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.”