Do you need a college education to have an IT career ?


One of the most common questions I get from my younger colleagues and mentees is about the value of college education in pursuing an IT career .

In my early 20s, I had one big regret – I did not go to a big name US college to get a degree . My engineering and MBA degrees were from University of Kerala in India . A lot of my friends did take their degrees – some times a second degree even – from reputed US schools . I had some kind of an inferiority complex about that when I started out – but I got over it at some point soon.

Education in India is not as expensive as it is in the US . Four years of engineering college and two years of MBA together cost about $5K including food, travel, hostel and so on . My parents picked up that tab and within my first year of getting a job, I repaid them (They didn’t ask for it ). I got my first job from my MBA campus – and became a consultant in Tata Consultancy Services .

I have always been startled to see how much of a burden the students who take degrees from US carried on their backs as student loans . Most of them have at least $30K loans after under grad and many have $100K+ loans after MBA from a good school . There are very few who get full scholarships and even fewer cases where parents pay for education like back in India in my college days . It takes a very heavy toll on these kids to repay those loans .

To begin with – I never quite understood the rationale behind taking a big loan for a liberal arts degree , especially out of state , given the low demand in employment market . But then – people are free to take their decisions and live with the consequences . I have occasionally seen liberal arts graduates transition into fields like IT later in life , and some are great entrepreneurs . So probably there is a way to make it work .

Which leads me to think – is there a real value in a college degree anymore ?

Sure there is the fun aspect of hanging out with other students and the drinking games and so on . But that fun is negated by the first few years after college with a loan to repay . It can be argued that such fun could be had slightly later in life when you earn a salary or make money from a business .

Looking back – college did not teach me much . My first job was as a programmer – my mechanical engineering classes and financial management classes did not help me directly in writing C and ABAP code . Sure there were occasional indirect benefits like understanding finance theory helping write better code for financial users etc . But there were programmers without that background who also were able to learn it on the job .

Did my MBA help much ? Maybe it did later in my career – after I had a few promotions etc . MBA certainly did not directly help me get any of my promotions either . It is possible that if I took an MBA half way through my career , instead of getting it at the beginning – it would have helped more . But I also think that my career would not have progressed as fast as it did if I took a two year break in between at middle management levels to go back to school . So if I could go back in time – I would have not done my MBA and instead would have started working full time two years sooner .

Without a doubt – everything that helps me in my career today are things that real projects and real customers have taught me . Neither my engineering school nor B school gave me skills to even write a good status report at work .

I probably would still have done my engineering college if I could time travel back to 90s – but that is not because the course work helped me , but only because a 4 year engineering degree was minimal requirement to get a good entry level IT job back in 90s in India . That is not the case today – I have seen plenty of people who can code well get very good jobs without any formal education .

Talking about India in particular – thee is something rather stupid about hiring policies . If IT demand is so high and every branch of engineering sends its grads to IT jobs for the most part, why do they keep churning out as many mechanical and civil and electrical engineers instead of computer science engineers ? Why doesn’t demand and supply match ? It’s a lot less expensive to set up a computer lab than the type of labs traditional engineering needs . And why is it that there is demand mostly for engineers ? Why can’t commerce grads and economics grads learn to code like mechanical engineers do in the first year of their jobs ? I hope the scene has changed in India . Oh before I leave the specific topic of IT in India – why on earth do employees of some companies have to wear a tie to work every day in the hot and humid weather ? Their counterparts in other countries rarely wear a tie and most customers don’t wear a tie . What exactly is the point that their employers are trying to make ?

With broadband access not being an issue unlike when I was in college – there are a lot more options to get a degree at a lower cost today , if getting a degree is a big deal for you .

So is there any reason at all to go to college that I consider a positive ?

There are two –
1. The network you build . The relationships you establish at college will open doors for you for the rest of your life . That alone might make it worthwhile to bear the burden of a hefty college loan . But remember – that network needs work to build and sustain . Just being in a college doesn’t always lead to a good network .

2. Getting the first corporate job . There are plenty of companies who think a college campus is a great place to find entry level talent . So if you choose to go to college – it would help to put the energy into doing everything that would attract the employers who hire from there . This also means that if no one is hiring from there – spend the loan money at another college .

I am not basing this on my own case either – I am also thinking about my experience hiring people over the years . While I admit that a big name college on a CV catches my attention when I do my preliminary reviews – I have never given it a lot of weightage in my final hiring decisions . I put more trust in what they have done in their last jobs and how well their references check out . As far as I can remember , no employer has asked me about my degree or college after my first job interview .

There are always exceptions to all this stuff – but for the most part , I think your chances of getting a break in IT is higher if you do roughly the following

1. Learn to code the soonest you can ( I am partial to C and C++ – but more modern languages might work well too )

2. If coding is not your thing – learn something else around computers like networking . Or get a non IT job and come back to IT as a domain expert .

3. If you don’t have someone like your parents picking up the tab and still want to do college really bad – go In-state and try to do everything to maximize your employability in your first job ( ideally STEM, good grades , side projects etc)

4. Once you code well, get your presence felt in open source communities . Contribute code – and choose a license that works in your interests .

5. The moment you get your first job – do all you can to increase skill levels and start aiming for next level . Get a mentor or two the soonest you can – without that it is hard to know what “next level” even means . Every chance you get , do non-IT things like sales and presales and so on . Breadth matters as much if not more than depth.

6. Learn about how companies are formed and decide if you want to start your own at some point . If you have money to spare for an MBA – consider investing it first in your own venture , or in someone else’s before giving it to a business school . If you make it to the top few B schools – by all means go for it and it will probably help you . But for everything else – think really hard before spending that money .

PS : When I chose mechanical engineering to graduate in , the ONLY reason was that my dad was a mechanical engineer . If you go to college, and need to take a loan to do so – I really hope you have a better reason .

PPS : Unlike my dad who is a terrific engineer , I did not pick up any useful skills in my engineering college . I did pass in the top % of my class though . However , I am proud that one of my class mates from school is a lead engineer for India’s successful Mars Mission . Moral – it is a great university that I went to , I just did not choose my major wisely . I hope you folks choose more wisely .

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11 thoughts on “Do you need a college education to have an IT career ?

  1. If College education is improved by ways of current curriculum and practical industry training is done concurrently, students would learn more. A 4 year Engineering could be made 5 year course with students spending 5-6 months per annum in industry doing a variety of assignments.
    Also Corporates shall be encouraged to set-up Universities/Colleges and this would introduce healthy competition (atleast in India).
    Continuous skill upgrade and new learning is equally important which needs urgent attention.

  2. Hi Vijay – Your thoughts took me back to my uninteresting educational years. The education model is changing with options to a broader education (online courses, home education etc) – similar to the model that existed before the industrial revolution (when the need for assembly line workers resulted in schools with fixed syllabus). Students today have a lot more access to technology and infrastructure.
    Another interesting article – http://nypost.com/2014/01/11/us-education-model-creates-assembly-line-workers/
    Warm regards
    Krishnan

  3. Hi Vijay/Mark,
    Four years in college is important for more than one reason:
    1) Foundation : College education helps one build a strong foundation. This foundation is very critical later on to be able to adapt changes in both career & personal life.
    2) Expectations from life: Earning 6 figure salary may be possible with 12 weeks training program for a teenager. Wouldn’t this lead the teenager to believe that life is easy , making money is not difficult? Is that right? Contrast this with the life she would be leading had she decided to attend college.
    3) Lack of options: Let us assume few years later she believes she had enough in programming & wants to switch her career. With college degree, she probably will have a better idea/options to switch to another career. Without degree, she probably may need to attend college to be eligible for more options. Otherwise her options may be limited.
    4) Friendship: Spending 4 years together in college campus is lot different from working together for 4 years. Linkedin, networking etc is different from college level connections.
    5) When going gets tough: Would one without a college degree be tough enough to get going?
    6) Knowledge: Computer science graduate would most likely write a better program than a person who attended 12 weeks training program. Writing programs to meet immediate business requirements is not that difficult(Cut/paste). But writing quality programs for mid to long term requirements require in depth knowledge of several aspects which even if explained, the one without a college degree may not comprehend. This would be a challenge.
    7) College life: Last but not the least, kids should experience college life. That’s worth more than millions of dollars in my opinion. That life – without corporate influence – is noble.
    By the way, one of my kids just graduated from out of state private college; second kid sophomore in out of state private college. I spent lot of money for them to graduate but I don’t have any regrets. I’m very glad, my family is glad & my kids are very happy. My son, instead of starting his job right after college, decided to take 3 months time off, he went on Europe tour for 15 days with his friends. I supported that ;he probably learned a lot more about life in 15 days than had he decided to work.

    Regards,
    Bala

  4. LinkedIn for me was only one example that toady with positive engagement in community you have so many more ways to make yourself a name, that were not available when they did the study. Therefore the “you go to ivy league school for the network” fell flat on its face 20 years ago and the world has shifted even further away from that perceived advantage.

    • Nah – that is just a social media theory which I am pretty sure doesn’t hold true in real life . how many doors at McKinsey or Goldman Sachs or GE will open through social media channels compared to alumni connections ?

  5. Even the network argument doesn’t hold water. If you compare the success rates of students that would have ben accepted to Ivy league, but choose state schools instead, there is no difference. Required reading Malcolm Gladwell: Getting In http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/10/10/getting-in

    “As a hypothetical example, take the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, which are two schools a lot of students choose between,” Krueger said. “One is Ivy, one is a state school. Penn is much more highly selective. If you compare the students who go to those two schools, the ones who go to Penn have higher incomes. But let’s look at those who got into both types of schools, some of whom chose Penn and some of whom chose Penn State. Within that set it doesn’t seem to matter whether you go to the more selective school. Now, you would think that the more ambitious student is the one who would choose to go to Penn, and the ones choosing to go to Penn State might be a little less confident in their abilities or have a little lower family income, and both of those factors would point to people doing worse later on. But they don’t.”

    This study has been done years ago. With social media like LinkedIn you can develop your network much much easier these days.

    College is a crude way to certify your work qualifications. Today you have many other ways to proof that.

    If you are smart, you go to one of these learn to code in 12 weeks outlets like App-academy http://www.appacademy.io/
    98% placement rate and $100K average salary after school.
    Cost? Nothing up front, 18% of your first year salary.

    When your school friends finish their 4 year degree and have on average $30K debt you will have almost 4 years of work experience as well as made almost $400k.

    Talking about laughing all the way to the bank.

    If that trend holds, the social stigma of not having gone to college will fade away too.

    • Excellent perspective Mark . I tend to disagree on linkedin being more effective to build a network . Linkedin is great to extend a network – but the base needs to be built old school to be useful and sustainable . At least in my view 🙂

  6. Vijay, great blog something I always wanted to write and speak about. But, I learned something recently that explains it better – Indian boys are not finding girls to marry without Master’s degree in the arranged marriage world !
    Today at campus interviews in colleges we have to pay huge premiums to hire computer science students compared to Non CS students but I still see parents tell their kids to take Non CS because programming could be learned on the side. Then they advice kids that they should pursue masters even though they are in hot career fields like BI & Analytics. So, parents don’t always think in the best interests of the kids simply because they are disconnected with reality.

    • I think back home in India we tend not to focus on Point 5 and 6. But i guess the trend is changing nowadays …. Very nice yet very subjective topic.

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