Getting Ahead in Tech Without a College Degree


Technology remains one of those white-collar professions where even those tech pros without a college degree can find a high-paying job, so long as they demonstrate ambition and a willingness to learn.

But on a tactical level, how does one actually enter the tech sector without a four-year degree in hand?

Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that half the techs working in New York City don’t possess bachelor’s degrees. Over the summer, the newspaper followed up with another article that cited a boom in coding, and quoted a waiter who went from a $20,000-a-year job working tables to a $100,000-a-year job as a data scientist after taking a three-month course.

That’s not to say that locking down such jobs is effortless. Automation, which has devastated the job prospects for humans in traditional blue-collar industries such as manufacturing, has also impacted the tech industry; for example, it takes far fewer people to run a datacenter than it did a few years ago. Those people who’ve persisted in tech have done so by absorbing as much specialized knowledge as possible.

Anthony Pruitt, who works at a payroll company, got his start in tech by putting himself around more experienced tech pros. “I had an interest in [tech], he said, “And basically I spent a few minutes every single day walking into our IT department and just asking people, ‘What are you doing?’ And when they would tell me what they’re doing I would ask them, ‘Why are you doing it?’ And eventually people started to see me regularly; it turned into mini-sessions of knowledge sharing.”

Pruitt started at his company a few years ago as a payroll specialist, which included processing payroll for a hundred different clients and sending timesheets to employees. All that time hanging around asking questions paid off: Today he is a support analyst. “I ended up building a rapport because I was curious and then when an opportunity came around I was already in their brain,” Pruitt laughed.

Learning on the job presents an opportunity for those who can’t afford college, especially as the cost of the latter skyrockets. The annual tuition and fees for a private, nonprofit four-year university in the U.S. averaged $31,231 last year, according to the nonprofit College Board; no wonder an increasing number of graduates are frustrated over the size of their school debt. But with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that employers will add nearly 2.4 million jobs that require a graduate or professional degree by 2022, they may feel they have no choice but to take on loans.

A job in tech isn’t guaranteed without a degree of some sort, especially a computer science degree. But making connections, and learning the technology on your own, is a good way to make inroads. If you’re a budding programmer, posting your work on forums such as Github is an excellent way to start making your name known, for example. Remember: job postings put a lot of weight on whatever skills you can demonstrate you’ve mastered.

I work with a young technologist (who didn’t want his name used for this piece) who got his start working for an outside vendor that serviced our office. The vendor assigned him with connecting the computers in the conference rooms; after he demonstrated his on-the-job competency, he was hired on full-time. Now he has an opportunity to move up the ladder in his tech career. “It’s the same basic story,” he said. “You try hard and you get ahead.”

4 Responses to “Getting Ahead in Tech Without a College Degree”

  1. Andy Forceno

    Maybe this article is true for some areas, such as NYC, but I’ve discovered the opposite is the case. I have both Bachelors and Masters degree in Psychology, but I’ve decided to pursue a career in IT because Linux and programming have been life-long passions. I’m finding it difficult to land a job because most want either 5+ years experience or a C.S. degree. Luckily, I am already doing things the article suggests. like sharing things on GitHub and participating in StackOverflow. The story of the waiter gives me some hope. I’m sure I’ll get there eventually, too!

  2. William Parker

    I’ve been in the IT field for 10 years and have noticed that a degree isn’t really necessary. You certainly need to be passionate, willing to learn & improve, and show that you understand a topic or product. Showing an employer that you understand concepts with visual examples (e.g., virtual labs, code) using services such as YouTube, GitHub, and screen recording software could certainly help your chances. In addition, high-level IT certifications are certainly a great stepping stone as well.

    Aspiring Network Administrators/Engineers should obtain the CCNA, CISSP, RHCSA, CEH and MCSE certifications. Aspiring Level 2 Technicians should obtain the A+, Security+, Network+, ITIL and MCSA certifications. Aspiring Developers need to code endlessly, build functioning web applications, push to GitHub and deploy on Heroku.

  3. I know for a fact that you can get into IT without a degree as a matter of fact about 50% of all people in IT don’t have degrees. I have been working in the filed for over 30 years and have moved from one area to another. Help desk, PC support, Manager and Director of IT as well as a database administrator. Not one of those jobs required me to have a degree. Having any college degree can be helpful, but work experience, the ability to start from the bottom up are all things that they like to see. If you are looking into this field, a few courses in the right direction can set you up with a very lucrative career.

  4. I was working in the Accounting department when I wanted to move into IT. I created an MS Access database and used it very prominently whenever somebody was in the department. I quickly became the point person when dealing with the Accounting software vendor.

    My name was on the short list when the IT department needed somebody to take over the Data Warehouse from the original developer.

    Years later, I had developed a website to distribute data from the Data Warehouse. The combination of that website experience (ASP to ASP.NET) and Accounting landed me in my current job.

    I find myself getting ahead based on what I learn and have taught myself, rather than my formal education now.