Why do you need a degree if you are already successful in IT?


I had an interesting conversation with a colleague about the value of a college degree in the IT workforce. He has achieved an impressive level of his success in his career without a degree. I can relate. I broke into the IT field in the late 90’s when a combination of the Internet bubble and Y2K projects soaked up as much IT talent as the market could provide. The period of time made organizations take chances on talent that they would not have in tighter employment markets. Similarly, my colleague has a very hot skill set in salesforce.com. There are simply not enough engineers with salesforce.com experience and college degrees to fill the current demand. I encouraged him to continue his education and obtain a bachelor’s degree to continue to progress in his career. Interestingly enough he responded by saying he wanted to continue to buck the trend and leverage the fact that he doesn’t have a degree as a point of pride. I thought this to be a curious position. I remember what it was like to not have a degree along with being a minority. I was just as good if not better than my peer in my primary areas of technology yet I was underpaid and overlooked for positions I knew I had the capability to perform. The ability to get beyond the HR requirement for the degree is just one factor. There’s also the value that the education itself provides. I look back on my career circa 2003 when I didn’t have a degree. I had achieved way more success in my career than I had expected I ever would. Both my manager and my wife encouraged me to go back to school. I initially balked at the idea. My raw talent had taken me very far and I my thoughts were, why I should invest the time and money in obtaining a piece of paper to just continue what I’ve already succeeded at doing? I went ahead and registered for school. It took me 6 years to finish my undergrad at DePaul University in their adult program School for New Learning. MastersIt was difficult to balance both work and school. I was in the job market in 2009 and couldn’t imagine how much more frustrating looking for a position at my level would have been without a degree. Having the degree opened the door to positions that would otherwise be unavailable to me. If you are concerned about the costs, it is important to remember that graduates could be entitled to a tax deduction. The guide at https://www.sofi.com/learn/content/student-loan-tax-deduction-guide/ will fill you in on the details. The experience helped convince me that I needed to go even further in my education. I continued my education and received a Masters from DePaul in 2012. I have to admit that the experience helped add aspects to my skill set that I didn’t even realize was missing. I was a good engineer but I lacked skills in business writing, negotiation, public speaking and finances just to name a few areas. The added capability has allowed me to stay employed and compete with some of the best engineers I’ve come across. I now notice in engineers with limited education what my manager once noticed in me. They are generally extremely bright but are not as well rounded as needed in today’s environment. Engineers need to more than technically strong. They have to manage vendor relationships, negotiate SLA’s, create and present business cases for continuing or initiating projects. These are not skills that are easily picked up by reading a technical book and working through exercises in a home lab. Formal education will help enhance the capabilities of already talented technical professionals. It’s funny that not having an advanced education is one of those things that you don’t know what you don’t know.  

Published by Keith Townsend

Now I'm @CTOAdvisor

3 thoughts on “Why do you need a degree if you are already successful in IT?

  1. A very insightful and honest article indeed. I would like to point out that different countries may also have different view on a college degree. For example, Australia in comparison to the U.S. place far less emphasis on a candidate’s education than his/her experience. I would also argue that non-technical skills such as business writing, negotiation and public speaking can also be mastered through other means than a college class – online books, Youtube, toastmaster..etc though one would need to be very pro-active and systematic in gaining those skills individually.

    1. Good points. I agree that many if not all of the same skills could be mastered outside of the formal class room. For me I needed the structured format because, I didn’t have the passion for the other areas to do it independently.

      That’s why I like programs like DePaul’s SNL that allow you to demonstrate college level learning and receive credit through demonstration of the skill.

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