Cyber security degree folded up sitting next graduation cap

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

No matter what your desired tech specialization, a four-year degree can give you valuable knowledge into everything from “soft skills” (such as communication) to the abstract concepts that underlie software development and information technology as a whole. College degrees are often listed as necessary for entry-level jobs, including those with higher average salaries.

However, it’s also very possible to get into tech without a degree. But how do you become an IT professional without a degree? That often requires a lot of self-guided learning, building a portfolio of your own projects, and otherwise demonstrating that you have the technical skills to succeed in a position. 

With all that in mind, let’s dig into whether you truly need a degree to unlock a tech career.

Can I Break into Tech Without a Degree?

The skills gap and high cost of education are factors in why some tech professionals focus on skills rather than degrees. It's important to remember that tech pioneers such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey reached the heights of the profession without completing college. 

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

Emsi Burning Glass, a database that collects and analyzes millions of job postings across the country, suggests that, for many technology jobs, 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 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 attend a bootcamp might have degrees, but lack the basic building blocks of programming such as HTML and CSS. (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.” 

Are Companies Actually Hiring Tech Pros Without a Degree?

For many years, organizations across the country were adamant about their degree requirements: unless you had a bachelor’s degree or higher, hiring managers wouldn’t consider your application materials. But with tech unemployment at notably low levels, and demand rising for highly specialized skills such as artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning, many companies have been de-prioritizing their degree requirements, especially if candidates can demonstrate they have the necessary skills (including technical and soft skills) necessary to thrive in the role.

If you don’t have a degree and you want to land a role at a company that requires one, you’ll need to demonstrate that you have the right skills. Taking online courses and certifications (and listing those on your resume and other application materials) can prove a big help when it comes to proving your credentials. Depending on your professional goals, you may also want to assemble a portfolio of professional projects that demonstrate your abilities, such as mobile apps you’ve built yourself.

Companies that have put more emphasis on skills over formal schooling are often turning to more rigorous technical interviewing, which means you’ll likely face a battery of tests. Whatever your discipline, you can turn to sites such as Leetcode to test your knowledge ahead of time.