Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Michael Dell. Mark Zuckerberg. Paul Allen.
Aside from being innovators in the tech world, these tech leaders share something else in common: all dropped out of college before becoming the names we know today.
Although these trailblazers may make wild success seem possible without a higher education, receiving a formal degree may still represent your best bet for a successful career in tech. As the tech industry has grown over the past few decades, companies have become more rigorously structured—as have the educational requirements for employees.
“The way that everything has kind of trended in the last fifteen years has lended itself to not have people like Steve Jobs,” said Will Thomas, a tech recruiter with Redfish Technology. Based on his experience with recruiting engineers, he doesn’t have high hopes for aspiring tech careerists who are looking to break into the industry without a formal education.
“Zuckerberg is probably one of the last people to really quit school and create a multi-billion dollar company,” he added. “With the way everything is going [and] with the number of startups that are in the Bay Area, there’s so much competition that, if you don’t have a college degree, it is extremely—it is really bad for you as far as competing.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most programmers have a bachelor’s degree, and some companies will hire candidates with an associate’s degree. But Thomas suggests that, when it comes to mid- or high-level positions, even a bachelor’s degree might not be enough. “A good place to start, for a lot of our clients, is to have that wow factor of being from a top 25 computer science school,” he said. “I don’t think it’s whether or not they have a degree; it’s whether or not they’re coming from one of these top places.”
Jaron Waldman, CEO of Curbside and founder of Placebase (which later sold to Apple), also theorizes that the tech industry’s growth makes taking risks on new hires without formal educations less likely. “There definitely seems to be more rigid formality in the tech hiring process,” he said. “Companies may be less willing to take a chance than when the tech industry was smaller and younger.”
Although the BLS estimates that the tech industry will see a slower-than-average growth rate through 2024, it will grow, making the hiring landscape more competitive than ever. Having a formal degree in computer science or a STEM-related field is a crucial ingredient for candidates competing for extremely high-paying jobs at cutting-edge companies.
Yet the days of tech innovators eschewing the traditional path may not be completely over, despite increasing demands for highly competitive and classically well-educated candidates. Waldman holds out hope for those who want to make a name for themselves without taking on student loan debt or signing onto a four-year program: thanks to resources such as online classes and tutorials, self-motivated individuals can still learn the skills they need to do their own thing. Absent a formal degree, online courses, affordable certifications, and micro-courses are the ticket to making yourself a stronger candidate; those options can boost your viability in terms of skill development and network expansion.
Thomas also recommends that aspiring innovators with a disruptive idea utilize the power of social networking to gain a following, drawing popular attention toward what they’re building. Expanding your network—whether through promoting an idea or going to events—is one way around the educational requirements; who a candidate knows can become more important than where they went to school.
“The most interesting things in tech happen at the intersection of people’s personal and professional interests,” Waldman said. “In terms of getting hands on and building something out of your garage or basement, the opportunities are still there.”