LearnDo You Really Need a Computer Science Degree?

Keyboard photo by Faruk Ateş / Flickr.

Jimmy Alford
writes on April 17, 2014

(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 kinds 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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19 Responses to “Do You Really Need a Computer Science Degree?”

  1. Great information loved to

  2. I do loved reading this article.

  3. eric23 on April 6, 2018 at 1:36 am said:

    You are the best

  4. Rеputable peopⅼe. Hope I managed to tick the five stars.

  5. I don’t think its anyway important to have a Computer Science degree. In this first growing digital world, any person can have good amount of knowledge if he makes sufficient research.

  6. I went through a coding bootcamp (Tech Academy) in Portland, Oregon. Got a solid job doing UX engineering.

  7. I have never done CS or any bit of programming. I am now in a state of really comparing my options. If I do not have to go to University I’ll love to know at least a reliable source that I can learn all the fundamentals and get started. This is where I am stuck. Can someone please help direct me to such link or forum?

    • Chris Jones on November 24, 2017 at 5:00 am said:

      Hey Eli,

      The company that wrote this article, Treehouse, is a wonderful resource to learn about computers and how to code. They have several learning options, but I went through their tech degree program, which is similar to a part-time coding boot camp, and got my ideal job as a computer systems analyst (a blend between a software developer and IT analyst).

  8. Repeatedly (including last week), I find myself interviewed by teams who all/most have CS degrees. As a result, the interviews are often skewed towards–you guessed it–people with CS backgrounds.

    I don’t believe it’s a valid way to assess a candidate for a job, but it *is* a reality in the work world. You can say “you don’t need a degree”, but the real-world reality is that most people developing software for a living do. There are whole area of of software development/engineering largely walled off from self-educated/ non-CS folks, unfortunately.

  9. This is completely stupid. You’ve never needed a degree to be a programmer. Any company that thinks so is basically irrelevant. Google too. If they require a degree, they are missing out on the most talented people out there. My experience with CS degree people is they just aren’t very good programmers. I could explain why but it would take to long. The bottom line is a degree has no relevance on programming ability, and it never has.

    • Faye Bridge on May 12, 2016 at 8:55 am said:

      Thanks for sharing your views Ayush, we really appreciate it and I totally agree. In fact, have you checked out the program we launched this week? The Treehouse Techdegree program is our way of proving to the world that students don’t need to acquire a Computer Science degree to be a developer. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

  10. Valuable information. Lucky me I stumbled upon your web site unintentionally, with this particular stunned precisely why this particular twist of fate failed to occurred sooner! We book-marked it.

  11. This post just made my day. I was in search for such kind of topic since long; finally my search is over special thanks to you. It provides a useful info for the readers. Great work, Congrats!

  12. 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.

  13. Matt McLennan on April 20, 2014 at 8:30 pm said:

    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.

  14. 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!

    • Chris Jones on November 24, 2017 at 5:53 am said:

      The topic is whether you should get a CS degree to be a programmer, not whether you should get a college degree in general.

      College degrees open doors for you because employers often have a requirement that applicants need a college degree of some kind at least. I’m not saying it should necessarily work like that as I think you can get quite far learning outside of a traditional academic environment today. Nonetheless, that’s how things work in the marketplace.

  15. 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 ?

  16. Daniel Ramirez on April 17, 2014 at 8:56 pm said:

    Thanks for the information!

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