How Important Is A University Degree For A Career In IT?

There was a time when a university degree was vital for landing a good job. Certainly, that was what my parents drummed into my head when I was in school. But having a degree won't guarantee you a job and there are many examples of high school and university dropouts flourishing in the IT industry. So do you really need a university degree when you're looking to join the IT workforce?

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We're in an age when skipping university all together is no longer frowned upon. In fact, it's completely acceptable and there are success stories of people who have shunned the traditional education system and still managed to find success in their chosen field of work. This is nothing new for those who have been in the IT industry for some time. Oracle vice-president of human capital management strategy in Asia-Pacific Aaron Green recently shed some light on this topic.

"I have a very personal point of view on this, because I don't have a university degree," he told Lifehacker at a press event in October. He joined Oracle through the company's acquisition of Sun Microsystems in 2010. Green began his career in the IT space after a summer internship program with Sun Microsystems 15 years ago. He was hired when the program wrapped up and he never looked back. But he would be the first to admit that not having a university degree back in the day was challenging.

"In the early days, it was absolutely career limiting for me," Green said. "Today, I don't believe it is career limiting. Take Oracle for example. We look for people with aspirations and desires to contribute to our organisation and the ability to have mastery in the domain we are hiring them for.

"A university degree in some fields will absolutely be helpful but in many others it doesn't inform us of that person's ability to perform."

A degree can serve as an indicator that a person has certain key skills when it comes to technical IT roles, but those skills can also be acquired through hands-on experience outside the formal education system. So while Green does highlight that when hiring for technical positions, that piece of paper will be advantageous, it is not a prerequisite. Again, it all depending on the nature of the role.

"When you look at the technology industry, I think that you'll find that to be a very standard response," he said.

It is a sentiment shared by ANZ global HR business manager Mel Parks.

"When I started at ANZ, everybody needed a degree. I have three, so I've never had a problem," she told Lifehacker Australia. "But I think we have eliminated that and we understand that a degree is not always the answer.

"Broadly speaking, it really depends on the industry. I certainly wouldn’t want to see a doctor who didn't have a degree but I'm happy to work with someone who can code really well and may have learnt that skill outside of school. I think we need to learn to be more open-minded."

Companies in the IT industry are becoming more welcoming of job candidates with no university-level certification. Peter Noblet is the senior regional director at Hays, a recruitment organisation specialising in white collar jobs across a wide range of industries. He noted that while many employers he works with still prefer to hire people with degrees, the IT industry stands as an exception.

This could be exacerbated by the IT skills shortage but Noblet also highlighted that IT employers value practical experience such as those gained through internships.

"Employers won't just recruit people because they have a degree, but it does get you through the door," he told Lifehacker Australia. "Because when you've finished university, there is an assumption that you've committed three to four years of your life to learning. But there is also a gap, sometimes, between what people study in their degree and the amount of hands-on experience they have.

"Also, when you think about the technology space, it moves extremely fast. What you learn as part of your degree today could be obsolete tomorrow."

Traditionally, IT sat outside the realms of normal business functions but this has changed as technology becomes an integral part of most if not all organisations. IT has moved to become a core part of companies which means roles in the IT industry are evolving. Workers in this field are required to be more business-minded. This means potential employees are being assessed on their "softer" skills. This is also what Oracle's Aaron Green looks for.

"My personal advice on this is I always look for the softer side of people's skillsets and capabilities," he said.

So what exactly are these "softer" skills? According to Noblet, these include communication skills and interpersonal skills.

"There is a lot of importance being placed on these softer skills combined with technical skills," he said. "That's what employers are crying out for."

Conversely, businesses across all industries are seeking candidates with digital literacy, Noblet said.

"If you are digitally literate, and have a strong understanding of technology, it would pique the interests of a lot of companies," he said.


What are your views of the importance of a university degree in the IT industry? Let us know in the comments.


Comments

    Putting uni on hold and getting a junior IT role was the best decision I made. All my uni friends have graduated and are struggling to find work in a saturated grad market. Anyone who comes to me about working in IT, I cannot recommend a junior/traineeship role enough over uni.

      @Your Name - I'll second that. So glad I chose junior role over IT Degree (I actually attended uni for one semester and it was an utter waste of time and money). I have many friends with the degree struggling to get a job in the graduate market too, I have friends who finished their degree as I was starting IT and I actually make more money then them.

      Having said that, You really still have to work for it.

      I'll third that, I know quite a few people who've uni IT degrees and are nowhere when it comes to a job. Getting a junior role is absolutely a great option to go with and bypassing uni.

      Industry certs are still really important though. Having strong interpersonal skills is also a major must.

    I have an IT degree but I started writing commercial software before I started at uni. So, I know both sides of the coin.

    Uni for me was well worth it. It taught me how to write better algorithms, understand software performance better and design better software. When I look back, I see myself as a hack, just cutting terrible code and not understanding certain principals.

    Having said that, code is my passion, so it makes sense that I got a lot out of uni. For some of the students (perhaps most?) code was not their passion. They were at uni because their parents told them to. Most of those students passed but I don't think they got much out of the whole process. The thing that upsets me the most is that we have the same piece of paper.

    Ok, my rant is over.

    I don't think you require one in IT/Software Engineering. I did a CompSci degree and would still choose to do it, but I wouldn't hold it against anyone who didn't so long as they have some serious work to back it up.

    I have a degree in multimedia design, I have never used it. Funnily enough, I was studying a degree in IT, then after a while got bored of it, thought i don't want to work in IT. Then found i could transfer to multimedia design and not have to do any extra subjects, So i did that. Then funnily enough after graduating, i got a job in IT. hahaha me smart, me not waste years on expensive degree. But yeah you don't really need the degree if you have the skills, and probably the most important skill that will set you apart in the IT field, is people skills. Being able to talk to non tech people is super important, as most of the users you support will be that, and often the execs as well.

    While I have a bachelor degree, most of the work and experience that led to my current job was done outside of the uni courses (contributing to various open source projects). That said, I don't regret any of the time I spent there.

    There are definitely some things that are a lot easier to do with a degree. For instance if you want to work overseas, it will be a lot easier for your employer to help you get a skilled migrant visa if you have that piece of paper.

    I've always been passionate about technology and wanted a career in IT. When I started University, it was with the pitch that good workers in the IT industry are in short supply and you would walk out of your degree into a great job that pays well from the get-go. I graduated with a distinction average in a double degree between Comp Sci and IT Sec but really struggled to get a job.

    During Uni I held various support roles across telcos and technology stores. After graduation, I couldn't even get a job on an IT Service Desk, let alone a graduate role. 4 years support history, and I couldn't get a job in ITSD without previously having a job in ITSD. Many of the graduate roles were being filled by people who were already established in the industry for a few years. It seemed that was the standard across all IT jobs. You required experience to get experience. In the end, all my 4 year degree got me was a contract role on a service desk paying $20ph inc super with no benefits (~$37K for anyone interested).

    Now I am quite established in my career and on a good salary. This was gained through good references, and a good reputation. No prospective employer has ever shown an interest in my degree. Only what industry certifications I have.

    What I will say, however, is that the degree set me up for a successful career in other ways. Writing skills, presentations skills, critical thinking, interpersonal interaction, strong work ethic, etc. Most of which was developed indirectly as part of my studies. These skills have placed me above other people for roles where the piece of paper has failed to do so.

    Get a degree, if only to eliminate conversations like: "Sure I'd give you an increase, but I'm already paying really well for someone who doesn't have a degree".

    That is an actual quote from a role I had as a junior software developer. I was good enough to trust with the companies flagship product, but not good enough to get paid a fair wage.

    The more relevant question is what to study. If you can already cut code well enough to be employed as a developer further studies in programming would have diminishing returns. IMO study something that is either relevant to many businesses (marketing, accounting, logistics) or pick something really specific that your programming chops can bring new insight (e.g. medical).

    If you were speaking to an American audience, I would agree as the inflated cost of their education makes it much less valuable.

    But advising against obtaining affordable education in Australia in the 21st century is the worst advice ever. Yes, many people are lucky enough to get a role in IT without a degree. The majority don't get a look in, or they end up working support. And yeah, maybe you're going to create an amazing app, but again you're referring to a minority.

    Though a degree is simply a piece of paper at the end of the day, it's important to note that it all depends on how you make full use of the university experience to further your IT career goals. While I was at uni, I was pretty active at school, participating in IT societies, engaging with lecturers and industry experience clients, teaching fellow students the art of coding, taking advantage of the 3 years to gain entry into the IT industry effectively, gaining the references from lecturers and professors who have connections with the commercial IT world. It's easy to say the degree is somewhat 'non essential', but for me personally, it allowed me to get into the IT industry through the recommendations and connections from the academics/prospective employers. As people always say, it's the experience that counts. True, the uni experience is the best investment you can count on to extend that experience further.

    I graduated with OP2 (equiv to 98 ATAR), but went into an IT support traineeship instead of uni. I've had frequent promotions over the 12 years since then. What's important is hard work, continual upskilling and getting stuff done. And best part is I never had a huge HECS debt to pay off.

    This topic has been making rounds around most of the career blogs these days, and the key point every author has to say is what happens to structured, full-time class room education in the wake of free e-learning material available at the click of a button. One more latest development on this topic is the nano degrees which udacity is going to offer to compete with class-room training. According to me if it is e-learning or class room education, the skills obtained by the user has to be put to use, that is when the real justification happens. As IT Professionals you can also create career paths (refer to MyTechLogy) and focus on IT Job Trends (taken from 2.4 Mn IT Jobs from across the globe) in the market to figure out what employers are looking for and plan your learning accordingly, this way you can stay relevant and focus on what is needed for success in your career.

    Last edited 09/11/15 2:36 am

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