Do You Really Need That Computer Science Degree?

Jon Cooper has spent one semester as a computer science major at the University of Florida—and he’s had enough. He’s taking a Java class this semester, he says, and the course has been slow going.


“I could have learned all we’ve learned in three months in about two weeks,” he says. “It kind of sucks.”

So at the end of the semester, Cooper, who has been doing freelance Web development for the last year or two, is suspending his studies and teaming up with a friend to launch a digital marketing startup. If he does return to college, he says, it will be for a business degree.

Cooper’s frustration resonates with many hiring managers at high-tech and software development companies who believe that many computer science programs are not keeping pace with the rapid changes in the real world.

Academia Lags the Real World

“We do see a lot of the computer science curriculum as being very theory-based,” says Meghan Juanarena, a recruiter for Rackspace.

“A lot of computer science programs I’ve seen are quite old-school in what they’re teaching,” adds Matthew Weinberg, co-founder and president of development and technology of Vector Media Group, a Web development and SEO agency. “Sometimes I have found they are very knowledgeable about conceptual things, but not real-world problems. The other issue I find is that a lot of computer science courses or programs teach languages or skills that are outdated.”

Weinberg says most of his employees have degrees in the liberal arts, humanities or general sciences. When hiring, he says, he looks for ability and potential.

“The first thing I look for is, if you show initiative on your own to learn new things, and if you show that you spend some of your free time trying to learn that stuff,” he says. “If they do, it means they are apt to keep up with new technologies going forward.”

Officials at Rackspace say they still get much of their top entry-level talent from computer science programs at universities, but say that many of these recent graduates have gone out of their way to learn new languages and do projects that will enhance their competitiveness.

What we’re looking at is, is this candidate smart enough to learn?” says Basharat Wani, a director of software development at Rackspace’s Blacksburg, Va., office. “If they are smart enough, we have a very open mind.”

“The professors are on to the fact that the curriculum doesn’t necessarily support students 100 percent to be ready for tech companies and have come to us about things they can incorporate into learning” in the classroom, adds Juanarena, who mostly recruits at Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, James Madison University and Radford University. She says Rackspace frequently suggests projects to the professors and offers internships to students. In turn, the professors encourage the students to work on side projects outside the classroom.

Degrees Still Demanded for Some

But several other recruiters say their clients demand degrees in computer science for certain IT positions. If you’re looking to get a job as a Web developer or in some other relatively narrow IT area, they say, you could probably get away with not having a computer science degree. But for more complex positions like software engineering, having a degree in computer science matters to their clients.

“Most of my clients would prefer to hire someone who’s got a computer science degree,” says Steve Kasmouski, who runs the technology division of the recruiting firm Winter Wyman. “In the software engineering world, it definitely matters.”

Onyeka Ezenwoye, an assistant professor of computer science at Augusta State University in Augusta, Ga., says computer science degrees remain relevant in the industry. Although most founders of start-ups don’t have degrees in computer science, he says, many hire computer science degree-holders to run their companies.

They don’t hire people from off the streets,” he says. “Most people think computer science is all about programming. But that’s not true. There are lots of different aspects. Software is really complex. Software is not like a normal product. It’s intangible and much more difficult to manage than conventional products.”

Wani offers a couple of pieces of advice to college graduates looking to make careers in IT or software engineering: Take on complex, challenging projects and learn things like Open Source that make you attractive to employers.

“We’re looking for talented people with a good, strong grasp of learning or who are smart and can learn fast,” he says.

Image: Sin diploma [Wikimedia Commons]

18 Responses to “Do You Really Need That Computer Science Degree?”

  1. RE:” Take on complex, challenging projects and learn languages like Open Source that make you attractive to employers.”

    There’s a language named “Open Source?” If so, could some one point me to a link that describes this?

  2. WA State

    In Washington State, specifically King/Snohomish counties you definitely need a 4-year degree for probably 95+% of the jobs. And, on top of that 3+ years of experience. So, while one might argue that CS programs are not keeping on track with innovation and new developments in tech; industry needs to push back on them and let them know why they are producing grads who don’t have the up-to-date tech knowledge and skills they need in employees.

  3. joshuakemp01

    I’m switching careers and am trying to do just as the article says: To learn an open source language (in my case RoR) or go for a CS degree. In my case I’m a single income household, I work full time as a Farrier and support my wife and 2 little kids. I felt like my best, most affordable, and able to fit into my schedule would be to learn on my own, so I decided to study a minimum of 3 hours per night after everyone went to bed and hopefully in 6 months or so I can be good enough for a Junior Developer position. Any advice or encouraging words would be much appreciated, If anyone else is in the same boat, I blog daily at :

    • I have two questions, and a suggestion, for you:

      Why are you interested in switching careers? More money? You love computers? They won’t love you back, and if you are a relationship oriented person neither will the introverted ITers.

      Why did you select RoR as the skill to learn? Why not C? Java? Python? Perl? Or one of the other languages that exist?

      With all due respect, I suggest you eliminate the black background on your blog. When was the last time you saw a book with dark pages and light text?

      • joshuakemp01

        Hey thanks for your input and feedback about my blog. To answer your questions:
        I’m getting out of shoeing horses because I got kicked pretty bad this last year and broke my pinky, then my thumb. With 2 kids I realized that I want something that is less risky, I also bore very easily and the horseshoeing profession is not constantly changing, providing new areas to learn.

        I have a very good memory (some say photographic), I like programming (what little I know), and I love learning and learn fairly quick. As to why I picked RoR: I had originally picked C# and the .NET framework and spent $1,000 on this online course and soon found out that if I got stuck there was basically no help. I tried Python, then I heard about RoR and decided to look into and really loved it, so right wrong or indifferent that;s how I came to be where I am at. Thanks for your thoughts:)

      • Joshua,

        Ouch. I was once stepped on (foot) by a horse but never kicked. Cripes.

        If you bore easily you will need to seek a position that allows you to continually learn new skills; perhaps even re-write existing code in the latest fad language simply because it interests you.

        The (sad?) truth is that IT is like every other job; lots of repetitive, rote, tasks. Unless you are BRILLIANT, and very fortunate to end up at a major player, you will not change the world or develop the next killer app. You will write programs that process dull data. You will maintain existing programs that process dull data. Those programs might be “web based” front-end data gathering routines that create a file for a different not-very-exciting program to process, or they might be programs that process the information already stored in a database. You will deal with ITers, users, clients, and bosses who will kick you for no apparent reason. Your most important talent/skill will be how you deal with people; excellent “soft skills” are a rare trait in technology and unless you are brilliant your lack of those skills will be a severe handicap unless you have no interaction with people.

        Finally, the chances of “getting rich” are there but so are the chances of being the next Justin Bleeber, or Punk. So, there you go. Enter the field because you enjoy it, not because you think it’s the yellow brick road. I wish you success in your endeavor. Feel free to contact me via the email listed in my replies.


  4. Schools will ALWAYS be behind unless there is a sugar-daddy (or mommy) funding the latest and greatest. Furthermore, today’s latest and greatest is likely to be tomorrow’s legacy.

    If a person has the “technical ability” to learn, it will not matter what language is being used; that person has proven his/her ability to learn and utilize. Oh, that’s right; the tech comps want ability AND knowledge AND experience.

    I laugh(ed) when I read about the open minds, and search for ability to learn; there are many un(der)employed “knowledge workers” with proven ability who can’t even score an interview, much less a job.

    • oregon111

      the idea that if you can program in one language, you can quickly learn another is bunk…

      unless you have a background in CS — otherwise, you will never be able to build anything quickly and useful that doesn’t look like a second grader’s coloring project (I mean both gui screen and code)

      it is common knowledge that you cannot teach mainframe programmers anthing object oriented

  5. My background: degrees in Engineering and Comp Sci – 1971. Programming for 41 years.

    Do you ever hear someone say: “I think I’m just going to skip med school and become a doctor, it’s taking too long to learn a bunch of facts I could learn on my own.” Or the same for a lawyer or a CPA, or an engineer that wants to design bridges?

    College (19th century and before) was meant to give you a foundation of knowledge and discipline. So when you got out into the real world, you would have the ability to solve problems, and find answers, perhaps by independent study. They were preparing you to be flexible, for a wide range of jobs – whatever opportunities life offered.

    In contrast to a VO-tech (many in my area are referred to as “high school with ashtrays” or “clown college”) where you learn a to use a very narrow tool (probably a canned curriculum from AppDev).

    So when you ask: “Do I really need to go to college for a Comp Sci job?” My answer is NO. No you don’t. This is because programming (in general) is no longer a white collar job, nor is a prestigious job, nor is it a job for great advancement, and if things go as they have in the last 20 years, you won’t be employable after you’re 40. American management has worked very diligently to dumb down all jobs. This makes you instantly replaceable.

    When you’re 40, and undesirable, or being outsourced (maybe folks from another planet?), maybe then you’ll need that college degree?

  6. Let it go guys. You can offer every excuse to learn this or that language. The end result will still be the same. Your job will be outsourced and you won’t be able to feed your family. No matter how much you enjoy programming don’t you dare do it. Not if you care about you family. DO NOT DO IT!!!!

  7. I was curious if you ever considered changing the structure of your site?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or 2 pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

  8. I’ve been a software developer for 6 years now and DON’T believe a CS degree is necessary. Sure, the knowledge is nice and the degree helps you get a foot in the door. But in the end, the skills required to code can easily be learned at home or online now. The only thing you really need is passion.

    I have a friend who’s contemplating switching careers to programming (with no degree). Check out my response and tips to him in my post

  9. padma kumar

    Hi guys,
    I am in US now. However in India every single guy from the village is fascinated by programming and since they are so very poor they are willing to die to learn it. 90% of programmers in India are from these villages who start off on a $100 monthly salary and he is happy to survive in that. He learns so fast that within a few years he reaches he proficiency of a top programmer. He just requires a program architect. Can US software people survive in $500 a month. This is the reason why companies have to outsource. These people cannot be insourced since they do not pass IELTS tests for English language. A catch 22 situation.