Entering the tech industry hinges on building up your technology knowledge. To that end, there are four options that many technologists pursue when they’re starting out: college/university, bootcamps, hacking it by self-teaching the necessary theory and skills, and internships. Which is potentially best for you? Let’s explore.
Colleges and universities are considered the traditional route to a technology career. It’s a pathway embraced by tens of thousands of budding technologists every year.
An analysis by Burning Glass, which analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, shows that many companies ask for at least a Bachelor’s degree on their job postings. Aside from increasing your chances of getting hired, taking college courses in computer science or a related field can prove an enormous help when it comes to effectively completing projects. That’s because a four-year program at a college or university often teaches the fundamentals and concepts that underlie modern computing. There’s an emphasis on abstract problem-solving that can help in virtually any career.
According to the most recent Stack Overflow Developer Survey, professional developers often chose to major in the following:
Plus, Stack Overflow broke down how much education most developers managed to attain:
Not all technologists want to spend years at a college or university. Instead, you might opt to join a bootcamp, in which instructors take an intensive dive into a subject over a few weeks or months. There are signs that bootcamps can yield positive results when it comes to employment. A 2020 analysis by Course Report, which regularly conducts in-depth analyses of the bootcamp market, suggested that the average salary for bootcamp graduates is around $67,000 per year.
However, attending a bootcamp is no guarantee of finding immediate employment. A few years ago, Stack Overflow surveyed its community and found that 20 percent of bootcamp graduates needed more than 90 days to find a new position. If you’re interested in a bootcamp as an educational route, you must do your homework:
- Study the bootcamp’s statistics to see how many students graduate and find jobs.
- Be wary of any bootcamp that makes a hard sell for you to sign up.
- Read up on the offered courses to make sure the bootcamp will teach you the skills you want for your career. Try to talk to graduates about their experiences.
- Read online reviews on sites such as Reddit, where you’ll find bootcamps’ current and former students offering their opinions.
Bottom line: Bootcamps can rapidly teach you practical skills. But do your homework first.
When it comes to succeeding within the technology industry, there’s no one educational path that’s superior to the others. Even for cutting-edge industries such as artificial intelligence (A.I.), many employers are willing to focus more on your skills than where you might have gone to school.
Consider this February 2020 Tweet from Tesla CEO Elon Musk:
Our NN is initially in Python for rapid iteration, then converted to C++/C/raw metal driver code for speed (important!). Also, tons of C++/C engineers needed for vehicle control & entire rest of car. Educational background is irrelevant, but all must pass hardcore coding test.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 3, 2020
Whether or not a degree is truly less relevant at a company like Tesla, if you’re going to successfully work with a team on an important project, you must know your stuff.
Musk isn’t alone in emphasizing skills. In March 2019, Apple CEO Tim Cook appeared at an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board Meeting and noted that about half of his company’s employees don’t have a degree, and that the company was “proud of that.” While it was unclear if he was including Apple’s retail employees in that statement, he’s made it clear throughout the years that you don’t necessarily need a degree to succeed as a technologist. As he told TechCrunch in 2019: “I don’t think a four-year degree is necessary to be proficient at coding.”
This emphasis on skills over formal education might provide some comfort to aspiring technologists who don’t necessarily have years to pursue a full-fledged degree. But let’s say you’re intent on a technology career, and you have the bandwidth to pursue any number of educational channels—how do you know which skills to even pursue?
You can pursue skills via massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as Udacity and Coursera. Companies such as Apple and Google that push certain skills and programming languages (such as Swift and Kotlin, in the case of those giants) offer free documentation and tutorials online. Colleges and universities such as MIT will sometimes post coursework online, complete with videos.
If you claim that you have the necessary skills, your prospective employer will likely subject you to a battery of tests as part of the interview process. If you want an additional advantage over the applicant pool, consider using your new skills to build independent projects (even a simple game or a website) that you can show off to a hiring manager.
Internships can be a critical part of a young technologists’ career. And although there’s a pervasive stereotype of the lowly intern who primarily fetches coffee, nothing could be further from the truth: interns are often entrusted with a variety of tasks, from cleaning up data to checking code. Using an internship as a springboard to a full-time position is a natural thing for technologists, and often critical for a career.
If you’re in high school or college, your career counselors and teachers can often serve as a trusted resource for internship opportunities. Many companies advertise their upcoming internships (for example, job postings for summer interns tend to pop up during the preceding winter and run through the spring). If you’re concerned that a lack of formal experience will harm your chances of landing one of these internships, relax; when submitting your résumé, you can highlight anything from the classes you’ve taken to the projects you’ve built for fun. Anything that shows off your love of technology and willingness to work will come in useful.
Former technology interns have told Dice that the key is to lean into your internship, volunteering for tasks and seeking out mentors who can answer your technology questions. So long as you’re demonstrating your best effort, it’s okay to occasionally fail; everyone around you understands that you’re working your way up the learning curve.
Let’s say you really like the company where you’re interning, and you want to convert your internship into a full-time job. Some firms have a well-established pipeline for such a transition. The key thing is to speak up about your intentions: Tell your manager about how you’ve enjoyed working for the company, that you’ve learned quite a bit, and that you would leap at an opportunity to come onboard as a full-fledged employee.
If you’ve managed your internship well, and built a collection of internal advocates and mentors, the company will likely consider you for a position. If you’ve contributed substantially to projects, they may even create a new role for you.