Do You Really Need a Computer Science Degree?

Keyboard photo by Faruk Ateş / Flickr.

(Options beyond a degree are important. Flickr photo by Faruk Ateş)

Most electronic devices use software and most businesses are backed with software, whether on computers or in the cloud. All this requires software and web development. The good news for programmers? There is no sign of computer-related job shortages.

“Software drives Amazon recommendations, the auto-complete suggestions and corrections as you type, banking transactions, the Mars Curiosity rover, and stock trades,” says Jacob Gulotta, a 28-year-old server developer at DoubleDown Interactive in Seattle. “Software is used extensively in research for simulations. You can pick almost any aspect of the modern world that isn’t completely mechanical and there will be a software component that requires a programmer somewhere [who] wrote the code.”

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Seemingly every device needs computer software, and companies need websites and apps — and the developer to write it. But does every programmer need a computer science degree?

“I had very little formal education in software, taking three or four introductory classes in college,” Gulotta says. “Most of what I know is from reading books and whatever I can find online as well as from peers, both in discussions and from looking at their code.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs in computer science fields will be some of the fastest growing over the next five years. But the BLS also predicted a large gap — as large as 39 percent — between the number of students earning computer science degrees and the number of projected annual computer science-related jobs.

Gulotta says earning a computer science degree can be a wise move, but isn’t necessary and isn’t the route he took. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 2008 with a bachelor of science in engineering management. He says getting hired as a programmer without a computer science degree takes some work. But being a good programmer takes work, too.

“It can be done if you learn on your own and demonstrate to the potential employer sufficient knowledge and ability equivalent to what’s expected of a college graduate, like maintaining a public portfolio of projects,” Gulotta says.

Dmitri Cherniak

Dmitri Cherniak

It’s those kind of portfolios Beaconreader.com co-founder and CTO Dmitri Cherniak, 25, will be poring through soon.

To date, he has been the primary force in building and problem-solving the code for Beaconreader.com, which debuted seven months ago. But growth has made hiring additional developers a priority. Beaconreader.com is a crowdfunding site he, along with co-founders Adrian Sanders and Daniel Fletcher, created.

“I am what you call a ‘full-stack’ developer, which means I can comfortably work anywhere on the technology stack — design, front-end, back-end, etc,” Cherniak says. “I was originally a back-end engineer but was forced to become sufficient across the whole stack because we didn’t have any money to pay a designer or front-end developer to work with us for a long time.”

He says he is on the hunt for people, like him, who are comfortable tackling several different parts of the site. He will bring in more specialized employees later on.

Cherniak’s search won’t necessarily focus on people with computer science degrees. For him, the only time a computer science degree would be a primary concern in the hiring process is if the candidate was from outside the United States, as work visas can require advanced degrees.

“People without degrees but [who] have good portfolios, good references, and good open source work are definitely in the running,” Cherniak says. “Having a Github profile with code examples is a really great way to show off what you can do. I’ve seen tons of people without CS degrees who are already, or have become, great developers and engineers.”

He says people who are technically savvy and willing to put in the work can learn as much about computer science online as at a university. He says one of the few things a university can do that online learning hasn’t proven well-adapted for is forcing people to work together and complete group assignments.

Universities Are Very Pricey for Little Advantage

University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh computer science major Joe Roskopf, 22, says there are definite pros and cons to diving into a career without a degree. Roskopf says a person without a degree could lack some structure and design standards, but at the same time people will plop down $50,000 or more to learn things at a university that are readily available on the web.

According to U.S. News’ annual college rankings, the University of Wisconsin is among the top school systems for computer science degrees in the United States. Others include Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Carnegie Mellon University. Many college programs cost students about $35,000 in debt, according to Fidelity Investments’ Cost-Conscious College Graduates Study. Carnegie Mellon’s program costs as much as $64,000.

Roskopf says because of the emergence of online tools, it’s a skill anyone can develop when they chose. And it’s not just for the hardcore nerds or the ultra-intelligent.

“I think that trend is certainly on the path to changing for the better,” he says. “Let’s say you don’t like your stock camera app on your iPhone/Android phone. It’s certainly not as difficult to go out and make your own camera app as most people would think.”

Gulotta says earning a degree may not make someone a good programmer.

“Programming is a skill and, like any skill, becoming a good programmer takes time and practice, requiring dedication. Expect to put in hours upon hours of work, even with a computer science degree. A degree equips you with a general knowledge of how computers work and a set of tools that can be applied through programming to solve problems. But having a hammer, nails, and a saw doesn’t mean you could build a quality chair,” Gulotta says. “A person can expect to struggle and to be quite bad at the start, but to improve over time, like learning to play an instrument. Never stop learning. Seek out new things. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Experiment on your own.”

Jimmy Alford is a journalist deep in the heart of Texas. You can see his other work at www.txprophotog.com.

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Comments

7 comments on “Do You Really Need a Computer Science Degree?

  1. Thanks for the nice article, I just have a question please: what if you are a good front-end developer, and always striving to be better, but you want to continue a Master degree in Business that related to the IT, what do you think about that ?

  2. Whilst you may not need a computer science degree to becoming a programmer, I think getting a degree in anything (computer science, art, engineering or whatever) is usually something well worth considering for a heap of reasons not mentioned in this post, including: it’s fun, you may well make some life-long best friends at uni, it teaches you how to learn and what ‘learning’ something really means, you can say ‘I’ve got a degree’ afterwards (something employers often quite like), it often gets you extra points when applying for visas to live or work in other countries, and it makes your parents very very proud!

  3. I was frustrated with my degree program. I’ve learned more on my own through Treehouse, Meetups, and CS50x.tv. I had a class on Adobe Illustrator where the instructor barely knew how to use the software.

    I stopped going my senior year. I’m now the Lead Developer for my company. Learn what you need to learn and get really good at it. Portfolios trump resumes.

  4. Another great article. I am currently in a degree program at the Art Institute and one thing I’ve learned is that regardless of the program, school, or content you need to get out there and make a name for yourself.

    I’m expected to graduate with my associates in 2015 but I already have a position with starting salary at a blues record label. When I applied they required a college student, but after the interview they did NOTHING to verify my attendance.

    When your good at what you do it’s all about working for your opportunities and making connections. Who you know can be crucial when landing job in any field.

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