Help me stop waffling about my continuing education in Software Development
December 27, 2012 5:01 PM   Subscribe

In the field of software development, is it better to have 5+ years experience or a Bachelor's Degree? (snowflake)

My employer is amazing and has let me learn as I go. I started in technical support, then moved to Quality Assurance, and now have been a junior software developer for a few years (C++ backend, HTML/CSS, JavaScript). Due to a change in ownership at our company in early 2009, I was trying to future-proof my career and started a BAS program at an online university a few months later. It's a program for people who already have their Associates and is in Internet/Web Development. If I'm honest, the program is a little Flash/Graphics happy compared to what I do in my day to day career. I am taking one or two classes at a time, and will be done in 3 more years. While I am in school, it takes up so much time/brain power that I can't really progress in C++ and the other skills that I actually do need at my job.

We had another ownership change at work in early 2012. Things are a lot more stable now - not bulletproof, by any means, but a lot less scary. I could not see ever leaving this job voluntarily (I've been there over 10 years).

I'm reaching the point of diminishing returns with my schooling. Most of the classes I have left are either general ed, or are Photography/art stuff that I will never, ever use. I am not personally satisfied at my progression at my job and want to be faster/more efficient at the things that I do at work to help our product. I am trying to determine whether I should just quit school and spend this time learning real, applicable skills. If something should happen to my job, I only have 9 classes left, and could finish them while looking for a new job (right?). I have asked colleagues at work and they are split down the middle - typically the half that have degrees say I should keep going. Where I am right now in my skills, I am not really comfortable certifying myself as knowing C++ on my resume.

TL;DR - if I have 5-6+ years practical experience with software development, does a bachelor's degree *really* matter that much? I am in Dallas.

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posted by anonymous to Education (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It wouldn't matter to me, and I think for smaller companies and start ups they really won't care either. However, without the bachelors degree, even if it is in basket weaving, your resume will never make it out of many corporate HR departments.
posted by COD at 5:06 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

It honestly depends on who you go to work for. I do have a CS degree, and I've been to job interviews where they've cared not just what my major was but what grades I got for every single course, and I've also been to interviews where nobody's asked once. (Larger companies tend to care more about degrees, as COD pointed out.)

With my other hat on, as someone who's hired people in the past, I don't care at all if someone has a CS degree. I've hired people with a CS background who honestly sucked at programming; I've hired arts majors who are some of the best programmers I've ever seen.

However, I do think you need to trade up a lack of educational experience with demonstrable mastery. You need to be really good at one technology as a minimum, and be able to point to real-life in-the-wild projects that show off that expertise. It's not enough to just declare that you can do something if you don't have a certificate to prove it. Again, speaking for myself, I'll usually want to see code, and evidence of an understanding of software as a product (i.e., that you understand that you're building to meet a user need rather than writing code in a vacuum).

In terms of a long-term career, rather than individual jobs, it's been shown that people with relevant degrees do earn more and have access to more opportunities - so you'll probably want to bear that in mind.
posted by bwerdmuller at 5:12 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me it would depend on how much are you paying for this online degree? If it is 10s of thousands of dollars I would say "STOP".

I do a lot of hiring of programmers. While I look at their degree line, I am much more interested in their recent experience and references.

A lack of a degree may hold you back in some places though, but an online degree may be worthless if it is not from a reputable school.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:17 PM on December 27, 2012

What COD says.

I interview heaps of candidates - the corp I work now mandates minimum bachelor degree quals - the calibre of the candidates has been dramatically reduced (for the money on offer) . So the annoying answer is both. For corporates - the degree is more important that experience (or both degree and experience depending on the position) and for startups and smaller firms experience trumps.
posted by the noob at 5:35 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do not have experience hiring software designers, as that is not my field. However, I have interviewed them.

In the companies I've worked with (both small and large), an applicant without a bachelor's degree would be immediately rejected for two reasons:
  • It reduces the applicant pool to a more manageable volume.
  • The specific contracts with customers I worked with require employees to be qualified in the work they do, and doing design without a degree could be considered as violating that provision.
I suspect this is highly company-specific, so take that for what it's worth.
posted by saeculorum at 5:51 PM on December 27, 2012

In my experience (20+ years as a software development manager and consultant), a bachelors degree is irrelevant. Many of the best people I've worked with don't have one. Their skill set and the quality of their work is what counts. That means knowing what you're talking about, having confidence, and (most important) having references who really like the work you've done.

Degrees only make a difference if they are from a top-tier school (MIT, Stanford, etc) or if the degree in question is a PhD or maybe a Masters.

Frankly, if I saw that someone had a degree from Phoenix(tm)-drive-thru-online-edu it would make me think less of them. I'd wonder why they were wasting their time and money on that; if they were smart they'd just learn the stuff they need to learn, which is a lot of what real-world programming is about.

Clearly other people have other opinions. I don't work for a bank or an accounting firm or some place where making HR and the risk management departments happy is more important than actually, you know, getting the work done. But is is clearly possible to be very successful as a programmer without having any college degree at all.

You should spend your time learning what you need to get your work done, not by spinning wheels to try to look good.
posted by alms at 5:54 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do most of the recruiting and initial hiring screens for my company, a software company in the "Big Data" realm.

Honestly, I don't give a crap about degrees. I care more about the work that you've done and if you can answer my technical questions about the stuff you've worked on. We're dying for people with web development experience or people who know their way around a database.

However, I can tell you that we will not offer you as much money as someone with a degree and definitely not as much as someone with a relevant advanced degree. Also, we use recruiting firms to find a lot of applicants and it's likely that you'd get filtered right out of our stack of potential hires because someone in HR set the basic engineer description ages ago.

Finally, I will say that I will look at any resume from an applicant without a degree much more harshly. I'm much more likely to sort you into the reject pile if your experience does not match exactly what I'm looking for, when I'm more likely to be flexible for people who finished, especially if they are from a school with a good reputation (finishing what you started = real bonus points).

So, the short of it is that not finishing your degree will likely cost you real future money because you will be starting one step behind people who stuck it out and finished. You are less likely to get recruited and hired by a good, stable, healthy company and you are unlikely to get a great starting offer. What you pay in your remaining tuition will pay you back over a lifetime.

I know that you're saying that you would love to stay at your current job forever, but things change (especially in the software industry) and you should be prepared. You can pick up the extra CS skills later. For goodness sake, if you say that you are not confident enough to put C++ on your resume if you were to lose your job tomorrow you would have almost nothing to recommend you for another software job.

Finally, I will say there are going to be fewer and fewer C++ jobs in the future. Do not put all of your eggs in one programming language basket.
posted by Alison at 6:26 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

saeculorum: "
  • It reduces the applicant pool to a more manageable volume.
  • The specific contracts with customers I worked with require employees to be qualified in the work they do, and doing design without a degree could be considered as violating that provision.
I suspect this is highly company-specific, so take that for what it's worth.

It's not really very company-specific at all. I've worked for consulting firms where contracts with customers specified a BS as the minimum education level of anyone assigned to certain projects, so it's definitely not unique to your company.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:56 PM on December 27, 2012

Most of the developers at my software company have a BA in something completely irrelevant to programming, but have made up for it with heaps of experience (both on the job and as a hobby). This is for a small web company. Friends at bigger companies have mentioned that no one gets in the door without a CS degree, so, as stated above, the answer really depends on where you'd like to work.
posted by third word on a random page at 6:57 PM on December 27, 2012

You (1) don't have a degree and (2) are about the quit the program you're in where you're working towards a degree. The reasons for those things don't matter, but they are the facts of the situation.

A degree says something about your commitment to a end product, even if you had to do tasks you didn't want to. If you want to go to another company you might get past HR without a degree, but that's no guarantee, however you would definitely get past HR with a degree. You may not be thinking about moving to another company but layoffs happen and that's when you'd want no barriers in your way
posted by zombieApoc at 8:10 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not in software engineering, but I can tell you this: I have been told outright that I would be a great fit for jobs, but despite all my experience in my field and in big projects, they could never get me past HR without a degree. I have been told flat out, "To even get considered here, you need a degree. We don't care what it's in. Underwater basket weaving? Fine. We just need to check that box for HR."

Now, for me, a place where that kind of pointless corporate box checking holds sway would be a bad fit, so I consider it saving me a lot of time, however, it has definitely limited my potential options. You may not even make it through the HR screening software because it's set up to only show resumes for "has degree," even if you are Codeimus, the Greek God of Programming.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:17 PM on December 27, 2012

One data point: My best friend has done coding the last ten years since getting his bachelor's, and he is much more likely to hire someone without a degree (and with more requisite experience) than with a degree. I suspect, as other people have said, that the place where not having a degree will hurt you is companies that use the degree as a screening device, and companies with HR people doing the hiring (instead of actual programmers.)
posted by Happydaz at 8:44 PM on December 27, 2012

In a very different field, but similar situation:

Check your own potential, even at your own company. I'm waivered via experience to do what I do. I do it very well and can't seem to turn around without getting some kind of bonus, award, or promotion. Problem is, at this rate, I'm going to reach the highest I can get without an actual degree before I get off my lazy ass and finish mine. One more promotion, and I'm maxed out. The "or equivalent experience" disappears from the qualifications list. HR will veto, and has vetoed in the past, anyone's attempt to circumvent the degree requirement at that level. The effort that would be required to fight HR on that is... Well, it's the US DoD.

So maybe your company isn't so big on the degree at this level and right now. But hey, maybe you won't always want to do the tech work. Maybe you'll want to start doing something more challenging, like managing projects at an overall level. Do those jobs require the degree? And remember, ownership can change.
posted by ctmf at 9:48 PM on December 27, 2012

Finish your degree if YOU want to (as a matter of personal achievement). With your experience I doubt you'll have trouble finding a decent job no matter what happens. But, as has been said, big companies do tend to prefer degrees.
posted by blueplasticfish at 10:19 PM on December 27, 2012

I don't know about *your* online university, but i would imagine the specific program & accreditation would make a world of difference. You may not want to post them, but it probably matters to HR departments.

I do know a "masters" comp/sci program matters for where i work to HR, but not to the folks actually doing the interviewing, which is unfortunate.

Not to denigrate your online university, but how recognized is it ? if its not recognized by many, then its not worth it, imho.
posted by TheAdamist at 10:22 PM on December 27, 2012

Not to be too repetitive, but to maybe combine a few points..

I have hired a lot of software developers. I have hired great software developers who didn't have degrees, and I didn't think twice about it, because when the rubber hits the road, what matters is how well you do the job, not what pieces of paper you have. However:

1. They had to be truly great, and 5 years of the type of experience you describe doesn't sound like it would meet the bar for me. I could hire you into an entry-level position, but there the degree is more important because it makes up for lack of experience.

2. I've worked for big name tech companies you've heard of and would probably like to work for, and it's significantly harder to get in the door without a degree (but not impossible if you're great, especially if you have references from current employees).

3. In my opinion, a degree from an online university is probably worse than no degree at all. Same goes for the vast majority of certifications.

4. The technology employment pool in Dallas ain't what it is in SF or NY, so your options will already be more limited before even putting the degree issue into the picture. And in my experience, newer technology-oriented companies open to hiring great people without degrees than more traditional companies whose focus is not actually technology.

5. Frankly, the fact that you haven't finished yet and considering quitting is the real red flag to me. I don't think people should waste money on degrees they don't want or need, and I don't think people should waste years of their lives on stuff that's not worth it. But going through something part way and quitting is not a behavior I've found in the great employees I've had, even those who don't have degrees.

I don't think anyone can argue with a straight face that you're not putting yourself at a distinct disadvantage by not having a degree. You'd better be able to make up for that with some truly awesome skills.
posted by primethyme at 10:30 PM on December 27, 2012

Mostly the degree is a benefit in your first 3-5 years. After that it doesn't matter. The degree will make it easier to get the first couple of jobs, that's it.

How much easier? Depends on, well, everything else.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:18 PM on December 27, 2012

I work as a programmer without any degree myself and I help hire programmers at a small-to-medium Silicon Valley company. Other posters covered the situation where some incapable HR person is scoring your resume on a checklist, so let me address the alternative, in which someone technical is looking carefully at it.

To me, having a CS degree (or a math/hard science degree) from a well-regarded school is a significant plus; having one from some miscellaneous online university is not interesting. As far as I can tell, CS programs range from very rigorous to very weak, and if I don't know which yours is, the existence of the degree isn't giving me a lot of evidence.

Your experience is more important, but you need to be very clear about the nature of it so that I can see that it's substantial. Make sure you give a straightforward technical description of the thing you did. That is, "I wrote a threadsafe database driver for FooDB in C++ which processed 10000 widget updates per second" or "I wrote all the front-end code on, including a reusable Javascript library for real-time text-to-speech synthesis that uses the Microsoft Bob algorithm." (Ideally, have code samples.) This both provides me evidence that you are competent and gives me something to talk to you about on a phone screen or interview.

If you don't have a prestigious degree and your resume is a list of bullets that look like "Junior developer on team XYZ, which built, the premier website for contacting and interacting with people named Steve", then it's impossible to tell whether you are brilliant or incompetent. Don't be that guy.

Anyway, I wouldn't bother finishing the degree -- it's probably better than nothing, but your time would likely be better spent becoming really good.
posted by value of information at 12:37 AM on December 28, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
The degree is at Arizona State Online, which is not all that prestigious and.. kind of a joke, I think, among the educational community. It is at the Graphics and Technology school, but the program is Internet and Web Development. The program is not challenging and basically uses 20 hours of my week to cross Ts and dot Is, but I'm not sure how common that is among online programs.

My Associates is from Davenport University in the midwest, which I believe is more highly regarded, but it was also an online program.

My employer offers a certain amount of reimbursement per year toward the degree. If I continue, I will be out of pocket about $5000 total.

Thanks for all your helpful comments. There is a lot to think about here.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:16 AM on December 28, 2012

One thing I haven't seen anyone else say yet: an alternative would be to spend that extra time on pursuing your own coding projects. Obviously, as others have said, some (often larger) companies will require a degree. But other, smaller, web-oriented companies will probably be just as - or more - interested in what you do in your own time.

Do you develop and run any websites of your own? Have you contributed to any open source projects? Can you point employers to your GitHub account to show them concrete examples of what you're interested in?

I work in web development and a large percentage of people I know in the industry, often in small companies, are self-taught and spend some of their free time developing things (and, in the process, learning new skills). Most of them (like me) probably do have degrees in non-computing subjects but, as others have said, for small employers having earned a degree 1 or 5 or 20 years ago is less important than what you can demonstrate you can do, and are interested in, today.
posted by fabius at 9:32 AM on December 28, 2012

What fabius says, a thousand-fold. (I tried to say it in my answer, but wasn't as eloquent.) Build something cool, and put it out there. Seriously.
posted by bwerdmuller at 1:18 PM on December 28, 2012

Thirding Fabius: becoming an active and well-respected open source developer is a very good way to prove your chops to potential employers.
posted by alms at 8:16 AM on December 29, 2012

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