Is a bachelor's degree necessary for ANY info tech position?
June 4, 2012 8:04 AM   Subscribe

So I need a bachelor's degree to get a good IT job. Makes sense. Should I expect to need a bachelor's degree to get a better-than-food-service crap IT job?

So, I will be getting my associate's in Information Technology from my local community college in December.

I did a 6 month internship with a nonprofit with about 500 workstations and developed a Windows 7 automated deployment plan, plus did some other cool stuff.

I bought a bunch of used Cisco gear to tinker with and plan on getting my CCNA/CCNP in the future. Maybe a Microsoft cert, too.

All of which puts me in the same place as legions of other IT-pro wannabes, and I'm pretty scared by that fact.

This is all ground that has been covered extensively on this forum. I have come to terms with the idea that I'm not going to be on a path to fame and fortune with an A.S. However, I have noticed that on many forums (not this one), people will laugh at the idea of someone getting a job without a bachelor's and then say "you expect someone to pay you 60k a year with an associate's and a few certs?" or something like that.

Well, no. I make $11.25 an hour as a cook at a restaurant. My boss is a pathologically lying cocaine addict. I'm just looking for something better than that.

When I say "IT job" and you say "IT job" are we talking about the same job?
posted by UrbanEye to Work & Money (36 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If you're skilled, you can absolutely get an IT job (even a good IT job) without a degree. I'm more familiar with the programming side than sysadmin or help desk type work, but I know plenty of people in IT with no degree at all.
posted by duien at 8:14 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Nope. I'm making 40k a year with no degree, and I basically sit on my ass all day posting on metafilter. I don't even have a 2 year degree, and no certs. Just experience. The hard part is getting your first job, but there are tons of entry level tech support jobs where you basically just answer phones and aren't expected to know very much.
posted by empath at 8:15 AM on June 4, 2012

And, btw, I know a few people that make 6 figures with no degree. You just need the experience under your belt.
posted by empath at 8:16 AM on June 4, 2012

I got lucky by getting an base level Tech support job for a fairly large company. Said company is also very happy to internatlly promote and teach me in the true IT department. I did this with only an A+ cert. (though I am still planning to go back to school). I actually start doing Support Engineering next Monday. No degree.

You may have to work your way up, but I would consider that better than a decent job outside your career path.

While I would always recommend a degree, the Tech field is one that I think it is very feasable to make it without one.
posted by Twain Device at 8:17 AM on June 4, 2012

I'll add my echo to the chamber - you're fine. The general bad economy and not having experience are a bigger issue with obtaining a position. Anecdata: 10+ year IT pro. No college degree.

Look into internships with local tech companies if you can afford them, or work-study, or even volunteering. Anything that shows you have real-world hands-on will give you a better starting position than the other IT-pro's in waiting.
posted by anti social order at 8:23 AM on June 4, 2012

Best answer: This is definitely one of the easier fields in which to find work without a degree. People say all kinds of shit on forums, you have to take it with a grain of salt and figure out whether the environment in which you're looking to work is similar to the one in which they're working, and whether their advice applies.

There are definitely some places where a degree is necessary. IT jobs in the financial industry (and other related industries) and in government seem to be relatively rigid about degrees. IT jobs in companies that are tech companies at the core—software companies or hosting/network companies—seem to care about degrees much less.

It sounds like most of your training and experience is on the Microsoft stack. You might consider building some Linux skills, because the general impression I have is that Microsoft-centric companies care more about education and credentials than Linux-centric companies. Of course, if you want to be supporting desktop users, you're going to have to go the Microsoft route.
posted by enn at 8:34 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm working on my degree right now, but through friends I've recently gotten maybe half a dozen interviews for positions with salaries in the $50k to $80k range. I have yet to receive a job offer, but it really cemented in my head the idea that a degree is only a way they sort through the myriad resumes they get. If you can get yourself noticed through a friend or some other means, chances are you'll at least get an interview, if only because you have someone vouching for you.

Good luck! I just keep on truckin', there'll be a job that I'm the right fit for, and there will be for you.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:37 AM on June 4, 2012

Best answer: I have most of 3 degrees but didn't complete any of them. I think they were all worthwhile and I'd go back and do it again in a heartbeat.

That said, I have no full degree and I manage to make (low) six-figure income in IT. I did this mostly through the traditional apprentice, journeyman, expert version of raising through the ranks. You can still take this path in IT today if you are in the right area, you have the skills, and you're willing to work hard and get through it. I'd recommend this route because the people I know (developer, sysadmin, QA, BA, etc.) are all better if they've been in "the trenches." It's not a huge pile of fun for 2-3 years, but then you get to be the person who's been there and knows what they're talking about and it feels so nice. For a while I thought this was limited to the employer where I worked my way up, but it all translates really well and I'm still bringing new things to the table 10 years and 5 employers on.

There is no greater feeling for me than going into a job where I know that I'm the perfect person to be doing this work and there's no way I could have that without experience.

So my short answer is that if you know what you're doing and you're confident, hiring people will see that and hire you. You don't need a degree but you do need a skill set in IT and you can jump in at the lower end and build that pretty quickly if you have the intelligence and drive.

On preview - I agree completely with enn but I have worked in the health and financial industries for several years with no degree. It really depends a ton on the employers. I have turned down very nice offers because I knew they were looking for a degree (many companies still do) and I don't have it. Don't let that discourage you.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 8:39 AM on June 4, 2012

Response by poster: Well, this all makes me feel a little better. Is there a difference between help-desk that will lead to advancement and help-desk that will lead to... more help-desk?

My hunch is that smaller is better. In a small company you might have sysadmins and engineers working in the same room as you. At a a mega-company, you're in your little box with your headset all alone doing your niche help-desk thing day after day.
posted by UrbanEye at 8:43 AM on June 4, 2012

I did Help desk as my intro to advancement. So I can certainly vouch that advancement through Help Desk is doable.

To echo some other posters, having someone vouching for you helps (its why I'm where I am) and having knowledge and drive will get you where you need to go.
posted by Twain Device at 8:51 AM on June 4, 2012

Best answer: When I first got into IT in 2000, a degree was most definitely not a requirement. Heck, the employment market was so hot, we had people we hired called "For Dummies"-level folks because all they had done was finish reading and comprehending a book from that series.

Today, you can still get a job without a degree but with experience. The trick is getting that first job without the experience. Going forward, however, unless you want to do small or medium sized business IT, you should get a Bachelor's degree. The way that large HR departments and hiring managers separate who to interview and who not to interview is increasingly that check box for a 4-year degree. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Small/medium business IT shops are a lot more hands-on and usually have less overhead, but it'll most often be just you and a couple other people on-call 24/7. These places are also more likely to dump their IT on a local outsourcing/contracting firm. If you want to do the massive deployments and major systems integrations that come with Big Iron IT, you'll need to be at a large shop or at a place like HP/EDS or Dell, and most of those want degrees these days (esp. since most of their talent is now primarily sourced as H1B visa hires from other countries and those folks have Masters-equivalent degrees).

I give this advice as someone who is involved in hiring at a large technology company. Our deep-knowledge development folks? Nope, they don't have degrees, but they have a programming portfolio a mile long. Our newbie operations hires through the contracting company? Most of them have degrees or 5 years of experience.
posted by fireoyster at 9:01 AM on June 4, 2012

Is there a difference between help-desk that will lead to advancement and help-desk that will lead to... more help-desk?

The company size may not matter as much as type. You'll want to take a position at a company that employs numerous people who do the kind of work you want to be doing in the future: Development, System Admin, Server Support.

Many companies specialize in support/help-desk, and the opportunities up stream will be managing help-desk people and later managing managers. So be aware of that.

But there is a ridiculous amount of money out there for smart people who work hard everyday. They are like unicorns.
posted by French Fry at 9:01 AM on June 4, 2012

In University IT departments degrees are a requirement for a few positions; e.g. having a Stats degree so you can support SAS users and their apps. Some private sector jobs mention wanting a degree, but they're the minority (at least here in Canada.)

One thing you do want to make sure of is that you keep your certifications somewhat current. Not every iteration, and probably not every cert, but don't let them lapse more than, say, four years. Certs aren't always highly regarded by IT supervisors, but they're what gets you past HR. Right now I'm in a world of employment hurt because for years my employer didn't let me take time to certify. Then I got sick for a few years, my position wasn't there when I recovered, and I've been unemployed ever since as my non-current resume doesn't even get interviews. Keep Current.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:04 AM on June 4, 2012

Best answer: I worked my way into a great Sys Admin job obliquely. I did temp data entry work for a while then got hired on at a company I'd temped for - they wanted someone to maintain their schedule in an Excel worksheet, and I blew everyone's minds by using CTRL-direction during my interview to jump multiple cells. A few years later they purchased a tool to manage scheduling and I was on that project team. I moved to another company doing the same job, and shortly afterwards was asked to join IT to manage the application from the IT side. I've been in IT for almost 10 years, and no one has ever asked about my degree. Once you have the first bit of work experience under your belt, no one cares if you got your piece of paper.

Regarding Help Desk, it's a great way to get to know people throughout the company and demonstrate your knowledge and work ethic. If our team is hiring, the first thing we consider is the people at the Help Desk and whether we know anyone who is intelligent and easy to work with. Specific knowledge is secondary to having a good attitude and the ability to take ownership of issues. If you are smart and work hard at your Help Desk job, people will notice, and poach you when they need someone.
posted by Gortuk at 9:05 AM on June 4, 2012

I'd say bigger the better as far as spinning the job into something else. If you have a big corporate name on your resume I think it makes it easier to get a job a smaller company.

Getting an in is the hard part if you're talented. You just need to work harder\smarter than everyone once you get an "in". That won't be too difficult because many times the people you'll be working alongside are still where they are because they are complacent. I would recommend trying to get a job as the people helpdesk forward their issues on to instead of with the help desk. Some type of top-tier end user desktop support. Network and try to get there.

...Windows 7 automated deployment plan...
You can take skills like this and become a business desktop deployment developer. If you are motivated enough you can market yourself to smaller companies saying that you'll come in and create this type of system if they don't have it, which will save them support costs\time. Or, once you have an in at a bigger company you can start talking to the people in the group that handle that type of thing to try to make that your next advancement.

For example, I got a fairly entry level type job at one of the top software companies in the world (read: huge) at the age of 18 and have ran with it since then. I've stayed with the same company advancing every 1 - 3 years since then. I went from end user support, to team lead, to a driver developer, to global image developer, to applications engineer, to a type of database\web developer. If I get bored doing this type of jumping around I can always start working towards management.
posted by zephyr_words at 9:06 AM on June 4, 2012

I started in a large (very very large) company at the helpdesk and people still noticed me enough to move me up to the Junior Network Administrator role which was a huge jump in a few years. I can see the draw of a small company and I've looked at a few but the issue there is that you may have one or two people in administrator roles and you have to wait for them to leave and then hope that the next open spot is yours. In a big company (if you shine) you will have many more openings that you can slide into and the climb will often be more gradual.

It's tradeoffs both ways and there is no right answer for everybody, but those are my experiences.

That all said, I'm currently looking to find a small company closer to my home where I can do the same job until I retire. I don't think this idea would be possible without all the large corporate work I have already done.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 9:07 AM on June 4, 2012

I'll take experience and maturity over a paper degree any day of the week when hiring staff.
posted by tgrundke at 9:12 AM on June 4, 2012

You can absolutely do this. My husband has worked his way up to being a network engineer from an entry-level job, getting both his CCNA and CCNP in under two years while working on his degree. I MeMailed you :)
posted by Madamina at 9:18 AM on June 4, 2012

PS -- you sound like just the kind of person that they would look for. There are tons of your basic guys who slack off and talk about playing WoW who are content to stay in the entry level positions forever, but the fact that you're already playing with routers is really huge and a great sign.
posted by Madamina at 9:19 AM on June 4, 2012

Best answer: Let me tell you a story. I started my higher ed. with the goal of getting a degree in Music, violin performance. I burned out and switched to composition. Then I went on a 2-year volunteer trip (mormon missionary in Canada) and gained some perspective. When I got back I switched to English. Then business. Then I stopped going.

I have 160+ credits to my name and no pieces of paper to show for it. But right this very moment, I'm writing this comment as I wait for my flight to India where I'm flying to consult with a client. All my expenses are paid, and I'll even get a weekend in India so it's not all work while I'm there. I'm doing this as a business analyst in a large international software development company, pulling in the range of 55k - 70k /year plus bonuses, an average of 4 weeks vacation every year, plus the option to work from home. And the next leap in my career I'm looking at product management and very close to a six figure sum.

And this is how I got there:

I worked at a local university registration office as a staff assistant. I started volunteering to do light IT work around the office (mostly just installing printer drivers, stuff like that.

I did that for about a year, then puffed up my resume just a tad and landed a contract job at Unisys. It was like getting thrown headfirst into the deep end. I had to work three times harder than my co-workers just to keep up. But I kept up.

Three months into that job they let my whole team go. But now I had some real experience. I landed a job on the internal helpdesk at Intel. I worked my butt of and did really well. Then I saw a posting for a job at a local bank's IT group. I applied. They needed people familiar with Exchange as they were switching over from Groupwise. I told them I was their man.

I got hired at the bank and worked my tail off. I went from being a level 1 helpdesk agent to attending meetings with the project managers for the Exchange conversion and playing pinch hitter for the Exchange server admin team. I wrote articles for the helpdesk knowledgebase, and got the attention of the trainer. He was moving up so I got his job. I re-vamped the whole training curriculum and trained new hires in the lore of bank IT for about a year.

Then my coworker told me he was applying for this really cool job with an international travel software maker. I asked him if he would mind if I applied too. He didn't. I got the job and he didn't.

Now here's the crazy part. I was on a regional customer support team. I worked crazy hours, running emergency support bridges in the middle of the night while CIOs screamed at me. Then they laid off my whole team. There was one opening in a completely different part of the company: business analyst in the product group. I didn't know anything about it, but they decided to leave it open to just the people who were being laid off. It was me against six other really smart guys.

I didn't know anything about business analysis or product management. I got online that night and studied for hours. I aced the interviews and got the job, and here I am four years later working a really great, challenging job.

It can be done, and those who step up and volunteer to do the hard stuff and volunteer to learn as they go almost always end up benefitting greatly. IT may be one of the last places you can excel without a degree. I'm the only person in the product group without a degree, but none of my colleagues have IT related degrees at all. Poli-sci, family psychology, marketing, accounting, but no CS or even BIS degree holders. It really can be done, because the ability to do is much more valuable than the piece of paper.

Find your affinity and work till it (and you) shines.

YMMV, of course! And I'm still planning on getting a degree because I value education.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:31 AM on June 4, 2012

I also know a guy in a very good IT security job at a bank who doesn't even have a high school diploma.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:32 AM on June 4, 2012

Best answer: I echo the "you're fine." I've had some Help Desk hiring experience, and a degree was not an issue. I think a technical associates is way more desirable than an unrelated bachelors with no experience.

Some tips from my hiring experience - what set candidates apart was a cover letter (so many applicants didn't submit one), actually expressing an interest in working at the company / organization, and having a personality that fit the environment. You also seem to have good writing skills and that's something that a lot of HD candidates I interviewed were lacking. If you do any writing (or if you are confident you are able to write well) I would include a reference to writing on your resume, like "ability to communicate well in writing and author clear and understandable technical documentation."
posted by beyond_pink at 9:46 AM on June 4, 2012

My hunch is that smaller is better. In a small company you might have sysadmins and engineers working in the same room as you. At a a mega-company, you're in your little box with your headset all alone doing your niche help-desk thing day after day.

Yes and no. It's true that you have a lot more exposure to different parts of the organization, and a lot of chances to do more different kinds of work, in a small company. You're right that when support and sysadmin and developers are all in the same room the territorial boundaries are a lot more porous. On the other hand, in a small organization that isn't growing very fast there may simply not be room to move up—even if they think that you have the skills to move up from, say, help-desk to sysadmin, they may not have the need for any more sysadmins right away (as opposed to a bigger company which is always going to have some vacancies).

The other thing about small organizations is that they are often cheap and your "advancement" may come in the form of "hey, you're doing a great job handling X and Y, how do you feel about taking on Z [for no additional pay]?"

I have almost always worked for small organizations and I prefer it, but it's worthwhile to be aware of the tradeoffs.
posted by enn at 10:14 AM on June 4, 2012

In my husband's experience with a (particular) larger company, they're much more eager to promote from within, and there are opportunities all the time. They'll say, "Oh, we need 10 more engineers, and we'll look at the pool of internal NSEs (network support) before we try to do any external hiring." Or they won't even say it; they'll just walk up to you and say, "Okay, you're my first choice to move up, and I'm bringing that guy and that guy too."
posted by Madamina at 10:27 AM on June 4, 2012

Chalk me up as another person in a senior IT role with no degree (I actually dropped out of highschool). A few things:

1) Outside of programming jobs, you're actually generally better off with industry certs than a degree - fundamnetally, a lot of IT work is blue collar work, plumbling and administration. There are fast-track courses where you can get a CCNA (Cisco) or a RHCE (Red hat linux) or an MSCE (microsoft server) qualification in a matter of weeks, if you can find around $5k

2) So I broke in during the early 90s, when things were easier, but self-development and then lying have been an essential part of my career. That is to say, I'd learn a technology that I was interested in outside of work, and then find a way to apply it to my previous role when going for my next one. I don't really have to do that anymore, but starting out it can be helpful - after all, if you can do _the thing_, then it doens't really matter how you learned to do _the thing_. Most of the successful people I know in this industry have some kind of home network that they use for kicking the tyres on things - virtualisation makes this trivial.
posted by jaymzjulian at 11:48 AM on June 4, 2012

oh, I forgot to mention - related to the second point, the real key is to learn things that differentiate you - a million people in your area have an MSCE now. But maybe only ten of them also understand networks/linux/unix/vmware/something else? Since you mentioned an MSCE, an MSCE actually combines really well with a vmware VCP in the market right now.
posted by jaymzjulian at 11:50 AM on June 4, 2012

I think where you get your first IT job is less important than knowing when to get your second.

The right big company might have a great career development program that could carry you forward for 5-10 years, and then it could get cut when you are 6 months in. A small company could be complete chaos, but give you the time and support to accomplish something and emerge with a great credit on your resume and strong reccomendations.

Bottomline though, you should have a variety of good options to move forward in your career without getting a four-year degree first.
posted by Good Brain at 12:16 PM on June 4, 2012

Much like what has been said, no not necessary. I am making $60k/year with no degree and 1 Microsoft Cert. It all has been experience and glowing reviews from my previous employers. Keep learning stuff and do not be afraid to start small. Helpdesk is a great way to start out in IT. You get to learn the environment, no high level projects (Usually) to burden, and it can be challenging to boring on any given day.

Where are you OP? We will soon be looking for a 'go getter' person for HelpDesk. What you know is less important than what you WANT to know. The biggest thing is personality and the drive to get it done.
posted by NotSoSimple at 3:49 PM on June 4, 2012

My husband has no degree and a relatively high-level IT job for our city's major health care system. He's 25. His entire career has seemed to be a lot more about (a) experience (he slogged through a couple of years at Geek Squad but it taught him some skills and gave him something entry-level for a resume) (b) people skills and (c) a willingness to work hard and put in the time to become self taught.

He's in the position he's in now because he worked with a tech-job recruiter a few years ago when he was looking to leave Best Buy, and worked up from there. His resume (again, no degrees and only one certification of any kind) is still on file at the recruiter's office and he gets calls all the time. (Seriously, I wish I had even a fraction of that luck with my own job search).

My advice would be to get some experience if you don't already have it. (Another degree-less IT guy I know got his current position (desktop support at a nonproift) by volunteering to teach computer classes, and it made him some contacts and gave him something to amp up his resume.) and then try to work with a recruiter.
posted by nuclear_soup at 4:20 PM on June 4, 2012

Response by poster: Where are you OP?

Pittsburgh. A quick investigation leads me to believe you're in Oregon? Bit of a long commute for me, I'm afraid.
posted by UrbanEye at 4:26 PM on June 4, 2012

I'm in the IT department at my company. Of the eight people in the department, only three of us have college degrees. Of the other five, nobody completed community college, and one went to an ITT type trade school for IT. So, I don't think you're screwed as far as advancing in the industry. If you have a strong work ethic & a positive attitude, those things can't be easily taught.
posted by AMSBoethius at 4:39 PM on June 4, 2012

It's not as big of an issue as you think. However, it does mean that you may have to rely on networking skills more than someone who has the pieces of paper necessary to tick off all the stupid little checkboxes. People pay me what I consider to be ridiculous sums of money for doing web dev work, network administration, and just about everything else under the sun.

I never spent a day in college and I dropped out of high school, but got a GED.

I've thought about moving from outside consulting to a steady job and have had no trouble getting interviews, although I never really found a job I like. It helps that I can honestly say I have many years of experience with a wide range of technologies, but it sounds like you can also say the same thing with regard to certain technologies. It doesn't really matter whether you're doing something on your own time or on an employers time.

I know a few people who make well into six figures in salary and have no degree or certification, just their entire working lives (and their pre-working lives) spent doing various networking stuff. As others have said, it's the first job that's the hardest, but you had a nice internship that should suffice.
posted by wierdo at 6:00 PM on June 4, 2012

Response by poster: It doesn't really matter whether you're doing something on your own time or on an employers time.

Well, that's a plus for me. I've got 5 Cisco routers, a couple switches, and a Xenserver machine with 32GB of RAM. I'm beginning to set up a network and Active Directory structure for "Acme Weaponized Widgets Inc." (like Contoso, but they make James Bond gadgets!) networking together various virtual locations via WAN links that span a few feet across my office, testing replication of AD info between DCs, and such.

Would it be of any use to indicate in a cover letter or resume that I can present a small portfolio of my test-lab work if requested? Including diagrams similar to this (not my diagram).
posted by UrbanEye at 6:57 PM on June 4, 2012

I've never done that. I just list stuff in the skills section of my resume and make sure I am prepared to discuss anything I put in there.
posted by wierdo at 7:16 PM on June 4, 2012

Response by poster: Heh. Fair enough. I think I get too anxious about my resume. As in, I worry that HR people aren't going to believe that I know what I claim to know. Which is absurd, since face-to-face interviews exist precisely to sort that kind of dishonesty out, and there's no way to tell the honest one's from the bullshitters on paper.
posted by UrbanEye at 7:35 PM on June 4, 2012

It happens. My husband had multiple interviews in which he was like, "I couldn't tell you what that yellow wire is, but if you told me the name, I could tell you what it does." And he didn't get it ;)

But it took much less time than he thought to familiarize himself with that stuff once he was doing SOMETHING. He kept his ears open for terminology and figured out how other people did their jobs on the other end of the line.
posted by Madamina at 9:09 PM on June 4, 2012

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