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Is a College Degree Necessary To Find A Tech Job?

Photo by Gerd Altmann: https://www.pexels.com/photo/success-text-21696/

It used to be that having a college degree was a necessary thing to getting a job in software development. This was especially true at the “entry” level of the spectrum. Oftentimes it didn’t really matter much what that degree was in. It was just “required” that you have one. But is that still the case in 2022? Thankfully, in most cases, the answer is: No.

Don’t get me wrong. Some companies still keep a stranglehold on doing things the way they’ve always done them. These companies are collectively known as dinosaurs. They live in the past and they are usually either very big, with a huge bureaucracy (i.e. HR department), or they are owned or run by someone who can’t let go of the past (i.e. an old dude who likes to start stories with “in my day…”). These are the same companies that are currently demanding that developers and engineers return to working onsite in the office, because “reasons”. And in today’s world, these are companies that are struggling to get and keep talent.

What Do I Need?

That’s the question, isn’t it? For non-entry level jobs, the answer is easy: Experience. For entry-level positions, the answer is also easy: Experience. “But wait a minute,” you say. “It’s an entry-level position. How can someone applying for an entry-level position have experience?”

Well, the answer is, it really hasn’t changed at all. The difference between the past and the present is that 20 years ago, the only acceptable “experience” for most companies was a college degree. Learning is experience. Sure, it’s less experience than working a professional job, but it still demonstrates experience. Today, however, that experience can take many more forms that employers are willing to find acceptable. So what experience can help get you in the door for an entry-level position?

Boot Camps

This is a tough one. Boot camps have both a good and bad reputation in the industry. There are some great boot camps out there. And there are some absolute crap boot camps out there. They operate in a lot of different modes. Costs and requirements vary wildly. Just make sure before you commit yourself to any boot camp that you do your research.

Thankfully, industry opinion of boot camps has steadily improved over time. I’ll admit myself that I used to have an extremely poor opinion of boot camp grads. And if that was the only thing on your resume, I refused to even interview someone for an entry position. As I’ve seen that the camps, in general, have improved my opinion has changed for the better. But you’ll never know going into an interview whether the hiring manager has a good or bad opinion of boot camps, so it’s a crap shoot really.

Charity Work

There are a lot of opportunities to contribute to charitable activities. And there are a myriad of websites dedicated to helping connect charities and developers for needs both big and small. And there are a lot of ways that someone without much experience can contribute. You can create simple web pages, or beta test updates and new functionality, or help update documentation. There are so many different ways that you can contribute to their cause. Just reach out and ask.

Open Source Projects

Just like charity work, there are a ton of opportunities to contribute to open source projects. Github is full of an endless array of projects that are just dying for someone to contribute. It may be bug fixes, testing, new features, documentation, or something else entirely. Plus, working with open-source projects helps you to see examples (both good and bad) of the kinds of code that other developers write.

But Github provides one other opportunity to help you stand out. There are a lot of projects on Github that are essentially abandoned. This can happen for a lot of reasons. A great way to build your skills is to find one of these projects that interests you, fork it, and then start putting your own spin on it. Just make sure you acknowledge the efforts of those who came before you. Never claim someone else’s work as exclusively your own.

And remember one thing while I’m on the topic of open source. Remember that these projects represent the hard work of people who, 99% of the time, are contributing their own personal time and effort and aren’t getting paid for doing. Never complain about the effort (or perceived lack thereof) that others are putting in. Celebrate and encourage what they have accomplished and look for ways you can help.

Freelance Projects

Every project you work on adds experience. If you can get paid for doing it, so much the better. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be a lot. And it often requires a bit of hustle on your part. But there are many opportunities for freelance work.

One of the things I recommend is to look for small businesses in your local area. See what kind of websites they have. What you’ll find are a bunch of companies that either have no website, or what they do have looks like it was created on GeoCities in the 90s. This is the perfect opportunity for you to swoop in and get them to pay you $200 or something to give their website a refresh or create something simple for them. They get better marketing for not a lot of money, and you get some money and experience you can put on your resume. It’s the perfect match.

Personal Projects

If nothing else, you can create some personal projects. It’s better than nothing. Just remember, it’s better to focus on one or two bigger projects than to have a bunch of tiny one-off projects on your portfolio. It’s great that you can make a calculator app, but a hiring manager doesn’t care about that. Anyone can follow a tutorial and make one in an hour.

Instead, focus on creating something that demonstrates a range of technologies like HTML, CSS, user logins, an API, creating and retrieving data, and so forth. If you want them to take it seriously, make it something that serves a need. Make it something that, given a bit more time and effort, could be a marketable product.

Yeah, you could do that with a calculator app. But if you’re going to go that route, make sure it’s an advanced scientific calculator that can create graphs, work with variables and tangents and convert between binary, decimal, octal, and so on. Make it something special.

But whatever you create, do what you can to make it unique, something that stands out. You want it to be something memorable that will make the hiring manager stop and say: wow, that’s a cool idea. When it comes time for that manager to pick someone to hire from the list of people they’ve interviewed, doing something memorable will greatly increase your odds of getting hired.

Internship

There’s still the tried and true internship. A lot of companies still do them. Just remember, do not accept an unpaid internship. You’re doing work. You deserve to get paid for it, even if it’s not a lot. Don’t do it “for the experience”.

Conclusion

The market is so much better than it was 30, or 20, or even 10 years ago. So many more managers and companies recognize that a college degree really isn’t a necessary thing. They see that there are many paths to get that experience that they want to see on your resume before they’ll give you that first interview. It’s a good thing to see. And it’s getting better every day.