Degree or not degree: that is the question

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished."
William Shakespeare, "Hamlet" (1600-01)

What do I want to say quoting those words? Bear with me a little.

Johanna Rothman, as well as other recruiters and hiring managers might, points out:

But certainly, in the US, a degree is not a predictor of job success.


But under no conditions does this mean one should not strive to get one!

Without a degree it’ll be so much harder. You have to learn all that stuff on your own. You cannot learn from the mistakes of others. There’s nobody telling you what you’re doing wrong and how it could be done better.

And there’s nobody cheering, either.

In every interview, you have to proof your track of success. And the value of a degree vanishes the longer the track gets. But a degree is also about successful scientific work: acquiring and adopting knowledge.

“Can do” is a great attitude, but on the long run it can’t beat “Know how to learn how to do better”.

Friends of mine dropped out of university in 1999 and made €45,000 a year doing Linux Server consulting when I was still jobbing lifting heavy replacement car parts into packets or sitting on the phone supporting Windows administrators and got €7.34 an hour.

Not all of the droppers have done so great since then. They’re time is coming again, no doubt. But it’s been a littler harder in the meantime.

There is only one person I personally know without a degree that I’d call a Distinguished Engineer. He was my colleague at my first real software development job and about the nerdiest geek I’ve ever seen. (Teen girls would call him Scrat if they would know.)

He didn’t bother talking to our business analysts and consultants in simple words so my job was to translate his “orthogonal” into their “There is that subtle difference, here, you see? That requires us to think a little more about this, here.”

He taught me a lot about learning: about “eating” CS books and weblogs and papers and CiteSeer and constantly acquiring and applying knowledge. He would have been wasted at a university because they would have been unable to provide his pace. His language were C macros and inline assembler for x86, Alpha, MIPS and PowerPC, but I defended XML and SOAP and we were discussing the grace of the BCL.

So if you think, you can skip college or university and get right down to business with some trial-and-error experience in Ruby, Perl, Python, PHP, Java, UnrealScript or what not, you might be in for surprises. Later.

Learning life is hard. Can make you sick and tired beyond belief. But there is no shortcut.

So it’s great to have a sheet of paper that proofs you’re trying.

As a side note to the original topic of Johanna’s posting: I’m so not surprised seeing tech companies having hard times finding talent. They’re just not trying hard enough, either.

Talent is not growing on trees. Event then, harvesting is not farming.

[Update:MSN Spaces formatting s…s]

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