A non-degree-holder’s view of hiring decisions

I get a good number of job offers without sending resumes around. I guess my name shows up in enough places, associated with enough buzzwords, that recruiters fire off emails first and read the fine print later. The “fine print” in my case, says that I do not have a college degree.

99.999% of the time, recruiters, and even hiring managers, tell me that my experience more than makes up for any lack of a formal education (one manager said he had seen many less capable MS degree holders). However, there are a few little quirks I’ve found at some larger companies. Mainly, they fall into two categories:

  1. They just plain don’t hire anyone without a degree
  2. You can’t get past a certain “tier” of employment without a degree

I’ve worked in business. I grew up in family businesses. I understand that, in certain circumstances, corporations can have legitimate reasons for these stances. Probably the only one I’ve ever actually heard myself that seemed almost reasonable is “insurance”. Some positions in some companies can have a drastic effect on things that directly affect the bottom line of that company, and if the company has insurance to protect them against extremely costly one-time errors (like E&O insurance), the insurance company might give them a better rate if they take steps to decrease the likelihood of such errors… like requiring that employees in these positions have a degree. I think it’s kind of a twisted logic, really. Instead of developing processes and procedures to reduce the likelihood of a problem, they think that hiring someone with a degree by itself will help the issue. Like degree-holders are less prone to errors due to the simple human condition. Odd, that.

Oh, and there’s a third quirk, but not with the corporate policies – with he hiring managers themselves. The quirk is that certain hiring managers, without regard for stated policy, won’t hire someone who doesn’t have a degree, presumably because they fear they might be fired for hiring someone who fails to produce because they don’t have a degree. The other possible reasoning here is that they have the attitude that “I went through it, so why should I give someone a job who hasn’t?”

The *real* problem with these hiring managers, and with corporations who have (non-insurance-related) strict educational requirements of applicants, is that that there’s a shortcoming in the business education curricula: they don’t teach the future middle managers of the world how to evaluate an applicant who doesn’t have a traditional, formal education.

This is a guess, of course, since I haven’t been to business school. But aren’t managers unwilling to hire those without formal educations also guessing? I would submit that they are. It’s the same kind of guess, too. It’s a guess based in part (maybe) on experience, and in part based on stereotypes or other preconceptions.

My experience with those who don’t, or won’t hire non-degree holders is that they think of degree-holders as “more well-rounded”. Assuming the non-degree holder hasn’t resigned themselves to a life of flipping burgers, I don’t think this could be further from the truth. It is, in fact, an old wive’s tale with no basis in fact. We were all told as kids that college would make us more “well-rounded”, and so we all worked to attain this nebulous goal. In reality, a college degree, by itself, is simply not any kind of valuable indicator of “well-roundedness”. Colleges are businesses. They produce college graduates. They do it efficiently, with an eye toward the business end of things more than anything else. If a college graduate is well-rounded, it is as much in spite of their college experience as because of it. Most well-rounded people are probably predisposed to being well-rounded, and had a tendency toward things to help them become well-rounded by the time they arrived on campus.

Besides this somewhat lame view of non-degree holders, another assumption is that non-degree holders do not have *any* education, and so *cannot* be prepared to perform the tasks that a graduate can (allegedly) perform. This argument might hold water with me if I didn’t have some idea already how resumes are typically handled by HR departments. The short story there is that there are tons of resumes that a hiring manager never sees because they’re pre-qualified (read: filtered) on the basis of educational status.

My area of expertise is technology. I don’t have a degree. It would therefore be assumed by many a hiring manager that I have no idea what Big-O notation is, don’t know anything about object delegation or polymorphism, and can’t analyze problems the same way as a college grad. The manager would be wrong on the first two counts, because while I didn’t study in college, I *did* study. But what about that third bit about analyzing problems?

I can tell you that it’s absolutely true that I do not analyze problems the same way as a college grad. What’s a real shame, though, is that a lot of managers would assume that “not the same” means “not as well”. There’s no justification for this assumption. In fact, I would argue that it *has* been the case in the past that having one rogue non-degree holder in a room full of grads can help to avoid “group think”, and help the group turn a problem sideways for another look. It is unfortunate that a degree that is supposed to help people “think outside the box” seems to put everyone in the same exact spot outside of that box, looking at it from the same exact perspective, coming to the same exact conclusion.

Finally, there is a certain class of degree-holder that I think is never a win over hiring a young, hungry rogue like myself. This class of graduate has hung their degree on the wall and decided that they no longer have any obligation to continue to keep up with new developments in their field. They code the same way they’ve always coded, use the same collection of old trusty tools, deal with technology the same way they’ve always dealt with technology, and stood more or less completely still, failing to seek out (much less embrace) new tools, techniques, languages, paradigms for getting things done. How can you possibly think outside the box when your vision of the box is 10 years old and assumes that the box is completely static?

I believe it was Nietzsche (sp?) who wrote that truth is not static (of course, I’m paraphrasing, and I might be thinking of James). If you can see yourself subscribing to that idea at all (it seems counterintuitive at first glance, but deeper thought will probably get you there), then how can a person with a notion of “truth” that is tied to their college experience be any better at figuring out what to do with it than someone who doesn’t have a degree, but is forever seeking out interesting things that come out of an ever-evolving truth?

Anyway, that’s my diatribe for the evening. If you’re a hiring manager with preconceived notions about college degree holders (or not) that come from decades of brain-hammering by graybeards, then cling to that safety blanket all you want, but know that it’s old thinking. Learn to be (gasp!) creative about how you evaluate applicants, and how you build your teams, and how you execute on your visions. Try to find the other box. The one that doesn’t look anything like it did in college.

I’m interested in hearing feedback on these ideas. I’m sure some will take offense. I don’t mean any. I’m certainly not saying that not having a degree is better, or that degree-holders are all complacent or anything like that. I *am* saying that *formal* education *can* be an irrelevant point of comparison, and that relying solely on the existence (or not) of a *formal* education as the basis for hiring one applicant over another is ludicrous.

Also, my blog is subscribed to by various sites, and I decided to publish this to all of the categories, because I think it *could* be interesting to pretty much anyone. If this is spam in your eyes, let me know. If you find a lively discussion about this going on anywhere, I’d be really interested in that as well 🙂

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  • Carl T.

    This is a sticky, controversial topic. My wife often says (diplomatically) that I have an unusual way of looking at things. Please bear with me for anything crazy I may post.

    Even if you get hired in an organization that likes its people to have degrees, eventually the organization will tacitly encourage you to get a degree by putting a cap on your pay and advancement until you go to night school or correspondence school and get a degree. This would lead to the following imaginary conversation:

    Employer: we want you to get a degree.

    You: why should I waste precious time learning a bunch of stuff I already know and a bunch of stuff you and I could care less about?

    Employer: because we are big and bureaucratic. This would be good training and endurance development for all things time wasting and mind numbing – much, but not all of what you experience here as you move up the chain of command and payscale will fall into those two categories.

    You: That’s crazy.

    Employer: That’s the company you work for.

    You: I’m going off to start my own tech company or work for a leaner, more agile group.

    Employer: We respect your decision (sort of). Can we convince you to stay with more money?

    You: Arrrrghh . . . just let it go.

    Months later . . .

    Employer: come fix our problem for $300/hour.

    You: Sounds good.

    You live happily ever after. Employer continues in lobotomized state . . .

  • http://kbyanc.blogspot.com/ Kelly Yancey

    As someone who worked for 13 years while (slowly) working toward my degree, I will concur that not having a degree is both a bonus and a hindrance. As you say, some places won’t give you the time of day while others just look at your experience and what you can rattle off in the interview and say “I want this guy”. You want to work at the latter. In fact, one of the best things about not having a degree is that it helped weed out the wheat from the chaff when I was looking for a job — if the company was so hung up on requiring a degree that the overlooked everything else, then I knew they had their priorities all wrong.

    That said, I am glad I continued to go to school and finished my degree. So much so, I’d like to go back and get a Masters or a Doctorate at some point. College forced me to do things and think about things I would have never done otherwise. It introduced me to new ideas (new to me, that is) which I have been able to integrate into my software engineering practices. Even if the languages or techniques taught were sometimes outdated, a person as resourceful as yourself can certainly find a way to apply the experience gained from using them to modern problems.

    Does everyone get that out of college? Probably not. I’m glad I did, though. And from the sound of it, I bet you would too.

    As you say, a college degree isn’t some “free pass” through life and it isn’t a “get a job free” card; it is an opportunity to expand one’s possibilities. It is good that people get that opportunity, but making it a requirement in the hiring process is like making living abroad for a year a requirement — it has little to do with the candidate’s ability to do the job at hand.

    That said, I would like to add one more point to your observation: another common reason for requiring degrees (in the U.S.), especially advanced degrees, is to justify hiring cheap H1B visa employees from overseas. In these cases, the company is required to prove that they could not find a suitable American employee in order to obtain a H1B visa for an overseas candidate. You can have all the skills in the world, but there are companies that would rather pay sub-par wages even if it means lesser quality work. Please don’t misunderstand me: all H1B visa holders are not inferior to local hires, but that the possibility to game the visa system exists. In all likelihood, you don’t want to work at these companies either, so my first comment applies.

  • Gryc Ueusp

    I agree whole-heartedly with you, unfortunately, this is the world we live in, and we have ever since the university was invented. People need your papers, your identification, your proof that you are indeed who you say you are. When you say “I have no degree, but I have all this neat experience.” is like saying “I never graduated gradeschool, but I’ve come up with this neat scientific theorem and written a term paper about it.” Sure, you may have the experience, but you cant _prove_ you have the experience.

    I’ll give you a tip. Find a small, local, community college. Preferably one with a large/good sports team. Then go take whatever A.A.S. degree in Computer Science they offer. You’ll have to take the obligatory MS Word classes and suffer through “Intro to VB.NET”, but in 2 years and about $8k, you’ll be hireable, plus you’ll be top of your class. In theory anyway.

  • anonymous

    Maybe you’re just finding (weak) excuses why you didn’t get a degree?
    Do you think that people who studied their assess off for 5 years to get a masters degree should be getting the same chances as you do?
    If that were true, why would anyone still go to university?

  • http://webreflection.blogspot.com/ Andrea Giammarchi

    Exactly yesterday I’ve sent my CV to a big company … another one that does not hire people without a degree. I am without an official (and always too generic) degree, but I have about 9 years of experience, 2 official certifications, and I suppose I am technically skilled (ninja like? :D).

    I would like to have a “challenge test” VS graduated employers in those languages, practices, and technologies I know, where they have been hired instead of me.

    A good manager should give us a chance, because filtering people in this way is, in my opinion, absolutely a non-sense.

    That’s why I think this is a really great post, hoping those managers will appreciate as well 🙂

  • http://michaelhazzard.com Michael

    I wholeheartedly agree that experience trumps any degree. Especially in the programming field, I’ve seen many graduates in this field that no longer program but many self taught people who do it as a way of life. My approach is the same as when I learned my second (natural) language Spanish: You have to live in it.

  • Chris

    I’m no expert, but here are some scraps i have: university education changed drastically in the “age of revolution”, that is in the 19th century after the French Revolution. The goal did indeed become well-roundedness, and the education was called “liberal”, and students went to college to study “liberal arts” (this developed theoretically and practically in Germany first, I believe. Schiller is the fellow I’m thinking of who did much of the theorizing). The goal was not job-training of any kind, in part because this is what the working classes needed and if one went to college it was certainly not to become more like the working classes. No no. One wanted to become “educated”. This theory of education, by the way, also held for the Indian elite under British rule, who were subjected/priviliged with a British liberal education.

    Scrap two: suffrage and education. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, British classes other than the upper classes gained the right to vote, and education, including college education, was deliberately altered in order to better educate a voting population. This is when study of Greek and Latin (the Classics) began to decline; previously, the Classics were held to be the foundation of all other studies, and a unique privilidge of the upper classes. A man could be placed on the social ladder according to: 1) how much Latin and Greek he construed (“construed” – there’s a bit of Latinate diction for you, anyway), and 2) his accent. Women of course, didn’t count.

    This change has continued throughout the 20th century as college education has become more and more a preparation for the “real world”. Trouble is, the “real world” has become more and more what people with jobs to offer say it is. Some colleges and academicians try either institutionally or individually to recover bits of the liberal education ideal, but it’s not easy. Students, their peers (who are also their competitors for jobs), businesses, government, parents… all want to see practical results for years of work and buckets of cash. Nobody wants to be a fool, after all. But there’s still the dream some people have of initiation into understanding, of finding and learning how to open doors that lead to uknown, unimagined worlds. It’s possible, too, to find those doors and open them.

    These days, though, any hope or dream or intuition that an individual mind’s journey through life is strange and amazing, and that this journey can be made more clear, more intriguing, more dazzling through learning to understand … is gone. Now many Americans can’t imagine how an university is anything but “a business whose product is university graduates.” You seem intelligent; that banality surely cannot satisfy.


  • http://www.openxtra.co.uk/blog/ Jack @ The Tech Teapot

    In a perfect world everybody would be dealt with on their own merits but I’m afraid that isn’t how things work especially in the corporate world. if you don’t want to get yourself a degree then you just have to acknowledge that your opportunities may be limited in some corporations. No biggie, you probably wouldn’t want to work there anyway.

  • Anonymous Coward

    Thinking “outside the box”.

    If degree holders as a group discriminate against non-degree holders, they keep the good jobs for their social class. They also protect themselves from competing against a group that contains people with exceptional abilities. It’s clearly a piece of paper issue, and not an education issue. Many people without degrees are better educated than those with, and vise versa.

  • http://Tightwadtechnica.com JohnMc

    Folks you are all making assessments based on the wrong end of the desk. Don’t be the hiree, but the hirer for a moment. First reality is companies of any size get hundreds of resumes a week. Second, state and federal laws require retention and fair dealing [or at least the appearance thereof] of applications. Third, HR is a low value cost center function for most companies.

    The response to those realities force corporations into to two options —

    1) HR decisions are programmed, literally. Any good size company uses a HR based system. They have to, to manage the flood of applicants they get. Manager comes to HR and asks for a certain skill set. They punch in the relevant data and out pop the resumes of those skills. Now if HR has ‘needs degree’ for all applicants then you as a whiz bang analyst will never show up.

    2) This is a market driven situation. In any given environment when the ecology morphs that there is sufficient resource that demanding that resource does not hamper the ability to acquire the same then the resource becomes a requirement. That is why ‘degrees’ are demanded by HR depts. Its not that the degree qualifies one for the position. But the fact is there are sufficient applicants WITH the degree that from that pool they can find somebody.

    Not kind words I know but that is the lay of the land these days. No use worrying about it, just adapt.

  • http://www.rustydelux.com jey_lux

    I don’t have a degree.

    I am happy.

    I think degrees are important for some jobs… like a medical doctor. that’s not something you want them learning in a hit or miss style.

    but, programmers, and lot of electrical, and even mechanical engineers (depending on what field they’re in…) can be pretty good.

    You learn a lot of stuff in college that gives you more “well – rounded” concepts. I’ll be the first to admit that the guys who went to school know more “stuff” about “stuff”. does it help them be a better coder? not really.

    Experience is really important too I think. As much as I would like to say “oh if they require a degree, then I don’t want to work for them…” that’s not always really the case. I can think of two places I would love to work, and I can’t. But.. that’s my choice, and my life.

    Would I waste my time going back to school now? Probably not. Do i get paid less than someone with equal skills? Probably..but age wise i’m 5-7 years ahead of people (career wise) than people of my own age. Will they make more than I do in 5 – 7 years? Yea, probably, but hopefully I will be too. I also saved a lot of money by not having college loans… so i figure that offsets.

  • http://unbracketed.org/ Brian Luft

    I agree with your sentiments and encourage you to keep fighting your fight (if that’s the point here). I know that you are making an impassioned plea and so your arguments are probably purposefully a little one-sided. I think it is unfortunate that someone would not be considered for a position solely on the basis of not having completed a college education. You seem to be focusing on larger companies here and I do think there are valid reasons why hiring managers would shun candidates without a degree. In short, it’s purely a numbers game. People with a degree are more likely to possess the qualities that will make them successful their business.

    I went to a small liberal arts school so it could be that my opinions aren’t representative of the larger college ecosystem. To be sure, there are people I went to school with who I would never hire myself, nor would I want to work with them even though we both have the same fancy tuition receipt. But on the whole, most of my classmates probably are those types of people. You said it yourself – colleges are a business. Everyone I went to school with was selected by said business because the university felt that they were the type of person who was most likely to embody the principles and ideals of the university. If a university is to grow and maintain stature then they have just as much desire to build a quality student body as they do a quality faculty. So just by very nature of having attended a college one can say that a candidate is more likely to bring desirable traits to the table. By not having gone to college, a candidate is already “behind” relative to the degree carrying candidates. Even worse, it can be assumed there is a possibility that the candidate applied to colleges and was not accepted which would seem to indicate a high risk factor.

    I agree with you that having a degree is no guarantee that someone is well educated or well rounded, but again it would seem to imply a high likelihood. I think you are shortchanging the college experience a little by narrowing it down to: Can I read and understand something from a book? While this is certainly a large element of college studies, there are many other facets to college student life that contribute to the graduate’s experience.
    Being a college graduate shows that you can prioritize and meet deadlines.
    You’ll probably have to make a number of presentations in front of your peers.
    You’ll probably be asked to think critically about and present your views on a wide array of topics.
    You’ll probably have had to work in groups with people you don’t know to accomplish projects.
    You may have participated in one or more campus clubs or organizations.
    You probably went to or participated in cultural events that introduced you to new art forms or different ways of thinking.
    You were probably surrounded by people of varying ethnicities, personalities, political leanings, or behaviors and your own beliefs and personality were probably challenged.
    You probably had positive experiences with someone who at first you might not have expected to.
    You probably had negative experiences with someone who at first you might not have expected to.
    You were probably in a somewhat sheltered environment like dorms or campus housing where you didn’t have to worry about many of the pressures of the adult world like bills, shopping for food, transportation, etc. You had time to experience things away from the influence of your family.
    If you got good grades, you were probably exposed to academic competitiveness and you demonstrated that you are not only to comprehend a vast array of new ideas and concepts, but also that you were disciplined enough to work independently.

    Again, does not having a degree mean that you didn’t have these experiences or don’t meet these criteria? Of course not. Conversely, having a degree is no guarantee either. But on the whole it is very likely that you did. So, if you’re a hiring manager at a big company looking through a stack of resumes, do you really expect that they are going to single out every resume without formal education and take time to do an evaluation on these characteristics? It wouldn’t seem to make sense, given that those resumes representing grads already have a high likelihood of meeting those criteria.

    Certainly as a technical person you must have at least some appreciation for things like actuarial science, stats, probability, etc. Why are auto insurance rates higher for young male drivers? Simply because on a year-after-year basis they statistically account for the highest percentage of accidents. Does that mean that every 18 year old who gets behind the wheel is driving recklessly? Of course not. Is it feasible for insurance companies to conduct comprehensive studies of the driving habits of every young driver applying for insurance? I don’t think so.

    I think the same logic applies to the hiring “problem”. I’m not an HR expert so I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader (a common phrase in college textbooks 😉 to find actual stats on whether non grads represent more risk to companies. We can be sure that there is at least a perception that that’s the case. But without having the degree, you by default become the metaphorical 18 year old male driver. Now this will be a little unfair, but we’re having a nice civil discussion right? I would say that in a sense you are working against your own arguments. By not acknowledging that companies have a priority to give overwhelming preference to college grads you are demonstrating a lack critical thinking. (I don’t believe that to be true, just playing devil’s advocate).

    Whether we like it or not, the business world is often all too much about conformity. You have to check off the same boxes as everyone else if you want to play. Ironically, successful businesses often get there by being unconventional. But the path is never easy. For someone who either chose or was not able to attend college you have two choices. You can be an idealist and accept that you’ll face many closed doors and missed opportunities or you can be a conformist and go get a degree. I applaud you on your idealism and I assume you are doing well enough anyway.

    One more thing – I am interested in these problem analysis abilities you claim. From a non grad’s perspective, what are these common problem solving approaches that we grads all cling to. I’ve been out for 10 years now so I’m a bit hard pressed to think of actions or mannerisms that use in my job or even life that I can point to as a direct product of studying at college. I’m just thinking about times in my classes where I would be asked to explain something or work out a problem, confidently do my thing, and find out that my peers had totally different ideas or ways of approaching the problem. I think that generally there are stereotypes that become evident based on personality types. For example in a Literature class, when talking about a particular passage, the Lit students might key in on emotions, the Biz students see it on black/white terms, the Science students aren’t paying attention because they’re running reactions in their head… But seriously, I was always surprised and appreciate of the many different interpretations/solutions that manifested whenever you brought a collection of different people together. So what are the problem solving patterns that hamper us grads and what are the novel approaches you bring?

  • http://nightschool.near-time.net pTymN

    My brother just got hired in my department based on my recommendation and an excellent interview. He’s starting in the lowest possible developer position we have here, but its a more than 50% pay jump from any other job he has held. I’m a little jealous, because I slaved over a 4 year (more like 6 year) CSC degree. However, I’m very happy for him, and can see exactly what I did and didn’t get out of the degree. Most certainly, CSC degrees aren’t strictly necessary to do a challenging job well.

  • http://www.paulsilver.co.uk Paul Silver

    I have a friend who hit this problem in the UK a while ago. He had many years experience as a programmer, including experience in blue chip companies, but he kept hitting problems with recruitment companies who couldn’t get past him not having a degree.

    After a few months of this, he started looking at buying a degree from America and was looking in to how ludicrous it could sound and still get through the recruitment company (i.e. a degree from the University of Elvis.) Or indeed whether he should just buy a doctorate so he could top trump most other applicants.

    Fortunately he got a good job at a reasonable place that took his experience in to account before he bought anything.

  • J Gruszynski

    A degree is simply an indicator (a Bayesian test, specifically) of talent and ability. Another way of thnking about it is that the degree is a “model” or “*representation* of reality”. It *represents reality* by being a prediction of talent or ability but is it distinct and separate from the reality of whether the holder actually has that talent or ability.

    It’s well established that the human brain is prone to both mistaking model for reality and for having poor intuition for Bayesian false positive/false negative test results. In the case of college degrees, thinking a degree is the same as education is a model-reality mistake and assuming that a degree always indicates talent and ability is a Bayesian mistake. It should not be surprising that any situation the provides a fertile bed for group-think, like a corporation, will also be prone to simplistic thinking that lead to this confusion.

    An excellent book on this subject in general (and others) is Taleb’s “The Black Swan”. You have to get to the end before he starts to gets technical about it. It’s quite readable.

    BTW I have several degrees. I know enough people with and without the same degrees to have seen false positives and false negatives; it teaches you to not be deluded or awed by degrees or the people holding them. I’ve also worked Fortune 20 companies, SMEs and start-ups so I’ve seen the extremes of human organizational pathology.

  • http://blog.joesgoals.com Ian

    As a manager without a degree I’ve been coming to terms with this topic as we recruit new developers. What I’ve found is that the best developers (and computer folks in general) that have degrees often have degrees in areas other than computer science. Likewise someone of the very best dropped out of school to work full time. I can it the “get it” factor. Once you “get” programming (whether you are in school at the time or not) you have two choice: get a full and formal understanding (i.e. college) or start using their new skillz in the workplace. But, for the most part, having a degree is not a reliable indicator of whether or not they “get it” but it may be an indicator of how much someone who does “get it” knows.

    A degree is not a bad thing, but it certainly isn’t the first thing I look for in a resume. What is the first thing you ask? That the whole thing fits on one page.

  • Jeremy E

    In most cases, the degree (theoretically) shows that you were able to complete a task with many steps that takes years to do and requires you to deal with and get along with many people. Those are all skills that are necessary to do well in a big company.

    However, if the only goal is to get past the automated HR software an into an interview, you can easily solve that problem by getting a degree from a non-accredited institution. Usually, you just send them a small fee and a resume, and they give you a degree based on “life experience”. At least that will get you into the interview, so you can explain your situation.

  • http://nyc-dba.blogspot.com Ira Pfeifer

    I’d just like to point out that if you’d been told anything by 99.999% of hiring managers, that would mean that you’ve been interviewed over 100,000 times. Which would probably be more detrimental to your chances of being hired than anything else.

    This may be snarky, but I have an actual point to make. Having interviewed many candidates for technical positions, and being a developer myself, I have a problem with hyperbole in technical terms, such as a figure like 99.999%. When someone tells me they maintained 5 9s of availability for their DBMS, I ask them how they scheduled their maintenance and how often they failed over to their DR/BC environment, because I have yet to work on a system that actually hit that target.

    I’m perfectly willing to interview someone on their terms and attempt to evaluate their merits objectively without resorting to some arbitrary corporate framework. But don’t try to bullshit me, because that will get you shown the door, and right quick.

    As far as the college degree goes, it’s as you say: a filter. I used to look at 10 resumes a week, sometimes more, and those were the ones that got past HR. If I interviewed all those people, I would do nothing else. So you have to pique my interest somehow – either with an interesting skill set, a load of good experience, maybe some certifications (although I’m not a big believer in those, having taken too many MSCE exams myself) or, yes, a flashy degree. You’ve excluded one possible way for your resume to make it to the next round. I don’t care if you think it’s fair, I don’t have time to interview everyone to find a diamond in the rough. My recommendation, if you find a degree to be a waste of time, money, and energy, but still want to get hired at places that might care about such a thing, is to make sure the other pieces of your resume are top notch.

  • Jason

    I think the biggest problem with credentializing is that of the ‘one size fits all’ assumption. There simply is no way to to efficiently know what knowledge a graduate has. Furthermore, you still do not know their practices or ‘experience’ at all.

    Many throughout the ages have said, “There is NO substitute for experience.” I agree with this.

    The problem as I have seen it has been a confusion stemming from the question at hand. The question is, “How valuable is a degree?”

    Knowledge is the beginning, experience capitalizes on this.

    One thing I notice of recent grads is an inability to adapt and fit in with real world requirements. For example, things like revision control, SCM, issue tracking, and estimation. This is why I will take an experienced open source developer over anyone else. Degrees serve to enhance this but only for what they bring to the table.

    The short point is this: Don’t be lazy. Do your research. if you truly are interested in excellence then you will not settle for credentials. Those serve in a similar capacity as trusted sources of information. If you know of a particular program from experience (ironically enough) then you will be able to translate a degree from there into its equivalent knowledge and experience.

    It is hard to measure professionalism but consider the candidate with a degree and that is all versus the experienced candidate without but who attends seminars, conferences, and user groups. If funded themselves that speaks volumes.

    As for the last poster, I agree fully. I just am saddened by it. Laziness by hiring folk translates into lazy quality and productivity. No economy prospers from that.

  • Jason

    Oh yeah, remember that there is a difference between ‘education’ and ‘Education’. I put stock into ‘education’ and the desire to improve by the candidate. A desire to go to college merely to get the degree (i.e. ‘that is just what you have to do’) is distasteful.

    A candidate with a willingness to grow and adapt will not use a degree as their crutch.

  • http://www.josesandoval.com/ Jose Sandoval

    JohnMc, you made my point, in a much more condensed manner.

    The issue is not with the ability of the applicants, it has to do with the market needs. In the mid/late 90s, being a drop out was actually cool: no descent start-up succeeded without a couple of them.

    Things have changed dramatically. The market was saturated with so many fly-by-night technical degrees/diplomas that it was hard to tell who really was experienced and who was not. In other words, every resume out there looked and looks exactly the same. With so many software engineers, a degree requirement was and is just a filtering process.

    Finally, if you are running your own business and are successful, an academic degree is not for you. It also has to be said that a university education should not be taken as just a job getting exercise–it’s not. And if anyone thinks it is, then going to university is a total waste of money and time. However, if anyone wants to play within the corporate world, a degree is silently mandatory. It’s a social thing: you want to work with people with similar backgrounds as yours, and once you are manager/director/VP of whatever, you will be expected to “fit in.”

    I used to think like the original poster, but then I completed my degree. I got tired of explaining why I had dropped out: it was the 90s, it was cool, pre-IPO companies, etc., etc.

    So, if you are young and are already successfully running your own business, screw everyone and their degree requirements. If you are young and want to “fit in” in the corporate world, get a university degree. If you are young and want to expand your mind and become well rounded (for example, know how to quote, or spell, Nietzsche) get a degree–it’s actually a fun experience. If you are not young and running your own business, you made the right choice. If you are not young and want in the corporate world, it’ll be a bit tough for them to let you in–in this case, create a business and get bought by a large corporation, or just get a degree.

    I think everyone who has a university degree will tell you that it is not a waste of time. You really don’t know everything, and will learn even from that guy that keeps asking stupid questions. And if the guy asking stupid questions is you, then you know you are learning something.

  • Jason

    btw, truth is static as it is a logical flaw to infer truth is relative.
    That being the case it is imperative to seek it. Seeking excellence is the drive by which one grows and adapts.

    As the blog post said, some hang their degree on the wall and (paraphrasing) feel they are done. If truth is relative, then they are right as they define their own truth. Asserting they are wrong on any level is therefore incorrect.

  • Mike

    They simply want you to have a certificate of trainability.

  • http://protocolostomy.com m0j0

    Ok, so I’ve read all of these comments, as well as the ones on reddit, and I just want to make a clarification:

    I don’t have a problem getting jobs, and I don’t have a problem with the titles of the jobs I’m up for, or the names of the companies involved. This blog post was really just one person’s perspective on an aspect of hiring that I personally think is kind of dopy — not because it necessarily has affected me — but because I just think it’s dopy. So, please don’t misconstrue this post as “whining”. That certainly isn’t the intent.

    So why write it? Because, while I haven’t been given the third degree about my education in a very long time, I still occasionally hear that these policies and attitudes still exist, and I think that’s interesting… and dopy 🙂 So I wanted to get a broader view of the subject from folks with different perspectives, and I didn’t really know a better way to do that than to start a conversation with… the ether.

    I’m glad I did. I found a lot of valuable bits in the comments, and it helps me see the situation more completely. It’s not likely to have any great affect on my life I suppose, but it might affect someone else’s who stumbles across this post. It would’ve helped me to find something like this around 1993 🙂

    Also, I guess I didn’t give much background, because I was really speaking of the generic case and didn’t mean to focus so much on myself, but I am, (oh, so slowly) pursuing a degree. I’m thinking of shifting majors from computer science to math, or scrapping them both and going for something I can complete more quickly that I still love, like philosophy. Any people working amongst computer scientists with a philosophy degree?

    Thanks all for contributing.

  • Greg M

    Evidence of competent practice is fairly easy to measure from your career history, but it’s much harder for a hirer to measure those less-direct attributes that are also important. A degree provides a lower bound on one’s ability to learn and (less and less each year as you point out) evidence of a background in the theory – and the theoretical lingua franca – of your field.

    You probably have those “other” things in spades, but without the degree it can be pretty hard for the recruiter to assess that. Unless they’re a bloody good recruiter, of which there are vanishingly few (and in which case maybe they’re wasted as one!), they might be quite right not to back their own judgement.

  • http://goonmill.org/ Cory

    I am responsible for many hiring decisions at my company. I vet resumes, do interviews, and choose or vote for the final candidates, often in groups other than the one I’m managing.

    Getting hired by me is easy. You need to:

    1) list on your resume relevant skills. They do not have to be exact skills; for example, I will look closely at people who have used web technology, without requiring that they understand jquery in particular. I will look at people who have used some kind of agile programming language, without requiring that they know Python. People who know jquery and Python will go to the top of the pile, of course, but they must satisfy the rest of the criteria first.

    2) prove to me, on your resume, that you possess all the skills you claim to possess. If you claim to know Ruby, I’d better see one of two things:
    a) a job listing with accomplishments including “Fixed bugs in a Ruby application server”, or “Developed tools in Ruby for extracting data from a BSDDB database.”


    b) evidence that you used the skill in college. I’ll accept “Used Ruby for CS 121c course to develop a C compiler.” Or even “Wrote analytic software in Ruby for my Psychology course.”

    The point is, if you haven’t put the skill into your accomplishments somewhere, you’re either lying or a bad resume writer. Liars and bad resume writers seem to exist in about equal numbers, and I can’t tell the difference just from your resume, so PROOF is my filter. If you list every skill I’m looking for, but don’t prove it, I won’t interview you.

    Now that I’ve seen proof that you possess skills I’m interested in:

    3) Demonstrate, either on your resume, in your cover letter, in a telephone interview or an in-person telephone interview, that you are passionate and interested in the technology position I’m trying to place you in. The work I do is interesting–to me, and to most of the people I’ve hired so far. It’s creative problem solving, with research, and working with smart people. You’ll get more out of it if you enjoy what you’re doing, and I’ll get far more out of you if you care about the technology.

    So tell me one of your hobbies is writing game software. Tell me you subscribe to Python-related RSS feeds. Tell me you wrote test harnesses for your friend’s MUD. Tell me you are always upgrading your Ubuntu desktop because the latest bleeding-edge is so unstable, but it’s okay because you like figuring out what’s wrong.

    I have a college degree from a prestigious university, albeit in Psychology, not in computing or software. It never stopped me from getting the jobs I wanted; and I learned from those experiences, that going to college is “learning how to learn”. But I’ve since refined my view. I was passionate in college about the things I was learning; I was also passionate about learning technology, outside of my degree field. And I have since realized that people learn quickly whenever the subject matter is personally interesting to them, and not otherwise.

    So to get hired by me, you only have to show me that you know a few things about the subject, and that you care about the subject. Do that, and I may not even look at the “Education” section of your resume.

  • http://baseplane.com ryan

    College also helps to broaden your knowledge. I worked through my degree and halfway through my masters at ASU right now. Before I was extremely focused on programming and technology all my life. But something happens when you go to college especially after working for a while (I worked 6 years professionally before I went back, now at 11 and wrapping my masters). I can tell you it has made me an entrepreneur. Before I did not like the business, process or financial aspects or I just didn’t focus on them much. Going back to school keeps you in life-ling learner mode. It is important to have that, kids learn so much because they are in that phase. Adults many times think thier skill or knowledge is some advantage. It can be but really understanding markets, business, natural cycles is probably more important to success than just hard work and skills. I strongly encourage anyone who has been working a long time and felt the limits of having a non-degree to think about going back. Not just to learn your skill again, but to relearn it, look at it from other angles, think about marketability, financial, structure, goals, etc. But most of all to reset your brain to being ready to learn your whole life. You can do this without college, I am just saying it takes you out of your element and your brain shifts into another gear. If you don’t’ go back to school, relearn, learn something new, keep learning. You might as well go back, it actually gives you a fun new task to conquer. But it is all what you make it. You have to go back with your mind set on learning and having fun. If you see it as a drag it will be and you will get nothing from it.

  • http://bjorn.tipling.com Bjorn Tipling

    People who don’t have a degree invariable argue against the value of having one, and those that do will defend what they have. If you were to get a degree you’d find your position change, but then you’d have the same conflict about graduate degrees.

    I’m kind of put off your argument of how college degree doesn’t produce a ‘well-rounded education’ without you having attained a degree.

    I think that companies can successfully hire competent engineers who don’t have degrees that will produce a lot of value, but to argue that a college degree does not add value, that it is not a worthy accomplishment, that it does not increase the competitiveness of a candidate is just silly.

    Why don’t you just go get one and lay your angst to rest.

  • david

    Show me someone with advanced degrees and I’ll show you a big conformist.

  • http://www.hokstad.com/ Vidar Hokstad

    I dropped out of university to start my first company. Years later I did an MSc part time mostly to get the paper, and frankly I found it largely a waste of my time. I _did_ learn some things, but my overall impression was that I learned less in the time I spent on the MSc. than I would have if I’d proceeded as I normally do and learned independently, because I spent so much time essentially proving that I knew things I’d learned ages ago. I see my degree mostly as a proof of some basic knowledge, and of relatively little relevance at the level I’m at, but it certainly has helped me past clueless recruiters on more than one occasion.

  • GerryC

    As I am currently working on a project team that has three people below me (all 5 years or less in the field) with three different educational backgrounds, I’ll share my petri dish as food for thought. I should preface this by stating while I work in environmental remediation and have a BS in my field, on the job training (OJT) has helped many people in my field just as much as a college degree.

    I have one person who has a college degree directly related to the job, one who has a college degree with no OJT and the last has a significant amount of manual labor experience and OJT.

    SUPER SHORT SUMMARY- The first person can roll with the job as it changes, the second kinda gets it and the last person relies heavily on their 3+ years of OJT. The last person sometimes makes incorrect associations based upon past experiences; mainly because of their attitude towards people with college degrees (or maybe the attitude of degree holders towards this person-hmmm…).

    Don’t misunderstand me; OJT can and will do a lot for a person’s skill set. It’s certainly helped me. But it’s all about one’s attitude (something I am eternally grateful to my old roomate for pointing out). If someone has a good attitude going into a task or job they’ll pick up a lot.

    I think the discrimination against non-degree holders in my field comes from a person’s baseline level of knowledge when they start a job. In most jobs time = $$, and if someone has an education that can be held up to a standard, well, they win. So there ya have it. $0.02.

  • Dave

    I think the frustration we degree less tech workers have is that we get paid to think, we solve problems for a living, we see the whole system as one, and after not too long the system leaves the tech world and encompasses the whole business and we see flaws, huge flaws. The first time you work next to an MBA who makes more but isnt more well rounded, isnt more educated and most importantly cant do the same job as well, you get frustrated.

    But looking from the other side of the desk is the best approach. if HR is using degree as a filter, they make one massive assumption that is proven over and over and over to be completely wrong even the opposite of what is true. in the tech field its very dangerous to give weight to a persons degree, in fact, if that is a major component of their CV, you have the extra burden of making sure that education hasnt narrowed their mind. generally universities teach you what to think far more than how to think, so if your job is to solve new problems, you could be in trouble.

    The other assumption made by many people who do hiring and who have degrees is that the rest of us were off partying while they were busting their ass in school. All I can say is that I went to a really hard non party school my freshman year and that was, though ‘hard work’ the easiest year of my adult life. what I did after that to survive and try to prove myself in order to get ahead, was so much harder and far more educational that college ever was.

    It has taken a very long time but has in the end paid off, I took the harder job at every chance, I took the bigger risks, all my experience is hard won, ultimately making me a better employee. I did finally get an AA degree with a lousy 2.0 gpa, too much overtime work to pay for school to do a good job at school, but I just stopped going, it cost too much and didnt have enough value for the buck. Now I make 6 figures and am again contemplating finishing my degree, just to be allowed to apply for jobs at these companies who filter.

    My greatest motivation to do that is that if I can get to the point were I am making the hiring decisions, I can take what I have learned and do a fantastic job at that, I will be able to build a team of the very best minds and keep them, they will get paid more than they are used to and without all that student loan debt they wont be nearly as hungry for more. I will still hire people with degrees but not in the same way as others would, if their only work experience past high school is working for their college off hours, then to me, they are 18 still, and I will give them a job that matches that, if they have really gotten a valuable education and can swallow their pride, they will move up fast, if not, they can go work for a company with a labotomy.

  • Sean

    The best developers I’ve ever worked with did not have degrees. The best managers I’ve ever worked for did not have degrees (and could care less about whether their team had them). I long for the team I worked on awhile back, at a really cool company that was ahead of their time and got sacrificed to the dot-com-bomb and the lack of willing investors after the fact. I worked with the best, brightest team of guys I’ve ever worked with since. Some had degrees. Some didn’t. But, it didn’t matter, because they were all part of the team.

    One guy with no degree (in fact, not even a high school diploma) was hacking electronics. We’re talking about tearing apart various home electronics and breaking out an oscilloscope. I don’t know many computer engineering majors that could actually do that on their own. Beyond that, he can code circles around anybody I know, with or without a degree.

    Another guy has a drama degree, and kicks ass at developing great software and getting it done fast. He also comes up with more creative solutions than anybody I know. He didn’t have to escape from the box, because he was never in it.

    Another guy went to school for vocal talent, and is one class short of having his degree in that. He was writing computer games in the 8th grade on a C64. Now he writes computer games for modern computers, and he was invited to present at a game developers conference by Sun.

    Compare that to the 200 developers I work with now, whom all are H1B’s with degrees, many with advanced degrees, that don’t understand basic database transaction logic or how to write efficient code. I have to train everybody we hire on simple things like when to use PreparedStatements. Nobody had to teach me that, but nobody coming out of college seems to be able to pick these things up on their own. I don’t know why.

    A degree is an accomplishment, I have no doubt of that. I wish I’d finished mine when I was in school, and I encourage everyone to. My college years were the best years of my life, but I spent too much time trying to take the world by storm and didn’t just sit back and and enjoy it. I wish I’d stayed for 4 rather than dropping out at 2. But, at this point, it doesn’t make sense to go back. To go back would mean that I’d either give up my evenings (when I’m spending my time still trying to create the next big thing), or I’d have to quit my job (which has a very bad value for opportunity cost if you’ve taken your econ courses). So, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do it now, and I look back on my not finishing as a failure that hangs over me.

    So, if you’re in school, finish it while you’re there, you won’t regret it. But, if you’re not crazy about going and getting a degree, and you’re a motivated self-starter, study on your own, just do things. Write some computer games. Hack some electronics. There is nothing that you learn at a University that you can’t learn on your own, most likely much faster than in an instructor lead class (because the other students that don’t have your aptitude will hold the entire class up). You can also focus on the things that really count. I took all the Physics, Chem, etc., and I really loved those classes because I find all science interesting. But, those classes have done me not one bit of good in my professional life, so other than for enjoyment, they were an utter waste of time. I’m still glad I took them. Maybe they make me more well-rounded, but honestly, what’s the use of that?

  • Bart

    Well this is a little late coming into this discussion but it still holds true and some may find it interesting reading. I am without a degree. I’ve worked in the aerospace field as a manufacturing Engineer for 34 years. My age is 55. My brothers (older) both hold degrees but me being the youngest was left behind to fin for myself. My dad pasted when I was 12 and my mom became ill when I was 20. So I was left to care for her not to mention I was married. Not looking for sympathy. Just painting a picture. I was never one for structured education (Like Einstein) served no purpose. Although I excelled. It never gave me skills or taught me things that mattered in real life. Remember I needed life skills. I needed to learn how to be a man. College was not the answer. I started my career with a major aerospace company and excelled over an eleven year period from the shop floor to Manufacturing Engineering. Why because I was good. Very good with composite materials and managers recognized this and promoted me. I could out do many degreed individuals. Most times they were useless. When the shit hit the fan they called on me. So in many respects I blame the company for putting me in a position that was so stressful that going to school at night would have been suicide. This always seemed to be the case. Company after company. Some would even frown at the thought of leaving work to go to school or attend family matters. Quality of life and betterment of ones career over cost and schedule was Russian roulette. So after 34 years working for major aerospace companies and achieving many positions in engineering and management and a host of certificates and accomplishments valued in the millions of dollars in savings to companies I have recently been slapped in the face by a company I previously worked (9 years) for but was consumed by another company has rejected me from a position because I don’t have a degree. What a laugh. Shows you just how far removed we’ve become as a society. That’s like telling God that just because you created the world you can’t be allowed to create anymore because you don’t have a degree. That’s like telling Einstein that your theory of relativity doesn’t apply anymore because you don’t have a degree or Bill Gates that all your computer genius we can’t use and everyone must stop using the hardware and software because you don’t have a degree or Richard Branson and Michael Dell. You can see the stinking thinking that exists. If we continue to do business as a society or company we are doomed as a culture. Some individuals enjoy structured education they think in theory alone so what’s wrong with free thinkers? They function at a higher level genius of abstract thinking. I boast an IQ of 130. I’m able to create in my mind before I even put pen to paper. After I’ve resolved all possibilities. Then I create and produce. Thus eliminating problems, road blocks, errors, lost time and money. I’m able to perform on time and under budget again and again. While the college grad sits and contemplates, scratches and figures using all his theories and book knowledge. I’m done. Finished onto my next project. Many college grads are foot draggers, bull shitters, lazy and just plain stupid. They were forced to go to school or get kicked out at home. They’ve achieved a level of incompetent manager. It’s like the people you went to high school with who were the worst trouble makers in school and now there policeman. LOL.
    Individuals that have learned to scrap and claw there way to achieve there goals are more well rounded, grounded and mature adults than any graduate. I wouldn’t change a thing about my career. The best combination of team members I’ve ever had the privilege of participating in was a mix of degreed and non degreed.
    That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. To all you hiring managers that disagree. Your company will eventually fail.

  • Boston Bob

    Well Mojo,

    The way of the world is the way of the world and almost all of these comments I agree with. I don’t have a degree, but bowed out of Northeastern Computer Engineering to accept a position making 48K back in 1993. Since then I’ve moved (4) four times and make 5x that amount. Companies and HR depts. need to realize talent and ability through phone interviews based on warranted resume info. I’ve been spending 2-3 months a year a Borders Books and various online stores reading and submitting quizes/tests to get certifications(thus the 5x more in salary). I respect college folks and understand their opinions- My point of view is “rational finances” Does it make sense to spend $60-180K in hopes to land a job?

  • U.S. Veteran

    What about taking the MILITARY path instead of going to get a expensive piece of paper partying at the local university??? I am currently working with a very big and well known company that has employed me for over 3 years as a contractor. My several years experience working with military schools and aircraft gave me the experience to get into this awesome big-company job. Unfortunately, it has been made very clear to me, that without a degree, I will not ever be hired as a full time employee. I have been doing the job longer than any other contractor that I work with and am undoubtedly the most proficient and knowledgeable, yet, unless some upper management decides to consider degree-less employees i will always be beat out by much less professional and knowledgeable individuals because they have an associates, bachelors or masters degree. I like to joke that I would gladly accept a test or challenge to demonstrate the hunger, wealth of knowledge, and proficiency I put to use WITHOUT A DEGREE against any of my degree or non-degree holder co-workers. Year after year, the full time employees collect substantial yearly bonuses for the work WE do, they take paid sick and vacation time, have great education benefits like FULLY paid tuition, and so on that I don’t get because the company says i “DONT DESERVE IT?” because I don’t have a degree. WHAT?…. I HAVENT EARNED IT YET? I can do this job and do it better than almost all of the current full time employees, but, Because i lack a degree and am not a minority to justify being hired without a degree I have been passed over three times for a hard badge EVEN THOUGH my hands on experience dealing with adverse situations and people from all over the world totals 7+ YEARS.

    Im afraid having a degree is much more preferred to experience even though that seems like the absolute stupidest statement ever…I honestly believe most of the problem is a lot of managers consider you like a right of passage. “I did college so you should have to too” But the answer seems simple to anyone with logic!!!! Who would you want? Someone you know can do the job extremely well and quickly but lacks a worthless piece of paper degree OR someone you have no idea of their knowledge, or work ethic but they have a MBA so they MUST BE A GOOD WORKER. I tell ya, the more I live, the more I am sickened of this world and its stupid STUPID people. Gone are the days where you can work hard, do the right thing, and get ahead in life… at least those days are few and FAR BETWEEN. That’s my degree-less veteran’s point

  • More education than you

    You should have got a degree. You will regret it the rest of your life.

  • corn flakes

    It sucks when ur not qualified bcoz ur not a degree holder. Why not based on the experiences.

  • Sumo Bala

    Sucks to be in india

  • Puneet Kaut

    Mr cory i have a query…. M frm india chandigarh…there’s my frnd …who has completed his bca 1 yr…but he got failed in bca 2 yr twice even if he studied so hard…so he droped college….he is knwlegable skillful…but as we can sy not able to complete his degree…he is working in outbound calling process from past one yr…everybody likes his work…as it happened many times that he was given for being placed at higher postions by seeing his…but when they get to know that he is not holding degree he got rejected for higher postion even if he is able to perform that work more effieciently than those donot hold degree…. As he is not getting any opportunity for good positions just bcoz of his educational qualifications….as that peice of paper of degree matters more and they donot see that he is able to perfrm more more better than any degree holder….so sir do you have suggestion????