“Or Equivalent Experience”: Why You Don't Need a Four-Year Degree to Land a Coding Job

As total student loans in the US approach $1.5 trillion and the average university graduate braces for more than $35,000 in academic debt, more Americans are opting for less traditional—and faster—forms of education.

Of the 26,086 professional software developers who responded to a 2015 survey, nearly half were employed without a four-year degree in computer science, and 41.8% said they were self-taught.

Sanjala Chitnis, the Student Success Manager at our Seattle campus, provides students with a tailored curriculum that teaches interview skills, resume tips, and job-search best practices. Additionally, she provides continual support to job-seeking grads as they navigate their transition into a new career by offering tips on networking, search strategies, interviews, and offer negotiation.

“Growing up, the idea was that the branding and title of the college was the most important factor,” Chitnis said. “I assumed that ‘pedigree’ of a university was an indicator of intelligence. After leaving college and coming into the working world, that illusion has been fantastically shattered. College is so exclusive. Not everyone has the time, flexibility, or resources to go to college.”

She suggests that businesses who have a university degree criteria are missing out on a diverse pool of applicants. U.S. university and college enrollment has fallen six percent in the last four years, especially among low-income students.

Chitnis worked as a technical recruiter for Amazon, and said that going from a high volume, high visibility hiring organization (many of which tend to have biases deeply embedded into their hiring matrix, hindering the intent to diversify their tech talent) to Code Fellows has broadened her perspective on what it means to find the best candidate for the job.

“I thought coming to Code Fellows could potentially be a risk to my own career trajectory, because at the time, I didn’t realize the caliber of students I would be working with,” Chitnis said. “I’m blown away by the diverse programming talent here, and the majority of our students don’t have computer science degrees.”

Even Ivy League-educated world leaders agree that if you can do the job, you should get the job; pedigree should come second to what an applicant is able to do for a specific business. Both Ernst & Young and Penguin Random House recently removed degree criteria from their job application process.

So what can programmers without computer science degrees (or no college experience at all) do to get in the door? While the degree prerequisites for job consideration are changing, there is no denying that a four-year degree can still give certain candidates a leg up. Often, the toughest part is getting past application software that eliminates candidates without a degree before they have a chance to prove themselves. This is particularly true for larger companies.

Applying to smaller startups is a great way to increase individual visibility; and if you get hired, small and midsized companies often have more opportunities to build existing experience and gain new skills. When applying to giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, or Apple, networking at events and meetups (sometimes even hosted at the offices of large tech companies) will help you meet existing employees of the company you wish to join. This provides fact-finding opportunities, credibility, and an alternative “in” with a company that might otherwise disqualify you with software.

“Employers seeking tech talent want someone who can quantify and showcase their successes, and someone who can collaborate well with others,” Chitnis said. “It’s about how you’re able to connect with your previous experience and pull out situations where you made an impact, made something faster, increased revenue, or grew sales.”

If you’re preparing for a career change to software development, a four-year degree (or lack thereof) shouldn’t stand in your way—as long as you enter the workforce writing code, and writing it well. Chitnis contends that being able to leverage previous experience is the most important factor for applicants navigating interviews without a college diploma.

“At the end of the day, practical, hands-on work and understanding is what’s going to make people successful. That’s why so many of our graduates get hired at startups and midsize companies. It’s because companies want someone who’s scrappy, who has that get-it-done coding mentality… where they hit the ground running and continue to make a product better, make it work, and make it scale… It’s that driven, all-systems-go environment that you get here at Code Fellows and not at a four-year university. The best thing about students from places like Code Fellows is that while they may be junior developers, they are not junior employees—they have a professional maturity and ability to ramp up that sets them apart.”

Explore our current course list, and learn to write software in 16 weeks! In the meantime, be sure to check out these resources on planning your career change, explaining gaps in a resume, and preparing for an interview.

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