Going back to school at 33 is a great idea! Right?
January 30, 2013 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Recently I've been thinking of going back to school to get a Computer Science degree but I have a few questions:

If I do decide to go back, I'll have to keep working as well. My current job is very flexible (like ridiculously so) even so, I'm wondering how feasible it is to work full(-ish) time and study something like CS at the same time. My girlfriend and I don't have, and aren't planning to have, kids, so that makes life a little easier. Still, how much of my life is this going to eat up?

Related to that, is there any way to fast-track/shorten the time needed to complete a degree? I'm not, and have never been, a professional programmer but I've been writing code for ages. I had a few CS classes back in university (nearly 15 years ago!) and I'm familiar with maybe a half dozen languages or so, though I don't use them all regularly so I'm better with some than with others. Is there a way to skip all the stuff I already know and get straight to the stuff I don't? Has anybody done this? How did you go about it? I'm more than happy to write any tests or do projects on my own time to shorten the total amount of time needed. Is that even something that's possible, or am I just going to have to suck it up and begin at the beginning like everybody else?

At least part of the reason that I'd like to shorten things is because, at 33, I can't help feeling like the old man, washed up and thrown out before I even get started. Not that I feel old in general, but I've heard that the tech industry likes their people young. How realistic is it to think of getting a tech job four-ish years from now when I'm pushing 40? And even if it is possible, do I really want to do that to myself? I realize no-one can give me a definitive answer to that one, so anecdotes welcome. If you've done it, what was it like?

In case it matters, I'm in Montreal and I'd be applying to McGill and I'll be contacting them in the near future to ask questions as well. For now though, the collective opinions and experiences of the hive mind will be greatly appreciated!
posted by Mister_Sleight_of_Hand to Education (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Is this a bachelor's? Or say, an MEng in CS? If you already have an undergraduate degree, I'd suggest the CS Masters, as it would probably assume a level of proficiency close to what you have.
posted by tjenks at 10:10 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think you're too old to go back to school, but you should really determine if a CS degree will provide you with meaningful career opportunities once you graduate. You can do this by contacting hiring managers (not HR managers, but the people you would report to) at companies where you might like to work.

From my experience (but I live in a region with large community of SME-size tech companies that sell highly specialized products that can't be easily outsourced that sell for high margins- maybe the kind of of company you want to target), software developers are always in demand, and they have higher wages even for junior positions.

In fact, I know many people who have back to school in their 30's and 40's to become software developers. Often these folks, though, choose a shorter two or three-year diploma program because university-level CS courses are high on theory (which is good in and of itself) but low on teaching actual skills in demand. For example, the local university teaches Java, while the local college teachers .Net, which was in very high demand in the latter half of the last decade.

But if your goal is a job, find out what employers want first. Universities and colleges often do no have any idea about what is in demand in the private sector, and just want to put bums in seats.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:12 AM on January 30, 2013 [11 favorites]

I don't know much about McGill's program. That said, honestly I don't think programming language knowledge, or even practical programming experience, is going to help much with the earlier parts of a traditional CS program. Yes, there is some programming involved, and a lot of it will probably feel really simple to you if you've been programming for a long time. But those early classes are also laying the foundations of things you probably wouldn't have learned as a self-taught programmer. Big-O notation, algorithms and data structures that you're expected to know but rarely encounter in the real world, all the mathematical stuff, etc. I think that if you tried to skip this, first you wouldn't be that successful, and second you'd be missing out on a lot of what you get out of a CS degree. In my experience it's actually in the *later* classes that programming experience comes in handy, because that's when you end up doing bigger projects that involve more (and more complex) code. YMMV.
posted by primethyme at 10:12 AM on January 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Anecdata from NC, US: I worked in IT doing web stuff for a few years before I went back to school to get a for-realz IT degree. I went online, at night and weekends, and didn't really have much trouble at all, sleep-wise or work-wise. I just lost some time gaming. (I was 32 at the time, and kid-free. Ahhh, those simple days.)

I'm now 40 and in a high-demand tech niche. Really, it depends on what you want to do and focus on. There are fields, like game design, where youth seems to be preferred, but in my experience age doesn't matter as much as experience and expertise. And niche: there are a metric ton of web coders out there, but the market for data geeks and software designers is tilted towards the employee rather than the employer (that's based on the cold recruiting hits I get for positions around the US).

So before you just pick a generic CS degree, do as KokuRyu recommends and figure out what you want to do and where you want to go. A CS degree in one field can be a huge plus, but in another field you'd just be wasting money.
posted by tigerjade at 10:15 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I studied computer science but never graduated (because of a single physics class!) but have been working in Silicon Valley since 2006 and am now 31. This industry, at least here, values experience over degrees, so it's sort of questionable to me how valuable a CS degree will be at this point. It certainly won't hurt, but it may not help as much as you think, either.

You don't mention if you've ever attended college, or if you've completed any part of a CS program, but if you find yourself in very easy classes, they shouldn't take much of your time. Usually you can just skip going to class in these cases with little penalty, and show up to turn in projects and take exams.

Working full-time and taking classes is a real challenge. I did this once, to try and complete that one missing physics class, and it wasn't easy. I had to make sure to leave work by 5:15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get to class by 6:00 and then wouldn't get home until 10:00, because a two-day-per-week night class is fairly long, and I had to go back and forth across town to get from work to school and then home. I find it hard to eleven you could keep up with more than two classes at a time without affecting your work, unless you are just unhumanly dedicated.

I don't think your age will be a particular issue, so long as you are ok with coming into the part of the industry that has a lot of 22-year-olds in it. If you graduate and get your "first real programming job" these people will probably be your peers, but your years of (hobby?) programming may actually give you an edge in hiring, as practical experience can be hard to,find in new graduates.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:16 AM on January 30, 2013

Sorry, I didn't see that you're in Montreal... I would say that the booming games industry in your town means that other areas of software are hurting for talent.

Listen to what McGill say with a grain of salt. The key is to research places where you might like to work, and see what they really want and need.

The challenge is that it'll take you 3 years or so to get that degree, and no-one can really forecast what things will be like 3 years from now. But in Victoria BC, people with a 2-3 year diploma are in demand, no matter what age.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:18 AM on January 30, 2013

Are you thinking of a four-year undergraduate degree? I've found that classes that target the fundamentals of whatever it is you're studying will demand and reward dedication to the material. There will be problems, topics, and projects where you could certainly bang out or look up the solutions, but you will not make the deep connections without actually spending lots of time staring at the obstacles, brainstorming solutions, and otherwise letting the creative ferment run ints course. It really isn't aboput how many languages you know (although it might help in trivial ways).

Like the posters above, I suggest that you strongly consider a professional master's degree, unless you've already considered this option and ruled it out.

KokuRyu, how would someone even identify and then get through to "hiring managers"? Most of the places I've worked for kept this kind of internal stuff tightly controlled precisely because they didn't want to field inquiries all day. I can't imagine how one would do it without a fairly tight personal connection.
posted by Nomyte at 10:19 AM on January 30, 2013

IANA tech person, but here's some anecdata for you:

I have a friend who is about to graduate with a BS in Computer Science from a well-regarded state university after returning to school at 32. (He had a BA and an MFA, and fluency and limited experience with several programming languages, before he started.) He worked full-time throughout his program, and he was still able to finish in just over 2 years. He said the first half of his coursework was mind-numbingly boring, but he was able to demonstrate his maturity and proficiency in programming to his professors early on, and lots of extra opportunities came his way. (For example, he became a teaching assistant during his second year, I believe.)

He's 35 now. He just scored a very competitive and well-paid internship in programming/development with a very successful, well-known company; it's very likely that the internship will become a permanent position. Even with just the internship, he is now better-compensated than the majority of friends in our social circle. He was willing to move a long way away for this internship, though.

One part of his success has been relating his prior experience and coursework to his skills in CS, so that the CS looks more like professional development than a complete career reboot, so to speak. His prior training and academic work is relevant to his particular niche in CS.
posted by Spinneret at 10:25 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

You don't need to talk to a hiring manager. Just look at the job openings that you'd be interested in and see what they list as preferred requirements - they should list the languages they want applicants to know, etc.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:26 AM on January 30, 2013

KokuRyu, how would someone even identify and then get through to "hiring managers"?

I think the OP (or anyone else) can get through to hiring managers just by picking up the phone. I'm thinking of organizations with less than 50 employees (anything bigger starts to become more and more bureaucratic).

Just pick up the phone and call the CEO. Often the COO leads the development team. Ask who to talk to for an informational interview. Email first. Try to approach on Twitter ("@CEOTwitterhandle, wondering who I can talk to about an informational interview about web dev")

Phone early in the morning, later in the afternoon. Whenever you get a toehold by reaching someone (that hiring manager) say you're looking for contacts at two other web dev shops for an informational interview.

It takes a little while to get that toehold, but after a while your network will grow.

I used this technique when I came back from living overseas and had no connections. Eventually I got a job at an industry association as a researcher because of my networking skills.

So it can be done if you persevere and approach the right orgs and people in the right way!
posted by KokuRyu at 10:29 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You say "go back to school", does that mean that you already have a degree in some other field? When I went back to school at Pitt at the age of thirty, I was able to transfer something like 70 credits from Penn State that I'd earned a dozen years earlier in my first attempt at a BS degree. I was able to finish a BS in Computer Science in only three years of night school (one or two classes a semester) because of all those earlier credits.

Oh and I got out of school at almost 34 and have never had a problem finding work in software and one of my best friends graduated at the same time as me at the age of 46 and has been steadily employed as a software developer ever since.
posted by octothorpe at 10:35 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a hiring manager. I am happy to help people with legitimate questions. However, I am also extremely busy, and find it incredibly annoying when people track down my phone number through reception or whatever and call me cold. Regardless of what the reason is. Phone calls are very disruptive. Again, YMMV. But at least for me, I'm a LOT more open to talking with someone if they come in via a mutual acquaintance (LinkedIn is your friend; you might be surprised how many connections you have at companies you're interested in). But yes, Twitter or potentially email could work too...
posted by primethyme at 10:52 AM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: I don't know if you are a Quebec native or if you're familiar with their post-secondary education system, so I'll just start from the beginning. I went to school at McGill and also worked in their General Administrative building, so I know a bit about their innards. I'm also assuming you are talking about a BSc or equivalent.

McGill, being a Quebec university, offers three-year degrees to anyone who attended CEGEP -- and it is not uncommon to shave off one or two years because of work/other experience. If you haven't worked in the industry, it is unlikely you will be awarded CS credits, but it is possible you may get non-program credits due to your age. If you went to CEGEP and attend summer school, it is possible to finish your degree in two years -- although working on the side is highly discouraged. If you did not go to CEGEP, three years is reasonable to expect, with summer school you could work on the side during most of your time.

I know many people who are doing their undergrad at your/our age, and I myself went back to school at 26. In fact a close friend of mine started a CS degree at 33 at U of T. He's doing fantastic, and working for RedHat now. Of course there will be some distance between you and your fellow students, but not intractable nor unpleasant. This will be the least of your worries, believe me -- unless you choose to get hung up about it!

I can't speak to the likelihood of the industry hiring you when you get out, but you can bet it wouldn't worsen your chances, and you'll have a degree, which will pretty much guarantee a higher salary and more rewarding work. Since you already live in Quebec, you can take advantage of their low tuition and excellent loans and bursaries program. If you are not already a Quebec resident, make sure you jump through the few bureaucratic hoops necessary to earn that label. I can show you how if you don't know.
posted by Catchfire at 10:53 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

It might be helpful to share your motivation here for getting that degree. If you're already familiar with 6ish programming languages, most of what you'll be going back for is to learn theory, right? If this is primarily for finding work, then knowing your data structures, algorithms, and computational complexity should be your aim. And you can do all of that without a university degree.

As for actually getting a job without a CS degree, well that depends on a few things. Do you already have a degree? In what field? At many of the bigger companies (Amazon / Microsof t / Google / etc.), a significant percentage of coders didn't major in CS. I have at least one friend who didn't do any college.

With no degree or no CS degree, the most important thing will be having connections in the kinds of places you're interested in working. A resume via an employee is infinitely more interesting to HR than one scraped off the web.
posted by Talisman at 12:07 AM on January 31, 2013

I was right about your age when I packed up the family and scooted off to college in another state.

It was a blast.

I was afraid of all these kids coming in right out of HS but I found out pretty fast they are mostly idiots who aren't all that in to learning.

It also helped being in the same age-range as most of the profs. I talked to them as equals, which they seemed to like. I got to know several outside of class as well.

Yes, the course work and the money work will eat up all of your time. What the hell were you going to spend those hours on anyway? More TV?

Go to college or don't go to college, but at least commit the same amount of time to doing something worthwhile.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:04 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody for all the answers. This has been tremendously helpful!

Some additional info, though I don't think it will alter the answers significantly:

I went to the University of Waterloo and studied physics but didn't finish my degree for reasons that aren't really relevant to this question.

My motivations for getting a degree (or diploma) are, frankly, unknown even to me. Which is to say I don't know exactly what kind of job I'd be interested in, or what specific fields to look at. My problem, which has been a problem my entire life, is that I'm interested in damn near everything. It makes narrowing things down...problematic.

Anyway, thanks again for all the answers everybody, you've given me lots to think about and some idea of a path to follow.

Answers still welcome if anyone's got them.
posted by Mister_Sleight_of_Hand at 8:43 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Which is to say I don't know exactly what kind of job I'd be interested in, or what specific fields to look at.

I didn't know either when I went back. Hell, I hadn't even been accepted or lined up a job or housing.

As I said, it was a blast! It was fun, it was an adventure.

Pretty soon I figured out what I wanted to study in one of the most profound epiphanies of my life (YMMV!). Still gives me goosebumps to think about it.

You don't have to have everything figured before you decide to get going, that's what I'm saying. Sometimes deciding helps you figure things out.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:46 AM on January 31, 2013

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