Do Your Developers Need College Degrees?

Once, a degree was critical for landing a software development job. But it’s become increasingly less important. So, is it necessary when hiring a developer?
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Roughly 75% of developers around the world have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to Stack Overflow’s 2020 survey. The vast majority of these respondents attained their degree in computer science, computer engineering, or software engineering.

Traditionally, this was a prerequisite for hiring professionals in the software field. But increasingly, developers are following different paths — they may have attended a coding bootcamp, for example, or they could even be self-taught.

So, if you’re looking to hire a talented software developer who will play an instrumental role in improving your business, is it critical to look for someone with a degree?

The Case for a Degree

Computer science, software engineering, and similar degree programs are extraordinarily demanding and rigorous. When you’re considering candidates with a bachelor of science — or a master’s — in one of these disciplines, you’ll rest assured that they are capable, highly proficient, and hard-working. Those are all the ingredients for a well-qualified software developer.

In addition, these programs equip students with theoretical knowledge, as well as experience practicing. This will give them broader context and, arguably, the ability to grapple with ever-changing technologies and the demands associated with them. 

And because the majority of degree-granting programs also offer a comprehensive curriculum with requirements in other disciplines like writing and social science, students gain the crucial skills required of a successful developer. They include critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, and more.

The Case Against a Degree

More and more, however, businesses are hiring software developers who demonstrate qualifications aside from a bachelor’s degree. They might be self-taught or have taken courses, for example. 

There are many technology professionals who believe that a degree is simply not necessary to be a software developer. One of the arguments is that the theoretical knowledge computer science students gain in a degree program isn’t enormously relevant to a career in the field. They say that people can learn practical knowledge through other, less expensive, and time-consuming means. 

Moreover, some successful software developers earn a degree in other disciplines, even ones that aren’t particularly relevant to the field. 

There’s also the flip side to the point about technology changing so quickly. True, CS graduates may be equipped with the skills to change course and learn quickly, but that also means they’ve spent a significant amount of time learning technical skills that are no longer relevant. As a business leader, a candidate who has proven they can learn quickly in a short amount of time, possibly even on their own, might be more appealing.

From a business perspective — and this isn’t necessarily true across the board — a candidate without a degree might be more cost-effective, at least initially, given that a candidate with a degree will probably expect a higher salary.

Is Coding Bootcamp Enough?

Coding bootcamps have become an increasingly popular alternative to degree programs in recent years. These courses are significantly shorter and more affordable than higher education programs.

From a developer angle, the evidence suggests that bootcamps are a solid investment, with 74–90% of students landing a programming job within 6 months of completing the program. But what about from a business perspective?

If students successfully complete a coding bootcamp within just a few weeks or months, it means they’re capable of grasping complex concepts quickly. This suggests that they could be strong candidates, as self-starters and fast learners. On the other hand, it also means that they have less experience than other candidates, so it’s more difficult to assess their skills in practice, and there is little evidence as to how they adapt to the changing state of technology.

What to Look for in a Software Developer

So, if you decide a bachelor’s degree isn’t necessary for a software development job, what is? Either way, these are important qualifications to look for in a candidate. 

The Capacity to Learn Independently

We’ve underscored that technology, and software, in particular, is rapidly changing. You need evidence that the candidate can adjust to this landscape and learn independently in order to keep up with the demands of the field. One way to assess these skills is to ask the candidate how they stay abreast of the news and trends in software development, as well as how they have adapted in the past. 

If you have a professional with software development expertise on staff already, they can also deliver a coding assessment to see how the candidate approaches different scenarios.

Specializations

Specializations in different subfields within the software domain are extremely useful. They demonstrate that the candidate has delved deeper into a particular area and become an expert in that particular area. 

Plus, specializations can help your organization. For example, a cybersecurity expert will play a critical role in protecting your business, systems, and employees against cybercrimes. 

Collaboration Skills

Collaboration is a crucial part of software development. Even if the candidate will be the only software developer on your team, they will still need to work closely with the other professionals to turn around quality products. Look for evidence that they have collaborated with others — such as past experiences where teamwork made a project successful — to assess this important ability.

A Strong Portfolio

If the candidate doesn’t have a degree, a portfolio can serve as a testament to their abilities and experience. This is an important way to gauge their fit with your organization and expertise in your sector, too. You can learn a lot about their technical skills, whether they’ve completed projects independently or for a previous employer. 

Do your developers need college degrees? Not necessarily. There are arguments on both sides. While the majority of software developers do have degrees in a related field, this qualification is becoming less and less important for many employers. In the future, we’re likely to see even more self-taught developers landing jobs at major tech companies and startups alike.

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