Cyber security degree folded up sitting next graduation cap

Do you really need a four-year degree to get a job in tech? That depends on who you ask, as well as the role you seek.

Richard Wang, cofounder and CEO of coding bootcamp Coding Dojo, says the skills gap and high cost of education are factors in why some tech professionals focus on skills rather than degrees. Wang noted that tech pioneers such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey became tech pioneers without completing college. 

“I really don't think it should be mandatory,” Wang said. “Now we're seeing the evidence from major tech companies to get rid of that criteria, which is a testament to that.”

Jobs that do not require a four-year degree include web developers, system administrators and database engineers, according to Wang. 

Wang’s assertion is backed up by Burning Glass, a database that collects and analyzes millions of job postings across the country. For many technology jobs, even highly specialized ones, a bachelor’s degree is often cited as the recommended degree. That’s also good news for technologists who don’t necessarily want to earn an advanced degree in order to work in specialized fields. 

Examples of companies prizing skills over degrees abound. Although Google lists many tech jobs that require four-year degrees, for instance, you can find positions such as Data Center Technician in which a bachelor’s degree is “preferred” (the position requires “two years of experience with diagnosing, navigating and troubleshooting computer hardware and server hardware”). Amazon posts positions such as Software Dev Engineer 1 where a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field is likewise preferred. 

The Bootcamp Route

Bootcamps such as Coding Dojo teach skills such as coding, data science, UX and product management. In addition to technical knowledge, candidates who can demonstrate strong problem-solving skills can often land a job without a formal degree. Some students who attended Coding Dojo had computer science degrees but lacked the basic building blocks of programming such as HTML and CSS, Wang said. (However, it’s important to carefully evaluate any bootcamp before you sign on.)

Sometimes people earn a degree in a general studies area and lack practical skills in more technical disciplines such as computer science. In order to overcome that issue, students with a non-computing background can take certification programs in computer science, like the Illinois Computing Accelerator for Non-Specialists (iCAN) at the University of Illinois. 

Four-year degrees are becoming less of a requirement at companies such as Google and Apple. Google hires some people without technical degrees and trains them in-house, noted Nancy Amato, Ph.D., head of the Department of Computer Science and professor of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Some of this is driven simply by the fact that there's just not enough workers trained with these skills, so they're resorting to other ways to try to build that up,” Amato said. She noted that the tech jobs serve as an on-ramp, and the employees may pursue a degree later.

Higher-Level Tech Jobs With Four-Year Degrees

Is forgoing a four-year degree the best way to get a high-paying tech job? Not necessarily, according to Eva Tardos, Ph.D., chair and professor of computer science at Cornell University. She explained that, although you can get a job as a computer programmer without a formal BA, if you plan to advance to a higher-paid position such as a software architect or engineer, seriously consider a four-year program. 

“Software engineers usually need a degree, and in contrast, a programmer does not,” Tardos said. Software engineers and architects, like project managers and other advanced technology roles, need to have a grasp of abstract, “deep” concepts often taught as part of four-year programs.  

“The industry is eagerly hiring people without a degree because they're so hungry for a capable workforce, but they pay a lot more if you have that degree,” Tardos said, noting that, without a four-year diploma, you can land a decent tech job that pays around $60,000-$80,000. But with a diploma, CS graduates could land jobs that pay significantly more—perhaps even in the six-figure range, relatively soon after leaving school. 

As Amato also noted, people in a four-year program can receive proper training in data security and privacy, which are important qualities that hiring managers often focus on. “I strongly believe that students who are getting an undergraduate degree in computer science are going to be totally well-served,” she said. “They're not going to regret that for a second, and they will be better prepared and more competitive for the really excellent opportunities than someone who doesn't have that.”