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Without an Education, Will Techies Go Far Enough?

Posted by geeknews at 8:54 PM on December 16, 2004

For this article, I am standing firmly on a soap box.

The Associated Press reported, today, on a few information technologist that are doing well in their young careers, so well, in fact, that they each hope to retire before reaching middle age, and they attained their success without a formal higher education. This article struck a raw chord with me, because I emphasize the value of formal education to all of the students whom I teach, including those seeking a B.S. in information technology (IT) and those pursuing a M.B.A. with a further concentration in IT.


The true, lasting, value of their education (and degrees) is not so much to gain their first few promotions, those elevations will come based on technical certifications and demonstrated technical acumen. The lasting value is in the cognitive polish that is developed from rigorous, guided scholastic work and mentored critical thinking, both of which are required during the pursuit of a formal academic degree. The two IT workers described in the article, which I read on CNN.com, are reportedly earning significant salaries; however, their success is fallaciously related to their lack of formal academic training. Both of the interviewees are successful because of their hard work and a generous helping of good luck: one is an entrepreneur, the other is rewarded with stock options. Along with Bill Gates and Michael Dell, these two bring to four the total number of successful IT folk without at least one college degree that I’ve read about in the last two decades.

Yes, good work is rewarded; however, good work, coupled with a well-earned college education is much more likely to result in significant professional success. The ability to critically analyze data, perform algebraic and geometric computations (such as calculating the linear feet of cable required to wire a building) and persuasively argue (or actively listen) are all skills best learned in the combination of classroom and office. These are skills that, along with those taught in a liberal arts curriculum, are valued in business leaders.

Not all IT workers will have a series of fortunate events, as did the two men described in the news report. For the vast majority of us, we must take all advantages, and a solid education is one personal advantage that I earnestly hope will be valued by all IT professionals.

Call for Comments
What do you think? Leave your comments below.

References
Some Techies Find Success Without a College Degree

4 Comments

  1. From Erik Lane at 10:41 pm on December 16, 2004

    For me, getting the degree was a task I had set for myself long before I got into technology. I actually found programming after taking BASIC programming as an elective and then changed my major. When I was finishing school we were still programming COBOL and C. These days I’m sure the latest and greatest languages are there and couple that specific training with what is available online, etc.. will only help leap them ahead when they finish school. I think too it says something about a person if they stick with it and finish even if their degree has nothing to do with their career. It says they can complete a difficult task they’ve started – even when they really don’t want to.

    If all they are looking for is money then they will still start out with more money initially, in most circumstances. And at the end of the day they get the respect they deserve because they stuck it out and finished.

  2. From Matt at 6:53 am on December 17, 2004

    I have to disagree with this viewpoint to some degree. I don’t think a college degree is necessary for a person to be successful. I’m one of the ‘uneducated’, and have generally had a salary above the norm. This hasn’t been due to luck. It has been the result of a strong work ethic, and the ability to educate myself on an as-needed basis, both on the job and independent of the job. For myself, learning in a structured classroom environment wasn’t a good fit. As a result, the knowledge I have gained is directly applicable to the performance of my field. I’ve had a great number of jobs that involved fixing the problems caused by those who spent years in education and money in certifications. The education and certifications typically have no meaning in the real world. I work in software development, and I realize that these conditions may be specific to this section of the IT world. Despite this, I think that a person’s work ethic is a larger factor in their success than their education. A strong commitment to ‘getting the job done’ with a high level of quality seems to be missing from most of the developers I personnally have encountered. They may have had a degree or two, and a few certifications to hang on the wall, but I wouldn’t have wanted to leave the health of an enterprise’s software in their hands.

  3. From James Bow at 11:07 am on December 17, 2004

    I helped run a program at the University of Waterloo here in Canada that specifically dealt with the issue of infotech professionals having lots of work experience but no formal education on which to hang their hats. Our program gave them a formal education that they could do via correspondence, and it granted them a certificate at the end of the day — not a full-fledged diploma, but something they could hang on their wall and put on their resume.

    The program was pretty popular, although we ourselves weren’t able to continue it for budgetary reasons. The conclusion I draw from this is that the people profiled in the Associated Press are aberrations, not the norm.

  4. From Codemuffin at 4:05 pm on December 20, 2004

    I have been giving this argument (formal education vs. roughing it) a lot of thought lately. I’m on my way to university, and will be majoring in Computer Science. While I’ve taught myself how to program, write effectively, and design web pages, there is something that should be said about formal education.

    Like with everything else, there’s always going to be advantages and disadvantages of formal education. Formal education shouldn’t be always be a deal-breaker. Those with formal education should considered, just as those with solid experience should be considered (as far as employment goes). I’ve seen people come out of college with less capability than those that went out and tried to “rough IT”. Neither solution totally solves all problems. The student of the classroom may have the theoretical, but not the practical. The straight-to-work person may find it harder to conceptualize those abstract terms you described, such as geometric problems (I’m currently in school, and I’m still thrown off by geometry at times.)

    What is important to note, especially in light of this article from the AP, is that neither solution is a sure fit for everyone. Those that may not fare well in formal education may take the straight-to-work approach. If it works for them, that’s great. Others, such as myself, will take the formal education route. If they flourish, it’s great. My point is that when it comes down to ‘who succeeds and who doesn’t, it’s really hard to tell.

    This said, I do strongly believe in formal education. However, the line must be drawn when we look at a group as a whole – one solution does not fit all. I see your point, Mr. Murphy, and agree, but with reservations, of course.