The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Do You Need a CS Degree?

August 26, 2021

First, I’m writing this for hiring managers; if you are seeking a job or starting a career in software development, this may not be helpful to you, depending on your own situation. Also, I started my software career in 1999, and basically by accident. A lot has changed since then so your mileage may vary. OK, on with it.

It was around 2015 and I found myself in a small conference room in a downtown Boston high-rise office building with one of my company’s co-founders, its chief architect, and a woman interviewing for a software job.

I was a senior engineer and fledgling manager at that time, and was asked to join for lunch and help sell the senior engineer role to this person. I’ve never turned down a free lunch in my entire life; I’ll pretty much sell anything you want me to in exchange for a sandwich.

The conversation briefly and casually wandered to the candidate’s education history and she shared that her degree was in… I struggle to recall, but it was something like digital media. It’s worth noting that this “sell lunch” was happening in the first place because this woman hit all of the tech rounds out of the park and we really wanted her to join our team, so there was no criticism of that fact in this moment.

In my recollection, she was both concerned about her lack of tech degree and relating to us her challenges in breaking into the tech industry without one.

The chief architect interrupted, saying, “Raise your hand if your degree is in computer science.”

No hands were raised.

Our two co-founders both majored in general engineering fields (mechanical, electrical, something like that), and our chief architect held a degree in eastern languages or anthropology or some such humanities subject.

As you know by now, my degree is in graphic design, and I taught myself PHP because I wanted to put my diary on the interwebs.

Ultimately, the candidate accepted the position and had a relatively long and successful journey at the company (five years, if memory serves).

The moral of the story

If there is one take-away here for anyone, it is that technical ability (in software, at least) has less to do with formal education and more to do with capacity to learn.

Too often, degrees are used as filters at the top of the hiring funnel to reduce strain on the pipeline, and in my view that approach denies the organization access to lots of high-quality candidates. My advice is to find practical ways to scale your hiring pipeline without using weak proxy data points like college degree.

Tools like Karat or Codility, or creating your own take-home assignments are options that can work, depending on your organization’s size and the requirements of your roles.

Ultimately, building a team of creative, fast learners is the one sure-fire way to accelerate the growth of a tech organization. Don’t let formal education history get in the way of that goal.