Non-Academic Paths to a Successful IT Career

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It’s no secret that the average U.S. college student graduates with a crippling amount of debt. In 2015, the median student and parent debt for an undergraduate degree was $35,000 per individual, as Jeffrey Sparshott reported in the Wall Street Journal.

However, there’s a growing body of evidence to support the fact that a degree in computer science, though usually listed by employers as “preferred,” isn’t a prerequisite for a successful career in IT. In fact, the 2015 Stack Overflow Developer Survey showed that only 37.7 percent of developers held a bachelor’s degree, and 18.4 percent held a master’s degree in computer science or a related field. An astounding 41.8 percent of developers were self-taught—a number you’re unlikely to find in other professional fields.

Clearly, pursuing an academic degree isn’t a prerequisite to being successful as a developer. So what other options are there available to a motivated self-starter looking to enter IT?

Self-Study

Self-study has long been a staple of the IT field. There are literally thousands of books about programming languages, app development, systems management, etc. There are also a number of established magazines such as PCWorld, Mac World, Linux Journal, .NET Magazine, and Computer World that provide enthusiasts with up-to-date information and useful tutorials. In addition, there are online companies that provide self-study course materials in a variety of developer topics.

Coding Bootcamps

A lot of IT professionals support the notion of complete immersion when it comes to quickly acquiring a foundation of coding knowledge, as well as learning specialty skills. There are a number of top-notch online and/or onsite coding bootcamps that last anywhere from a month to a year and provide participants with the practical skills needed for an entry-level IT position or higher.

Classes

With IT being one of the fields with the best occupational outlook for the next eight years, many job centers are pointing job-seekers and people looking to switch careers in the direction of IT classes. Some are organized by the city’s job center; others are available as night classes or at a local community college. Another option is to look at IT courseware offered as certificate programs as a part of universities’ online extension programs.

Dedicated Yearlong Programs

Some educational institutes partner with tech companies to provide yearlong programs that include practical training, internships, and mentoring. An example is UnCollege, which provides a self-directed Gap Year program.

Online Communities

Interacting with other IT enthusiasts and professionals is key to staying motivated. Plus, it’s a good way to learn from people who are more advanced than you and can help point you in the right direction if you get stuck. One of the most well-known is Stack Overflow, where members can ask programming questions, provide answers, and even get recognized by the community for their expertise. And don’t forget: every time you interact on this site, you’re also building your professional network.

Open Source Communities

Open source software is software that’s freely available and can be modified by anyone without breaching the copyrights of the original developer. While you probably don’t want to dive into this kind of thing when you’re first starting out as a developer, once you’ve acquired some skills, it’s a great idea to study open source programs to see what you can learn from it. By asking yourself why somebody did something a certain way, seeing if you could find a better way, and even adding new functionalities to a program, you can challenge yourself to put your skills to practical, advanced use.

On-the-Job Training

A large number of developers learn their skills on the job. More companies are catching on to the fact that, in order to ensure their people possess the right skills, they’ll have to train them themselves. Many of these jobs require only entry-level qualifications—and candidates can be tested by means of online skills assessments, so you generally don’t have to worry about providing a certificate. Note that employers that invest in talent in this manner are looking for candidates who are a good match for the company culture and who are looking to stay with the company for a long time, so make sure to do your research about the organization. That way, you can determine whether not just the job, but also the work environment is a good fit.

It’s crucial to note that a lot of companies looking for developers aren’t tech companies at all. They can be in a completely different industry like healthcare, natural resources, finance and insurance, human resources, etc. Logically, when looking for an IT person, these companies prefer candidates who possess some affinity with their industry. For example, if you’re managing a new platform for a healthcare company, it helps if you’ve done administrative work at a clinic in the past; or if you’re working on an investment app, that internship you did at a bank five years ago would come in handy. So remember: whenever you apply for an IT job, maximize your transferable skills, since they’re likely to influence your job search in a positive manner.

Finally, in order to be successful in your IT career, it’s key to keep learning. Choose your projects wisely and whenever possible, exceed your employer’s expectations. Extracurricular activities such as maintaining an informative blog, mentoring young IT workers, attending industry events, and even writing for industry publications all contribute to your expertise. Once employers realize you’re an expert, they also realize you can add significant value to their companies. And that’s a prerequisite for a successful career in IT.

 

Richard Wang is an entrepreneur and CEO of Coding Dojo, a 14-week coding bootcamp with campuses in Seattle, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington DC (June 2016) and Chicago (Sept. 2016). Today, Richard leads a team of 70 and oversees the strategic expansion of the business, as well as the long-term vision of the company. Richard is also managing partner at Village88 Innovation Studio, a tech incubator and consulting firm in Seattle, and was recognized in 425 Magazine’s “30 Under 30” list in 2015.

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