College or Google?
March 6, 2014 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Can and should my talented technophile nephew get a job at a company like Google instead of going to college?

My nephew will be 17 in November. He will be graduating a year early from high school this spring because of all the computer classes he took at the local community college as well as at a very prestigious university. He has been doing computer programming since the age of 11. He knows many programming languages, frameworks, tools, environments, etc. with varying degrees of depth. He has worked on mobile devices, desktops, servers, and various operating systems (mostly iOS, OS X, and Linux). He has dabbled with networking. He has interned at a company for several years doing some coding work related to management of a certain business process. He has developed his own iPhone apps as well as iPhone apps with collaborators. He's an easy-going and very likable kid.

He has applied to colleges and will hear from them soon, but the question mark about going to college is that he really doesn't love school very much. He gets OK grades but not top grades, and part of the reason is because he doesn't put in the effort. He's not a perfectionist so it doesn't bother him not to get all As even if he is capable of that.

My thinking is that if he doesn't love school, is there really much point in him getting a college degree if he's got so much experience and capability already in the field he wants to work in. Sure, college will teach him how to learn, and will expose him to lots of different things, but if he's not really into it, I question how much he will get out of it and what the opportunity cost will be of starting a career later than he could potentially start earlier. He clearly already has great capabilities when it comes to learning software engineering skills and applying them.

So my specific questions are:

- Based on what I said above, might it not be better just to jump into a full time career as a software developer after he graduates from high school? Does he really need the pedigree or education of a college degree to succeed in such a career? This recent article in the NY Times would seem to indicate that he doesn't need a degree.

- Is he too young to get a job at a major technology company like Google (not necessarily Google itself) in terms of age, experience, pedigree, maturity, etc.? Do they have a hard cutoff in terms of the youngest age person they will hire? He's obviously not as mature as an older person in certain ways, but in other ways such as his focus and communication skills when talking about technology, he is remarkably mature.

Thanks for some input.
posted by Dansaman to Education (53 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotally, I knew someone who got so bored with high school he got his GED, left early, and started working as a Linux Sysadmin. It may be that he was working for a more mom-and-pop shop though.

In general, tech pretends to be a meritocracy. This is largely a lie, but one way it's true is that hardly anyone has a hard requirement on a college degree if you can do the work. As far as hiring very young people at a place like Google, I'm really not sure.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:53 AM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Unless your nephew is literally a genius, I highly recommend against attempting a software developer career without a college degree. There are many companies that will hire software developers sans-degree. However, it's almost uniformly the case that those companies will not pay those un-degreed developers anywhere near a degreed developer position. Further, there are also many companies that will never hire software developers sans-degree. In particular, most all companies that work on government contracts are contractually bound to provide competent labor, and that is generally taken to mean having a college degree.

If your nephew likes doing development for fun, your nephew will be able to continue doing development for fun during college. Further, your nephew will have research opportunities available at colleges (which can include development he finds fun) that would not otherwise be available to him.

On preview, I agree with the thought that tech pretends to be a meritocracy. It's easy to say you'll consider a competent non-degreed professional, but when you're faced with 300 resumes for one position, guess whose resume is going the first into the trash. Personal recommendations help for a lot, but I wouldn't want your nephew to ever be in a position where he can't find such a recommendation. For however bad college is, being unemployed in tech is worse.
posted by saeculorum at 11:55 AM on March 6, 2014 [28 favorites]

If he's a total genius -- has won high level high school coding competitions or launched his own successful apps or something of that sort -- then it's plausible that he could find himself at a major technology company straight out of high school. But the chances of him getting there if he's spent some time in higher education, working on research projects, taking great internships, participating in more coding contests and generally proving himself both smart AND hard-working (something that seems to be lacking in your assessment of his character) is so much higher. It not only opens more doors at the few companies that even might consider him without the degree, it opens up the doors at the many, many, many more companies that would not consider him without the degree.

If he's not the kind of person who would get much out of college -- that is, not the kind of person who would find the interesting things to do and learn and figure out the ways to make the college experience awesomely educational for himself, even if sitting in Computer Science 101 is beneath him -- then he's probably not going to end up at Google, and he'd be severely limiting his career options at non-Google-like businesses where a degree is a pre-requisite.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:02 PM on March 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

The top companies want college grads, and Google wants them from Stanford, then Harvard, then Yale. Google is notoriously snobby that way.

Unless your nephew has already created an app that he can sell to Facebook for a billion dollars, I can think of NO reason for him NOT to go to College.

He can transfer his existing credits and he can get into a CS program.

He doesn't need to earn stellar grades in everything, he needs to pass his core classes and blow his CS classes out of the water.

While he's in school, he can do internships, or have a part-time job, or whatever else makes sense.

I work at a software company and we have an internship program, but until you get the degree, we're not even considering you. And we're a very niche player.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:03 PM on March 6, 2014 [9 favorites]

I work in IT as a computer programmer. I've been involved in the hiring process. College/university degrees are pretty much a necessity. It isn't just about "Learning how to learn". It is learning proper coding habits and standards. It is about learning proper coding structures, well, just learning to write clean code. Also, I just keep thinking about when I started my education in programming. It was a room of 40 people, most of whom felt they already were programmers, that they were "naturals", etc. But then when the coursework came a huge hit of reality greeted them. I was one of 6 people who actually finished the program and graduated (with honours I should add [collar pop]). My point is a company isn't going to trust someone's "I'm good at this" statements without proof that they've jumped some hurtles, and proven that they actually CAN do it.

Your nephew may be the Bobby Fischer of programming, but we wouldn't touch him with a ten foot pole without some sort of formal training that earned him a degree or diploma of some sort that related to programming. Maybe we'd be missing out, but it would simply be too much of a risk.

Sorry, but if he wants to work at someplace like Google then he needs to do university/college, complete the program, get the incredible grades you say his is capable of. If it is important to him then he needs to do it.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:03 PM on March 6, 2014 [9 favorites]

As someone who works in tech (feel free to MeMail me if you have more questions), I would definitely encourage your nephew to get a college degree in computer science. It's incredibly difficult to get a good software engineering career without formal training, since you are expected to know the theory behind everything (which takes dabblers a long time to learn, even if they can make things work) as well as certain conventions in coding (camelCase, how many tabs, when to submit a revision, how to comment your code, etc). In addition, he probably has a very thin resume currently.

That said, he should do internships while during college. Most companies only offer internships to current students. He'll get the experience. They pay good money. And it'll build his resume so he *can* get that job at Google or wherever he wants when graduates. Plus, internships are generally much easier to get than full time jobs, and it's a good way to get your foot in the door to demonstrate how smart and capable you are.

Lastly, there are definitely people at large companies who don't have college degrees, but they didn't usually start out those companies. You can work for 3 years at college (assuming you are smart and motivated and graduate early) exploring the world and figuring out your other interests or you can work 7 years at jobs that don't pay well with people you don't like and learning to hate working. I don't think college is that bad.
posted by ethidda at 12:04 PM on March 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't believe there is an entry-level track into Google or similar companies that doesn't require a college degree. If he built up a lot of experience and had a great reputation and was very lucky, he could end up being hired in the future; the only other hope would be founding or working for a very successful startup that gets acquired by a big company.

College will be more fun for him than high school. If he picks the right one, he can go heavy on CS courses and keep those he isn't interested in to a minimum. "Homework" in these classes will be programming. He can probably find part time work for the college or professors, and paid summer internships are very common. The point of all this is that the opportunity cost is really very little: you do learn useful things from a CS degree, and he'll be able to develop his career while going to school.
posted by vogon_poet at 12:04 PM on March 6, 2014

Thomas Friedman should not be considered an authority on getting a job in Silicon Valley. Google won't consider him unless he is unusually amazing. Pretty much everyone working there as a programmer has been programming since the age of 11... and also went to Stanford.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 12:04 PM on March 6, 2014 [15 favorites]

Yes, he's too young. Are there young, successful software developers that skipped college? Of course, but if he were going to do that, he'd probably already have the initiative and wouldn't be asking for advice or listening to it.

Most of college, in my opinion, is not necessarily about classes, but about socialization. When someone has a college degree, you assume that they know how to get things done on a deadline, that they can be motivated to complete tasks even if they're unpleasant, they can work in a team, etc. And I think it has some merit as helping some people become more well-rounded. So it's not even just that I think this a bad idea from a career perspective, but also from a personal perspective.

(BTW that article is fairly high on my bullshit meter. I applied to work for the big G recently and they not only wanted my college transcript, but my SAT score- a test I had taken 16 years before. I'm sure there are some open-minded hiring managers at Google, but the reality is that they love the big name schools, partially because they can afford to be picky. Ditto what the first two posters say about meritocracy)
posted by thewumpusisdead at 12:04 PM on March 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

Lots of companies are flexible on the issue of bachelor's degrees, but the flexibility is usually of the form "bachelor's degree OR n years relevant work experience." So a 17 year old, even if he's super talented, is not going to get past a recruiter.
posted by telegraph at 12:06 PM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Having worked in software development for my entire career, and having had some limited responsibilities for interviewing/hiring over that time, I would strongly advise that he go to college, even if he's absolutely brilliant.

I can't speak for Google as I've never worked there, but there have been cases where I've been hard-blocked on hiring someone without a college degree, even if I've liked the person and thought them intelligent and a good fit for the team. Most companies won't even look at you unless you have at least a BS. I strongly suspect Google is one of those companies.

The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world are few and far between. He needs to have a plan to fall back on.
posted by tckma at 12:06 PM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

My current gig is as a product manager, and our developers are all required to have college degrees. Same is true of the vendors we use for contract work. The above advice on going to college and continuing to hack on the side is good advice.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:11 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of the things that Big Companies (hell, even small ones) want to see in their employees is evidence that the employee will do a task and do it well even if it's boring and they don't love it. A college degree can be this evidence. Nobody gets to do fun stuff they love all the time, but that unfun stuff still needs to be done.
posted by rtha at 12:12 PM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

The root problem here is not wanting to put in the effort. (Completely normal for a young adult, btw.) Entry level developer jobs do not consist of dabbling in new technologies and doing what interests you. It's coding to specification. That fact that he's interested and able to learn many technical things does not make him an ideal entry level developer.

If he wants to head into big-firm IT, then it's off to college.
posted by 26.2 at 12:13 PM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all the input, which so far seems to be unanimously in favor of getting a college degree, and those responses do make sense to me.

So not that it matters, but just to clarify, he's not lazy or unmotivated. In fact I have no idea how he finds time and energy to do all the things he does, including a full high school class load, college classes, an internship, and his own coding projects (as well as other things he does that are not school and technology related).

I never say to people he's a genius. It's more about having a very focused interest, spending a lot of time on it, and excelling at it for those reasons.

Lastly, he did not say to me he doesn't want to go to college. I just know how he feels about classroom learning and that's why I posted this question here. But indeed I think he will enjoy classroom learning a lot more when most of the classes are about software development and computer science and everyone in the classes is interested in the same things he's interested in.
posted by Dansaman at 12:15 PM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

College can provide the fundamentals for a particular profession, but it is also (in theory) designed to help create a well-rounded individual that can think about a profession in integrative ways with other things. It's in part about growing up a bit and learning some skills for real-world interaction that isn't always super narrowly focused on one thing.

People will argue that this might be an ideal that colleges don't necessarily attain, and that college isn't for everyone. This is definitely true. But it's also true that there's no real reason to rush headlong into a profession at 17, either, because something important might be missed over a few years. Growing up a bit and finding yourself in a social environment can be an important part of the college experience.

Even if one were to disagree with all of that, I think the reality is that hiring processes like what college does for people, and it can be a test of sorts to see other things, as well (tenacity, long-suffering in the midst of difficulty or boredom, seeing a four-year "project" through to the end.) As long as this is a real perception in the world, the Big Thing one might be missing out on not going is the social currency of a diploma.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:16 PM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Big companies recruit from top colleges because the admissions staff and the CS program's coursework have done the heavy lifting for them.

So get your nephew to a top college. The recruiters will come around for him around...October? trading free food for his resume, and he can have some nice summer experiences at internships.

He should take challenging CS courses and TA them as well, pick up new hobbies so that when he makes the $$ he has something meaningful to spend it on, and talk to people dissimilar to himself in background but similar in motivation, because those are also perks of a top college.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:17 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The chances that your nephew would be hired by google with no college are vanishingly small.

He could get a job doing something adjacent to techy something, but it would likely be a dead-end sort of thing that wouldn't set him up for a career long term.

Long term, he has a better chance as an entrepreneur going into business for himself, with no college. But does he have an entrepreneurial mentality? Does he have the drive and focus -- or even the raw know-how -- to go into business for himself at 17-18?

If he's really really sure he doesn't want to go to college, I could see maybe having him take some time off, get one of these dead-end tech jobs, and see how he enjoys the working world for a bit until he has the focus and dedication to get a degree.

I took a year off of college and it really put a lot into perspective for me. However, my situation was very much not analogous to your nephew's situation (I liked school but felt burned out, and I didn't have a sense of how my interest in the humanities translated into the working world).

One thing to consider, for him, in terms of deferring college in order to work in the short term, would be how hirable he is as a seventeen year old. Does he need any special permission in order to get a job? Are there restrictions on the number of hours he can work because of his age? Would companies in your area be willing to hire someone who isn't legally an adult?

There are a lot of points in favor of college, even if he's not wildly enthusiastic about more school.

Firstly, if he's able to get into a competitive technical program (somewhere like MIT, CalTech, Texas A&M, etc), he will probably find his experience of school very different from what he's used to. If he truly loves STEM subject areas, he will be in hog heaven. He will be surrounded with other likeminded people who are also there because they love learning, are fascinated by technology, are natural problem-solvers, etc. (Or even just people who also love to play minecraft all weekend and watch anime -- and there's something to be said for surrounding yourself with your fellow dorks.)

Secondly, college is sort of the default place to do the transitional growing from child to adult within American culture. If the family can't afford it, and your nephew is going to need to transition to the working world rather than expecting to attend college, that's how it is, I guess. But if his family can afford to send him, it will buff the rough edges off of all those questions I had above about whether he's ready for a career at his (still extremely young) age.

The people I knew who graduated high school early and did not proceed directly to a very structured college environment did not do well as young adults. American culture really doesn't position 16 and 17 year olds to just hurtle out into the grownup world without a net. In my opinion/experience, it's especially dangerous to be thrust into this as a particularly intelligent kid, because a lot of people confuse intelligence with maturity. I'm reading a little of this into your question, to be honest. Hey, he's smart, he knows a million programming languages, he graduated from high school early and even attended elite university courses. Therefore he's ready to just go get a job now, right? Not necessarily.

Thirdly, do not underestimate college as a place for networking and growing professionally. If he does want to eventually go into business for himself, college provides a lot of ways to dip your toe into that, and throws you in with a lot of likeminded people who are good to know when you're looking for a cofounder, a designer, someone to help when you have a deadline looming, etc. Nobody -- not even a techie introvert -- is an island, and most of these kinds of communities don't come together in high school.
posted by Sara C. at 12:18 PM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Having read some of the comments already, I'm surprised to find my experiences are in direct contradiction to what others are saying. I live in Seattle and have many friends who work for Microsoft, Google and Amazon in various areas (coding, project management, engineering, ect.). Many of these people do not have college degrees (or unrelated ones) - they simply demonstrated their ability to perform the necessary job duties and let their experience or portfolio speak for themselves.

That's not to say a college degree wouldn't be beneficial (and perhaps a way to negotiate higher salary), but my experience (I have an unrelated degree to the e-comm environment I work) has been that most companies don't care about that piece of paper. My partner, for example, has a GED but does not have a degree, and has had no problems finding jobs in his field (QA/Testing).

Coders and developers are in high demand - to the point where I feel many companies overlook a college degree in order to secure talent since often times the alternative is recruiting someone here on a work Visa. I would think your nephew would have little difficulty finding a job here (Seattle) without a degree, especially if he's comfortable with his coding/development skills and has a solid portfolio, but as the answers are showing YMMV.
posted by stubbehtail at 12:18 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have several friends who have good solid well-paying tech jobs but no degree. Universally, two things are true about these friends:

1) They got their jobs in the mid-nineties, when things were different.

2) They are locked tight into their current jobs at their current companies, because even with fifteen or twenty years' experience, they have trouble getting other hiring managers to look twice at them -- since they don't have a college degree.
posted by KathrynT at 12:19 PM on March 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

any of these people do not have college degrees (or unrelated ones)

Also, to address this point specifically -- an unrelated degree is a vastly, vastly, vastly different proposition than NO degree. Unrelated degree: minor hitch, if anything. No degree? Big problem.
posted by KathrynT at 12:22 PM on March 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

Back in the original dot-com boom, when there was a huge shortage of talent, the tech company I worked for would hire just about ANYone who had demonstrable skill, BUT stupid HR policies ensured that those hires would NOT be paid as much as their degreed peers (even if they were way better devs), AND used the lack of degree as an excuse to artificially (IMO) keep those devs in lower-tier positions. They were denied advancement.

Having said that: what is your nephew's financial aid / tuition situation going to be? If he will come out of college with a butt-load of debt, it might warrant thinking about him trying to work his way into a more loosey-goosey small company, make a pile of money, and then go to college a few years down the line. I guess my dream scenario for the kid would be that he head straight to a company that offers college tuition reimbursement, so he can work AND get help from his job paying the tuition.

I think not having a degree, sadly, is one of those things that hangs over a person's head for the rest of their professional life. I think it's stupid snobbishness in our culture, but I've known too many guys (in various lines of work, but primarily tech because that's my niche) who have self-worth / self-esteem / shame issues for not having a degree. Again, I think that's sad and unnecessary, but worth considering in terms of quality-of-life, long-range.
posted by nacho fries at 12:23 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's possible especially for lower-level jobs. Many sysadmins, web developers, database developers, etc don't have college degrees, even at big companies. But to work developing software at a large software company, you do need a CS or similar degree.
posted by miyabo at 12:24 PM on March 6, 2014

When Google talks about hiring people without a college degree, what they mean is that they found a highly successful, very talented, mid-career developer with a substantial track record of success who just happened not to have completed college. They don't mean that they hire young talented programmers straight out of high school.

Since he seems to perform well in the classroom, there is no reason for you to worry about whether he will get anything out of college, at least, any more than anyone else.
posted by deanc at 12:30 PM on March 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Woah man do I disagree strongly with nearly every other post here.

> - Based on what I said above, might it not be better just to jump into a full time career as a software developer after he graduates from high school? Does he really need the pedigree or education of a college degree to succeed in such a career? This recent article in the NY Times would seem to indicate that he doesn't need a degree.

I can't answer your question so much as relay my own story, and I am not a "genius" as other posters have mentioned. You don't need to be a genius, you just need to work persistently:

At around 14 I became wildly interested in coding, computers, and hanging out in hacker IRC channels and wildly disinterested and rebellious against school, fueled by things like the Hacker Manifesto, and because I have been blessed by wonderfully understanding parents, I was allowed to 'drop out' and be unschooled from Sophomore year on, and taught myself to code websites and to design. I also worked at the local apple repair shop (before Apple had it's own brick and mortar stores) and learned a ton about computer hardware there. In the evenings I would make websites and design things and post them online.

One of the things that I posted online in my free time went viral, and half a million views on an image you created is a big thing for a 16-year-old. The right people saw it, and a company came to me and asked whether I was doing freelance work. I thought "I am now!"

At 18, after doing a year or two of freelance work, putting my name on things, getting a reputation in the field, I was offered a junior position at a start-up in San Francisco, who would pay to relocate me. I was making more than anyone in my family and living in the big city. No one asked me whether I had gone to college, or any school at all, all they cared about was my portfolio of proven results. No one even asked my age until a couple of months into working there, when people were opening beers after a long day and I was offered one, and I had to admit I wasn't legal age yet.

If you're asking whether he can get a job at a start-up and begin a career without a degree, I'm here to tell you yes.

- Is he too young to get a job at a major technology company like Google (not necessarily Google itself) in terms of age, experience, pedigree, maturity, etc.? Do they have a hard cutoff in terms of the youngest age person they will hire? He's obviously not as mature as an older person in certain ways, but in other ways such as his focus and communication skills when talking about technology, he is remarkably mature.

It really depends on the company and it's culture. If the question is literally can he work for a big technology company like Google, Twitter, Netflix, Salesforce, GitHub, Facebook without a college degree and proven track record- that will be very hard. But as I learned myself, I think that those are not really the companies he is going to want to work at. Those companies are very structured, 9-to-5 deals where your impact is not often very visible to the world, and is pretty corporate. Young people like me (and I would assume your nephew) don't want those jobs, necessarily. We may eventually find ourselves in one after gaining a family, but I think the real prize is start-ups. Being a founder or one of the first 5-10 employees, and getting equity and a market salary at a start-up you can really have a hand in affecting.

Places like that put an emphasis on results and attitude. Having a portfolio of apps that he has created could get him in the door to more than 5 places I can think of. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a track record of success. College is a way of buying that track record, showing you have done things relevant to your career. But if you can just do those things yourself and make your own track record, no one is very upset about it.

I have since moved back to NY to be closer to family, but I am still contacted by recruiters and companies asking me to interview. I have done around a dozen that were interesting, and not one of them asked about my education, whether I had a degree, or anything like that. The fact of the matter is there isn't a degree yet for iPhone apps. You've either made one or you haven't. And if you've made one before, the likelihood of you making another one are pretty good, and no college transcript can be more reassuring than that to someone in charge of hiring at a technology company.

> Unless your nephew is literally a genius, I highly recommend against attempting a software developer career without a college degree. There are many companies that will hire software developers sans-degree. However, it's almost uniformly the case that those companies will not pay those un-degreed developers anywhere near a degreed developer position.
Again, this is a difference between start-ups and bigger corporate tech companies, but in my experience a person's salary has a lot less to do with their skill and experience and a lot more to do with their negotiation skill, and in fact, whether they negotiate at all. It seems that people without degrees value themselves less, or feel they don't have leverage to explain why they are worth more, but as mentioned, if you can have a track record of success, and say "I will make you this much more, this is why I am worth it" you can avoid these problems.
posted by ejfox at 12:31 PM on March 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

One of the sentences you wrote struck a chord with me:
He's not a perfectionist so it doesn't bother him not to get all As even if he is capable of that.

I've been in software product development for over 30 years. One of the most important characteristics of successful developers that write production code (as opposed to code for personal use or to give to friends) is that they are perfectionists. Coding is an incredibly fussy job. Making it work for the "happy path" (where all inputs are correct) is only 10% of the work. That's the fun part. The hard work comes when you make it handle error conditions, corner cases, etc... and when you test it to make sure that it really does handle all conditions correctly.
posted by elmay at 12:42 PM on March 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

Hiring programmers is a significant part of my job.

Because of the specialized field that we're in, it's acceptable and relatively common for me to work with people who don't have college degrees. That said, a formal education in computer science and related disciplines is still very valuable.

If your nephew is extremely self-motivated and wants to try starting his own business rather than going to school, that could certainly be worth a shot. He could also take some time off to do some open source work. But I wouldn't think of this as "get a job with Google instead of going to school".

(Google does sometimes recruit recent high school graduates, but that's the exception rather than the rule.)
posted by alms at 12:42 PM on March 6, 2014

What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college. (src)

Note what this is saying...

1) It's about *some* teams, not Google as a whole

2) 14% means maybe somewhere in Google there is a team of 30 people, and 4 of them didn't go to college

3) Those 4 people most likely did not start their careers at Google. They likely have years of impressive experience at other companies and/or were rock stars in open source projects.

Your nephew is not going to get a job at Google or its like out of high school, unless maybe he's already created something that is making waves in the tech world.

He could possibly get a job at some tech company that is much lower down the food chain, and if he does that, maybe someday he'll have the track record to be sought after by the Googles of the world. Even that is unlikely as the kind of work being done in those other companies would usually be pretty unchallenging by Google standards.

By far the most likely way to get into Google is to study Comp Sci or similar at a top university, get stellar grades, and also be a very good programmer.

However, if he really dislikes academic work and his programming track record is good enough he might well be able to land some kind of job. But not all the same ones as might be possible with college.

If it came to that he would be certainly be a lot more employable and be able to make a better salary than the average non-college grad can.
posted by philipy at 12:45 PM on March 6, 2014

I'm going to take a different point of view than most of the folks here; as a college advisor (though not your nephew's college advisor), the first and second year (or third or fourth) students I see who are doing very badly are often the folks who aren't entirely sure they want to be there (there are, of course, as host of other reasons why people do badly in their first years of school as well).

If Nephew isn't sure he wants to go college right out of the gate - and that's unclear from your post, but assuming he's not - there's plenty of middle ground between "go straight to college" and "get hired at supertech company". There's volunteering or traveling if his family has the means, a dead end job with less vertical mobility than some (be it a tech job or not), working at an age appropriate gap year sort of job (camps, hostels, that kind of thing), combining working and transfer classes at his local community college (you mention computer classes, but once/if he goes off to a four year school, he's going to need english 101 and such too), etc. There's no reason not to take some kind of middle ground, and every reason to put off going to college for a year or two if he's not absolutely sure he's ready to go yet. That year or two will also help polish his soft skills - and likable kid or not, soft skills are hard when you're 17 - and mean that he's even more likely to be that top flyer college student when he does get there.
posted by joycehealy at 12:46 PM on March 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

Prestige is more important than tech lets on, sadly.

Particularly if he ever wants to lead. Or if he's 28 and wants an MBA -- guess what -- he doesn't hit the prereqs!

But university can be great. Have him find somewhere prestigious but also that matches his personality. Perhaps studying comp sci would be redundent for him? He could instead focus on something like applied math, computer learning, statistical modelling, or any other high-power fields that add multiplicative power to programming skills.

Tech is one of the few areas where a genius can make a name for himself. Medicine? There is no chance to just try your hand at surgery. Finance? Yeah, right, try getting someone to lend you a few million with no degree. Tech? Sure, code something. If it's great, and you are great at promoting it, and also a little lucky, hell, who knows man! But startup culture is different, and still, if you ever want VC funding you damn well better have a connection to Stanford or Berkeley alum networks.

Tell him to go to school. It's not that bad.
posted by jjmoney at 12:52 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I began writing a response to ejfox's answer, but it turned into a snippy cynical rant.

Instead, I will posit that it is an interesting thought exercise to consider ejfox's situation had he not had one of his works go viral or if he was interested in less-visible software design. The vast majority of software developers work on software that is never seen by anyone. Apps are a valuable (and profitable!) form of software development, but if the OP's nephew ever wants to leave that, I hope the OP's nephew has background outside of app development. Said development is what college is good for.

I can say more, but my answer would no longer be polite and well-suited to Ask MeFi.
posted by saeculorum at 12:57 PM on March 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Taking the long-term view, I'd worry that he'd run into what has happened to a couple of friends of mine who went the college-drop-out-straight-into-work route. They flourished at their jobs for many years and did very well, but then the day came, as it does, when they wanted to work other places for various reasons. (Moving, medical issues, just wanting a change of scene, etc.)

In both cases they found that the lack of formal schooling really hindered their chances in the next job. I'm not sure if degrees are more important now than they were in the early 90s when these friends were leaving school, or if skipping the schooling meant they never learned some of the stuff they were getting asked in interviews and that was harder to overlook in an experienced programmer than it had been in a fresh young hire, or what. But it was an unexpected complication for both of them that resulted in a harder time getting an offer, and lower pay when the offers did finally come.

Maybe there's a middle ground - try to find a job at a company that will pay for him to pursue education along with his work, or try to find a degree program with a significant hands-on internship or other work component, so he can get out into the world as soon as possible? I think taking some time to explore nontraditional options might not be a bad idea, but would strongly recommend against just throwing college out the window altogether.
posted by Stacey at 1:03 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a no-college programmer and I am 27 now. My career path so far looks a lot like you're probably thinking of and I have had an super easy time finding satisfying and lucrative work (although the idea of working at large companies like Google weirds me out, so I have worked exclusively at small and medium ones.) I know a handful of other people who are in a similar position. I suggest that these are the preconditions to being able to do this:

1) Otherwise obtain 80% of the knowledge you would get in through a bachelor's in CS at a good school, because it's practically useful and companies test for it. This is a combination of reading textbooks and practicing programming.

2) Have a network of programmer friends who you can talk to and who can help you find useful work. For me, this is just my Bay Area social network, and before, it was my social network online. For you, you might have to consciously do professional networking.

3) Build a portfolio of obviously high-quality work, e.g. software you wrote or contributions to OSS projects.

4) Be kind of lucky.

I'm guessing that your nephew is probably still short on at least 1 and 3 (I was when I was 17, even though I had spent years programming, doing TopCoder, and reading CS books in the evenings) so he should try to make sure he can meet these standards before getting too optimistic.

Finally, it's really not true that you will have to go through some opaque HR department that will throw your resume in the bin. That is basically only true if you go to work for a giant company or a non-software company. Go read the job postings here:

These are, for the most part, as honest and straightforward as they look. They will hire you if you have the skills they are discussing and you can demonstrate it. But that is not a low bar, and you have to meet it.
posted by value of information at 1:14 PM on March 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

For a bit of a contrary perspective, here are some essays from Paul Graham, who is not only a hacker par excellence, but also now spends his time helping people, many quite young, form startups. His company, Y-Combinator is a startup accelerator, designed to give people a small amount of seed capital and a rigorous development cycle.

"What should you do in college to become a good hacker? There are two main things you can do: become very good at programming, and learn a lot about specific, cool problems. These turn out to be equivalent, because each drives you to do the other."

A Student's Guide to Startups
"The most ambitious students will at this point be asking: Why wait till you graduate? Why not start a startup while you're in college? In fact, why go to college at all? Why not start a startup instead?"

The short of it is that Graham will accept folks still in college only if they feel compelled to start a company right now. Otherwise even he thinks people should go to college.

Now, I think it's also worth considering that Paul Graham chose to name his company after a very technical part of computer science, one that you might only study in college, and not necessarily even there.
posted by wnissen at 1:42 PM on March 6, 2014

I think deanc and phillipy have it right.

Google (and similar companies) does not _require_ a college degree, or that you went to Stanford, or any of that stuff (lots of misinformation from some earlier posters). You do not have to have been programming since age 11 or 5 or whatever. (While I did a tiny bit of programming as a kid, I didn't really learn anything useful until college and I've worked at Microsoft and Google).

However, the tech industry is still very very competitive, despite there being a lot of hiring and positions. Standing out in that crowd is tough. There are a few ways people do it:

1) Go to a well-known CS program. This is the sort of default track, it works well, and is what I would recommend. (Its what I did, btw)
2) Get hired by a small company / startup / lower-tier company, build up a reputation and work, and change jobs a few times, each time going to a "better" job.
3) Do something _amazing_ in the open source world that you can point to

So yeah, in theory 3 is an option. But its wayyy less likely than 1 or 2. And 2 takes longer than 1.

So really the fastest route would be through college. Thats a good way to get an internship at companies like Apple/Microsoft/Google/Facebook which is a really good way to get experience, resume, and contacts.

Last point I would make --- lots of people can write / hack up some code. Going to a _computer science_ program (as opposed to computer engineering or whatever) teaches you math, algorithms, lots of stuff you typically _wont_ learn on the job, but that is very good to know. Do you use it every day? Not really. But is having that background understanding useful to be a great programmer? Absolutely.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:48 PM on March 6, 2014

I went to MIT. I did learn some awesome computer science stuff there. Advanced stuff such as promises, writing "small" (task-specific) languages, and database theory. But much more important, I learned how to work in teams, how to learn things FAST, how to pull an all-nighter, and (most importantly) the introductory lessons in how to relate to women as both girlfriends and coworkers.

My advice: Definitely go to college. Don't take courses like "Learn to program in Python." Instead, take courses such as programming language design, or at the very least, a comparative programming language course. Definitely take as many courses in Artificial Intelligence as you can -- today's AI is tomorrow's mainstream programming. Also take some math courses, of course. You'll have to take calculus, and that's good, but also take a course in statistics: current AI uses a lot of the same ideas. Also make SURE to take a course in biology, especially the kind of course where they assign 2-3 papers from major journals every week and expect you to speak intelligently about them. I took an Intro to Animal Behavior course at Harvard, and it was worth all the extra work of doing so. Being able to read, understand, and critique a real live technical paper/journal article is something that is super helpful in an engineering/management job.

WHILE you are doing that, get yourself the latest iPad or Android tablet, a developer kit, and make some apps. Start simple, do what makes YOU happy, and then work your way up to having something that is good enough to get into an App Store. This will teach you how to cope with the fast-changing SDKs and help you learn how to cope with all the problems of making apps that have nothing to do with lines of code. Showing a hiring manager something they can actually purchase and use is an awesome way to impress.

You could, alternately, work on an Open Source project, but if you want to go work for Google or Apple, they're going to look for someone who has some leadership credentials.
posted by haineux at 2:05 PM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

My friend did a degree in "unrelated" (I think it was physics?) engineering, then went to Hacker School in NYC for 4 months and got picked up as a software engineer for Etsy. But the degree got him there, even if it wasn't directly a Computer Science Degree. It was a challenging program, and on top of that he did some really clever stuff at hacker school (it's not actually for hackers, it's more of an open source programming thing).

Maybe in the 80s if he was super clever and computers were still the new kid on the block, it would have been possible to jump in on a career after high school, but nowadays you need a Bachelors to be competitive to work anywhere more engaging than Walmart unless you decide to go to the trades (which is more than legit, at times I wish I did a trade instead of my Masters...).

I would say that if he's not a huge fan of classroom learning, look for somewhere more unconventional or with more unique opportunities. MIT is a big one, any program with a solid co-op program where they stick you in the workplace every few semesters, or just really pushing going into internships in the summer.
posted by aggyface at 2:07 PM on March 6, 2014

he really doesn't love school very much
College / university is a totally different experience from going to high school. I hated high school and loved university. But in my case I graduated 2 years early and would never have considered not going to university. I love learning.
posted by whatzit at 2:11 PM on March 6, 2014

I have a lot in common with him. I got into IT and web dev at an early age, made good money doing it with only a GED during my teens and early 20s. Now I'm 26, halfway through a BS in Computer Science and loving the experience!

There is so much he will get out of a computer science degree which will help him in his career as a software developer. Higher level math, data structures, algorithms. Not many people learn these things on their own. Plus the interaction with the other students and professors is awesome!

I hated high school, hence the GED, but I'm loving college. He'll have to grind through some classes he dislikes, sure. How to get A's in those classes is another important thing you learn in college.

Could he freelance or work at a mid-level company without the degree? Yes, but as everyone is saying forget google, amazon, etc. If he is totally burnt out on academia right now, he could definitely work for a year or two. If he wants the high-paying, stable software dev job I recommend the degree.
posted by meta87 at 2:39 PM on March 6, 2014

He should absolutely go to college.

I used to work in tech recruiting. His resume will be screened out by the online application systems at most companies - it won't even be seen by a human. A college degree is just considered pretty much a necessity today. Unless he builds his own company from scratch.

But putting aside the practicalities here - even if Google were hiring 10th graders off the street if they showed promise - I'd still argue he should go to college. No matter how good his skills are, they still have room to grow with rigorous work and the right professors pushing him. Taking classes he's actually interested in may lead him to see school in a whole new light. He may become interested in new, exciting elements of CS that he wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. And, to your maturity point - college is where most people learn how to be adults. It's not the only way, of course, but it is an effective one. And if he's going to enter the tech world, it's absolutely one of the common, socialization-like experiences that binds people together and teaches them how to interact.
posted by leitmotif at 3:38 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The question is not "if college" but "which college". He can find one that will bury him in wonderful techy things and not require four semesters of English or French or sociology.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:37 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know people who have paying jobs who did this sort of thing, but "programming since age 11" basically describes, these days, most top-tier CS students. The ability to get work should not be mistaken for the preferred career track if one actually wants to work at top-tier companies doing top-tier things. But even more than that, those people are people who work very, very hard at being the best they possibly can be, and if he is not yet that sort of person at 17, he is going to need those college years to learn that.

Or else he might very well be able to get a job of some sort at this stage, but it will not be the sort of amazing job you're picturing for him.

What, exactly, does HE want?
posted by Sequence at 5:29 PM on March 6, 2014

The question is not "if college" but "which college". He can find one that will bury him in wonderful techy things and not require four semesters of English or French or sociology.

This is pretty silly. Yes, the right college (more or less) is important, but technology and culture are inseparable. Engineers that don't understand that are apt to create failures, or brutal, inhumane successes. Why would you encourage either one of those?

A friend of mine has a BS and MS in EE, but ended up making his career as a software developer. He recently shared something that seemed to have a lot of resonance with his cohort. As a young engineer, you will wish you'd taken more business classes. Later in your career, you'll wish you took more humanities classes.
posted by Good Brain at 5:37 PM on March 6, 2014

Btw it occurs to me that if he's finishing high school a year early because of taking a bunch of community college and university courses, that does not at all sound like someone who would hate college.

If he seems not to be into school, it may just be that he's not into subjects that he is required to do at school but has little enthusiasm for. Majoring in something he's very interested in may be a whole different experience. Or it could even be that school is not challenging enough for him, and he's bored with it.
posted by philipy at 5:45 PM on March 6, 2014

Here are my suggestions:
1. might it not be better just to jump into a full time career as a software developer after he graduates from high school?
Definitely no, my suggestion is to continue his colleague study and get the degree at least. I know there are more priorities for talents but it's not the "Must" thing. People will respect those who have higher degree and also educated talents. Anyway, if it's not so longing to make a living in social, why not to leave him to do what his age should do now? Needless to say, his talent will be tact and improved as the time goes.
2. Is he too young to get a job at a major technology company like Google?
Answer is no, there are many examples in Google that some of their programmers are even under 10, you can google to find out.
3. Do they have a hard cutoff in terms of the youngest age person they will hire?
I don't know the right answer because i never worked in this company, but i think it should be same. If there is a hard cutoff for any other adult employees, your nephew may encounter the similar situation.
posted by lizabrown234 at 6:16 PM on March 6, 2014

The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world are few and far between. He needs to have a plan to fall back on.

It should be pointed out that Mark Zuckerberg attended Harvard for two years, and made $30 billion by starting a company with his college roommates that provided a service to college students. I can't imagine that he regrets going to college.
posted by leopard at 7:29 PM on March 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

Regarding Google specifically, the options are (a) a degree, (b) several years of experience, or (c) a startup that happens to be the lucky one that takes off. In terms of time and expected payoff, getting a degree is the quickest and highest expected payout of these options.

I do know people who've taken the other routes and been successful - opting not to go to uni and just start working instead. What's interesting is that most of them are currently studying for a degree part time - while working full time. So it doesn't have to be either/or. Similarly you can drop to part time from full time during a degree if the right opportunity happens.
posted by Ashlyth at 9:08 PM on March 6, 2014

The job doesn't sound like a bad idea, but to me, I'd just worry about his maturity level and the responsibility of a real job and the stress of that. Plus, in college he'll meet other kids his age whereas at a company like that, everyone will be older.

But if it's what he wants, he can always decide to go to college later. After one year, he could realize he does want a college degree and go that route. College will always be there. I wouldn't necessarily say going to college for a year and dropping out is as good of an option.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:00 PM on March 6, 2014

Ex-Googler here. Google is very focused on qualifications which is why there are so many PhDs working there. Generally it wants applicants to be significantly over-qualified for the role. There have been cases of people without degrees being hired based on exceptional industry experience (I know of 3 and I am one of them), but it's rare and your nephew does not have that experience.
He should go to college, it'll be fun and it will make his career a lot more certain.
posted by w0mbat at 12:02 AM on March 7, 2014

There are so many social and personal benefits to college that make it worthwhile to pursue (and different from high school) even if classroom learning isn't something the individual enjoys. My own college experience was so wildly different to school (and so important in teaching me to think and write and live like a real person in the real world) that I'd encourage him to go just for those reasons. The fact that he can tailor his courseload to his interests should go a long way to mitigate a dislike of structured learning - and it's likely that the learning will be structured in an entirely different way anyway.

The tech industry isn't going anywhere, and after four years he'll almost certainly have a better idea of himself as a person. I'd have been an awful employee if I'd gone into my post-college job straight out of school, so I think there's something to be said too for the additional couple of years of maturity and experience you pick up along the way and the benefits of that when you actually join the workforce.

It's a probably a good idea (and may be a course requirement) for him to spend a couple of summers (pre-, post- or during college) interning at software companies - this will help build relationships with potential future employers and give him an idea of the range of companies out there and what doing it as a job is actually like. I work in software (though in the UK), and the vast majority of our graduate hiring is done through the internship program we run for college students.
posted by terretu at 1:21 AM on March 7, 2014

From someone who despises classroom "learning"...

If your nephew is good at self-structuring, I say take a year or two off -- work in tech -- then go to college. And only if he feels he is missing the social experience or wants to deepen his CS skills! By then he'll have an even better entrance portfolio, be mature enough to handle the deadening routine, and have some money saved up to pay for it all.


- move to a large tech city
- get hired as a junior developer on a small, all-hands-on-deck firm
- build portfolio with interesting freelance work and open source projects
- go to meetups / hackgroups
- look for mentors & internships
- mash together a couple college CS curriculums for some light reading
- read code, write code, test code

I would only go now if his financial situation is better without savings -- he's terrible at making friends -- or he can get into a really, really good CS program filled with motivated curious folk. Otherwise he'll be broke and bored stiff.
posted by fritillary at 2:45 AM on March 7, 2014

I'm in my mid-30s and worked my way up to a development job at a small company I have been with for 12 years. About 5 years ago, I decided to just get my degree - both to cover me in case something happens here, and broaden my knowledge a bit. If I were to try to find another job, I'd be buried by other people who have degrees and more experience.

I think it would have been a lot easier to just do college when I was in my teens and 20s than it is to do it now with a husband, projects around the house, and a career. (And if he is as wicked smart as you say he is, college should be a breeze for him.)
posted by getawaysticks at 7:53 AM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel like this article contributes to this debate:
posted by ejfox at 10:50 AM on March 9, 2014

« Older A different sort of podcast question   |   These projects aren't going to manage themselves Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.