College Degree for IT?

Hey everyone! From time to time, I get asked this question a lot. Is a college degree necessary to get an IT job? The short answer is no, but I want to share a few bits to get you thinking. Of course, I cannot tell you to go to college or not, but I want to lay out both paths of life for you. Just for background, I did go to college. My family was not wealthy so I had to work a part-time job to pay for college as well as take out student loans. I ended college with $20,000 in student loans, however, I was able to find a job paying $50,000 a year as soon as I graduated because of my degree and expertise. I changed my major 3 times, the first 2 majors had nothing to do with IT. I attended UCONN and declared my major as Exercise Science. I decided on exercise science because I had a few injuries from playing sports in high school and I really wanted to help people nurse those injuries back to normal. I quickly found out I hate the sign of broken bones and switched to my second major, Business Management. I needed to pick something because I had no idea what to choose. So, I went with the most generic degree there is. While attending college, my part-time job was working at Apple doing technical support. It didn’t occur to me until my junior year of college that I can use my love for technology and business sense and make a career out of it. So, in my junior year I switched my major to Management of Information Systems (MIS). Now every college teaches this major differently, but it was the closest thing to what I wanted to do in life, be around technology and help people. One thing I failed to mention is that I transferred to 2 different schools for various reasons. I will save that story for another blog post.

Argument for Going to College

I will start off by saying this, college isn’t for everyone. It is also not for every type of job that is out there. In relation to Information Technology, college can be extremely crucial. College mainly teaches students how to research. I can’t stress this enough; the essential point of IT is to resolve problems in a timely manner. Knowing how to break a problem down, find relevant information, and apply this information to create a solution will make you a better IT professional. Doesn’t matter if you are working the helpdesk, programming, or a network administrator. Solving problems without the company or client losing money will make you a top tiered professional. College teaches students this skill by forcing students to write multiple page research papers on case studies. A case study is a particular instance of an event that is well documented and used for analysis. Doing this sort of workload allows the individual to become more analytical. For example, I took an Information Assurance class which required us to write a 10-page paper on any data breach we wanted to study. Our job was to read the case, document everything, and then come up with how the company could have avoided the data breach. By document everything, I mean, document EVERYTHING. From the organization chart (how the company is structured, who answers to who), the companies physical security of their office, how their network is structured, etc. Believe me, I hated every second writing this paper. However, it taught me how to analyze multiple pages of documents, break down the problem, and find out how to prevent a future data breach. The same can apply to computer science. I had a final project where the professor gave us 200 lines of Cobol code and we had to debug each line. On top of that, we had to debug and fix all of the input files so that the code will produce the right output (we were given 75 minutes).

Besides the analytical skills you will build, you will also learn business. Most liberal arts colleges will make you take business related courses such as: Accounting, Finance, Statistics, and Management. Here you will pick up on the vocabulary and manner in which your business professors speak. If there is 1 thing you can take away from these courses, it should be how business people speak. (However, I do encourage learning finance as this will help you in your personal life). 99 times out of 100, when I’ve had a meeting with a manager or a high-level executive about fixing a business-related problem, they’ve never wanted to hear about the technical jargon. My professors would stress this point all of the time. Managers want to know what the solution is, how much does it cost, and how long will it take. I’ve never had an executive or manager ask me for the clock speed of the CPU on the new server. They just want to know if it’s faster than the old one.

Argument for Not Going to College

As I said earlier, college isn’t for everyone and taking out massive amounts of student loans does not sound appealing. However, in IT, there is another way to gain education without the huge college expense and that is getting certifications. Certifications are huge because it is a better validation to companies that you know your stuff than some person who just graduated with a college degree. There are certifications for Helpdesk, Networking, Security, Vendor-specific, the list goes on and on. Certifications are not cheap, usually around $200-$500 per exam plus any study material expenses. Some certifications, like the CCIE, are over $1000. Companies who value certifications over degrees are often technology-specific companies like Google. You may even find a local IT support company that has required certifications for their job postings but mention nothing about formal education. Tech companies know that certifications are very difficult to get and thus weed out applicants. Also, all of the high-paying tech jobs require a certification to show mastery, so us college educated folk are a step behind. Now for non-tech corporations like the one I work for, they won’t let you into the interview room without a college degree. Usually you’ll see a job posting that says “Required: Four-year degree in computer science or related field, Optional: CompTIA A+”. If you do your research, you’ll know that the A+ certification has little to do with computer science, but that just goes to show that non-tech companies prefer degrees.

Now there is one career that does not require a certification or degree and that is programming. Before I get backlash, I would like to say that having a computer science degree or related degree will help you immensely. However, there are a ton of companies (startups included) that will hire anyone who can demonstrate they know how to code due to the amount of unfilled positions they have. For example, there are a ton of web developers who are self-taught and can easily find a programming job. Now this isn’t to say that anyone can just waltz on in the company and code. Coding can be very difficult and is not for everyone. If you can demonstrate that you know the fundamentals and get passed the technical interview, you are golden. Will you get paid the same amount as someone with a computer science degree? Most likely not. I’m just here to share with you that there is always an avenue to getting a tech job. I have friends who’ve self-taught themselves JavaScript, HTML, Python, etc., and they’ve either found jobs easily or they’ve become freelancers and work at their own leisure.

Extra Thoughts

College is a great tool to put on your resume. It can show determination, sacrifice, and intelligence. However, IT is that rare field that does not require a degree to get a job. Certifications have the ability to open more doors than for someone with a piece of paper from a college no one has ever heard of. If you want to go down the IT Manager or Systems engineer route, my recommendation would be to go to college if you can afford it (or get a crappy job to help you pay for it). The best scenario would be to go to college, get a tech related part-time job, and see if they will pay for a certification or tuition. This way you have the experience, a degree, and a certification. If going to a four-year college is too much money, try attending a local community college so that you do not break the bank. Often, the professors that teach at the four-year school also teach at the community college. So, in actuality, you are getting the same education. If you want to go down the programming route, college may not be necessary. There is nothing wrong with finding free courses online and teach yourself programming. Will a computer science degree help you? Yes. Do you need it? Not necessarily.