set of standards.

2.There is more than one type of PHD.  Think “Public High School Diploma”.

3.If you insist on ranting about the lack of a person’s education, run spell checker or at least proof read your rants.  Is English your second language or did you sleep through class?

4.Finally, based on the comments some of the folks have made I would not want to work with or for them.  Keep your attitudes just get the job done.  Focus on what is really important.

Posted by al heithaus on 28 August 2009

Nobody mentioned the real reason to go back to college--the girls!  (Or, whatever spins your hard drive.)

--Al--

Posted by maurine on 28 August 2009

I have two college degrees, a BA in International Relations that I got when I was 21 and a BS in Computer Science that I earned when I was 42.  

While I find that some of the knowledge I gained in school has been useful, it was more that 'finishing the course' that was applicable.  My last time through college I was very concerned that so many students wanted to take the easy way through school and get a degree without putting in the effort. Many of my professors tried to explain that the workforce would not find that acceptable, but my fellow students (especially the ones fresh out of high school) could not understand that point of view.

Now, after working in the IT industry for 9 years, I find that most of my knowledge is gained by study and hard work when a problem comes up that has to be solved.  My solutions may not be perfect, but I learn something each time that helps that base grow and helps with future solutions.

I wish I had the base and understanding that many of you do and I do put in time to get more and more learning under my belt.  I also realistically know that I have made a choice (for the time being) to stay with a small company where I will do more project development and testing than actual database work, but find that skill balance works well for me and meets my criteria.  

Do I think I could compare to someone who has had 9 years of intensive database work with a multi-server, multi-database company? No.  

Do I think that I could have gotten to where I am in my organization without a degree? Possibly - but the degree helped me get a foot in the door and led to continued knowledge and growth.

For me, the degrees have been a helpful tool. I actually went back to college with the idea of becoming a programmer/developer, but my first database class made me realize the area that I really wanted to focus on.

Posted by DavidE on 29 August 2009

My degree is in Business Management, not IT.  That was a long time ago, before IT became such a huge part of business.

A degree gets your foot in the door at hiring time and has more value when you are starting out than it does later, unless you are being hired directly for an upper management position.  Anything you learned in college 10-20 years ago was only a starting point for what you need to know now.  That won't change in the future.

One question is, have you learned anything since then, or do you think that was all you needed to learn?  That is what has to be evaluated when you hire, not higher, someone (some education that is).  As stated in previous posts, I too have met educated people who think their degree is all they need.  I am not impressed.

IT is multi-faceted.  We all need to know something about everything in addition to what we know well.  Sure, there are things I don't know, but who among us knows it all?  The ability/willingness to find the answer is what's important.  

Another question seemingly overlooked is, what do you know about the business you are supporting?  Unless you work for an IT service company, your time is not billed to anyone.  Like an accounting department, IT is a support group for the people who make sales and generate the revenue that pays our salary.  Without them, our jobs don't exist.

Know how changes/improvements in your department affect others.  Make effective business decisions which improve their processes as well as your own to make the company more efficient/profitable.  That's how you prove your worth, regardless of your title or job description.  

Having a degree does not prove you have any common sense or motivation.  I'll take working knowledge of IT with some business sense over a degree any day.

Posted by Payson Benefield on 30 August 2009

I'll throw two cents worth in here.

I've been programming professionally since 1979.  I've worked with databases of one sort or another for most of my career.  I've specialized in SQL databases for the last 12-15 years.  I consider myself a DBA.  I like to think I'm a good one.  I don't have a degree.

Has the lack of a degree hurt me?  Absolutely!  Prior to the year 2000, the degree didn't seem to make much difference.  Equivalent experience made up for it. Since 2000, I've missed out on more than a dozen projects - didn't even get an interview - because I don't have a degree.  

Also, I wish I knew more theory.  I don't understand the math of relational databases as well as I'd like to.  Relational division, for example, still bumfuzzles me.  I think I understand most of the concepts of predicate calculus, but I wish I had more formal training.  To be fair, I don’t know that I would have gotten that training that in a 1970’s CS curriculum.

I agree with some other posters - all the training in the world is useless unless you have the "knack".  This was first documented in "The Mythical Man Month", which is, to my mind, still one of the best books around on IT project management.  But for those that have the “knack”, the background in theory makes it easier to adapt when new technologies come along.

I'll leave with this.  In a year and a half, I'll be 62.  In my state, tuition is free for anyone 62 and older.  I'll be going back to school - one class per semester.  Will this help me in my career?  I hope not!! I hope I'm retired before I finish college.  But learning, for its own sake, is a goal worth pursuing at any age.

Posted by pleitch on 30 August 2009

A couple of people have noted my comments as offensive.  Re-reading it and their comments I can see why.  Although not pulling away from my comments I do think they need further clarification.

1. Does a degree make you a genius?

No.  It makes you no smarter.  Your IQ going in is likely to be your IQ going out.  Obviously it proves your IQ is higher than average to enter University and get a degree, but your IQ would have to be higher to be in IT anyway.

My point is that the degree measures how good you are, your strengths and weaknesses.  It also means you have all the fundamentals expected to carry out your job.  Otherwise, and I have seen this on numerous occasions, a seasoned IT professional will make a “newbie” mistake.

2. Does a degree mean you are going to be better in a position than a non graduate?

No – my point is that a degree is a measure and qualifies that the holder has attained a specific standard and is capable of continuing work at that standard.

I too have seen degree qualified IT staff who don’t seem very capable at all.  But when I found out their GPA I nodded my head and thought “yeah – that’s about what I would have expected”.

I absolutely agree that a non-graduate may surpass the skills of a graduate.  But how can you tell the full skill set of a person?  If they have a degree you can look at their degree GPA and course results.

What’s the alternative for assessing all the capabilities and skills of the person?

3. The manager who just looks for the word “degree” without either looking at the specific course marks/GPA and/or work history is doing a disservice to themselves and the IT industry.  I absolutely agree that seeing “degree” and ticking a box is just wrong (see points above).

4. My views on education are biased.  I live in a country where the government pays ¾ of your undergraduate degree AND gives you the choice to pay off the remaining fee up front (with a discount) OR pay it off at some later date when you earn enough money (a % is taken from your pay) and the debt is interest free (CPI increased though).

Also, the standard degree is 3 years full time or 6 years part time (much shorter).  Also, several universities offer Masters degree by correspondence for people without a Bachelors but are professionals with a number of years work experience (this time they pay 100% but it can still go on the government loan).

Also, it is possible to gain a government assistance to study (although it is just below the poverty line).

So the majority of people NOT doing a degree (or other certification) are those that either can’t (literally not smart enough) or simply don’t believe it is necessary.

If I were in USA... I probably wouldn't have been able to get a degree right away and I too would be questioning the value vs the cost.

So in retrospect the opinions I’ve developed are likely to be VERY specific to my country and work environment.  However, I’ve come to my conclusions after working with a mix of degree and non-degree holding IT professionals in large organisations for the last decade and a half.  They are personal opinions, but they are based on observation and reason.

Posted by pleitch on 30 August 2009

After reading through more comments, I have to say that I like the idea of an apprentice outlined by webrunner.

Posted by David Garland on 31 August 2009

As a 30-something returning student, with 10+ years  dba experience, a family, and a full time job I can speak from experience when I say:  1. A bachelor's is necessary in order to continue to develop your career.  2.  It's really hard to go back to school  3.  Going back to school can give you this '360 world view' perspective that can complement every aspect of your work life.

Deciding to go back to school for myself has been one of the best decisions I've made in my 30s.  I just completed my AA this summer and am enrolling in 2 year liberal studies BA for older students next fall.  That essentially means I'll have my degree when I'm 40, and my kids will be 10 and 6 respectively.

Posted by sreid08 on 18 September 2009

I got a college degree - in Sociology.  But it was my OTJ Training that has landed me in every IT position I've held for the past 20 years.  Everything I've learned about IT/computers/PCs has been OTJ Training.  Yeah, there are holes in what I know - but I also know how to go and search out that knowledge.  It all depends on the person.  There are people I know with only high school degrees that know more than I do about computers - but I'd still tell them to go to college because they don't know how to write well or speak well and I think college is good for that at the very least.

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