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Does Formal Education Matter in Tech?

Formal education in tech


What do Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs all have in common, other than running the most successful tech companies in the world?


None of them finished college.


Tech has always clashed with business norms. It’s a space for the innovators, the visionaries and the rebels. Billion dollar ideas are just as likely to be born from a musty garage as they are a legitimate institution.


Even hackers can have lucrative freelance careers for their services. After all, cybercrime is a $445 billion industry, not that we want to encourage participation in the dark web.  


The point is—there is boundless opportunity for those with the talent and determination to seize it. The tools and knowledge required for success in this industry aren’t necessarily things that are taught in a classroom.


In fact, even the best educational programs can’t keep up with the trends. By the time a computer science student graduates and hits the job market, everything they learned might be outdated.


It all begs the question: Does formal education matter in tech?


Creep on creepin’ on


The educational history occupies so little space on a resume. However, for many employers, it carries tremendous weight.



The level of education, the prestige of the alma mater, scholastic performance and awards—these factors matter a great deal in the job market. More employers than ever require a bachelor’s degree for jobs that don’t need it.


For example, a Harvard Business School report found that nearly 70 percent of job postings for a production supervisor in 2015 require a four-year college degree.


Here’s the kicker though: Only 16 percent of workers already employed in that occupation had one.


This phenomenon is called the credentialism creep, and it’s making our entire job market inefficient. There’s so much untapped talent because many employers refuse to consider candidates without bachelor’s or advanced degrees.


Obviously, it’s unfair to the millions of Americans who could never afford to go to college. What many employers don’t understand is how much it hurts them, too. Companies forgo hiring trainable, diligent and loyal candidates at a fraction of the cost it takes to employ someone with a college degree.


Employers have all hopped on the credentialism bandwagon, but few actually see the benefits. In fact, only 42 percent of employers feel that graduates are adequately prepared for work.


The good news for current and aspiring tech professionals is that employers in the field are beginning to diverge from this phenomenon. They have other means of assessing candidates’ capabilities.


According to the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google Laszlo Bock, “The best predictor of how someone will perform in a job is a work sample test.” Cognitive tests are the second best predictor.


Innovative companies are using a more skills-based approach to hiring. Instead of expecting candidates to tell their hiring managers what they can do, they want to see it for themselves.


Problem-solving tests, IQ tests, coding boot camps—these are some of the alternative measures companies are using that have proven effective for sniffing out top talent.


Is tech too cool for school?


Though the tech industry isn’t totally immune to the credentialism creep, it seems that some of its leaders are sidestepping it.


Silicon Valley innovation drop outs


That said, it’s still up for debate as to whether or not formal education should be required in the field.


Tech may be more lenient than other industries on formal education requirements, but there’s no denying that IT professionals with degrees are more marketable. Most managerial and other upper level roles require a master’s degree, but for software developers it may not be quite as necessary.


Our Technical Account Manager Eric Nelson notes, “Most clients will take talent over education.” Many employers just care about whether or not the person can get the job done.


However, it still depends on the role the person is vying for and where they are applying, especially since many open IT jobs are at banks, insurance companies, hospitals and other more traditional organizations.


For anyone who doesn’t have a bachelor’s or advanced degree, there is still opportunity in tech, but the absence of higher education may hinder them from progressing to a higher-level role or negotiating better pay.


The most important thing IT professionals can do is cultivate the skills that are in demand and never stop learning, whether that learning takes place inside or outside of a classroom.