Main image of article Self-Taught Developers: An Increasing Problem?

Developers are increasingly self-taught, according to studies from Stack Overflow and HackerRank. By some measures, at least 60 percent of developers may have learned their craft without ever stepping foot in a classroom. This could be leading to employment issues.

First, the data. Stack Overflow’s 2019 developer study shows 60.1 percent of developers say they have “taken an online course in programming or software development,” such as a MOOC or Bootcamp program. Around 86.8 percent say they learned a language, framework, or tooling without any sort of formal coursework.

HackerRank’s survey shows 27.4 percent of developers say they’re self-taught. Another 37.7 percent say they supplemented a formal education with an online course, or otherwise taught themselves.

Not all of this data is ‘pure,’ though. Stack Overflow’s language doesn’t isolate those who are totally self-taught from those who simply supplemented formal education with their own journey. Judging by HackerRank’s survey results on languages and frameworks, it may be attracting more web developers than any other discipline. Neither disqualifies the studies from relevance, but there are some qualifications here.

Even if we hedge our bets, it seems about one-third of the global developer community is self-taught. But the vast majority of hiring is résumé-based, and tends to favor formal educational experience... so how can self-taught developers stand out?

Though huge tech companies are starting to distance themselves from degrees as a qualification, many still require them. And let’s be really clear that the company hiring you may not be the first to see your application; often, your résumé and cover letter cycle through a recruiter, many of whom are often working for outside firms contracted to screen applicants. They (naturally) follow a company’s guidelines for candidates as strictly as possible.

The Usefulness of the Cover Letter

Candidates without a formal education can stand out; it’s just a touch more difficult to bypass the initial screening. A good tool for this is the cover letter. A well-worded cover letter explaining your path to becoming a self-taught developer can work wonders. It humanizes you beyond the fact you didn’t go to school for a computer science degree. (Plus, if you can execute this within the cover letter's short length, it signals you're really good at communicating.)

A Résumé That Shows Off Your Best Work

Letting them know you want the job isn’t enough, though. Your résumé has to back your words up. If you’ve been working as a contract developer, list projects you’ve worked on (just make sure your clients are okay with you doing so). If you can demonstrate that you’ve worked on something people actually use, it’s a big deal to prospective employers.

GitHub is Key

You can also list your own GitHub contributions or repos under a unique header on your résumé. Showing that you are active in open source displays a knowledge of things such as version control and working with a team (however loosely-based that team may be). Even if nobody contributes or uses your own repos, you’re maintaining and using them, and that matters.

Landing an interview without a degree on your résumé is an uphill climb, well beyond your first job. Employers are using artificial intelligence to screen applicants at an increased pace, which helps automate the first step in the hiring process. If the A.I. is treating a degree as requisite, it’ll simply boot your profile, and there’s no recourse. You can sweet-talk a recruiter, but there’s no reasoning with a computer.

There’s something to be said for starting small, too. Getting your foot in the door and some experience at a startup or small company can pad your résumé. Even if a recruiter frowns at your lack of degrees, they’ll consider your experience. 

Research Employers

It’s also a good idea to invest in employers who aren’t draconian about degrees. If a job posting has language such as “degree preferred” or “degree, or equivalent experience,” it’s worth your time to craft a cover letter and apply. It’s a sign the employer is far more concerned with the work you do than how many degrees staffers hang in their cubicles. These are the kinds of employers who will click the links on your résumé and cover letter, and look over your work so they have something to discuss in an interview setting.

Finding a job in tech can feel impossible sometimes, even with a degree, so don’t get discouraged if you’re applying to a ton of companies and aren’t hearing back. It’s probably not a lack of degree keeping you from scoring an interview; the process is arduous for everyone involved. Over time, we’d expect the degree requirement for standard positions such as ‘iOS Developer’ or ‘Front-End Developer’ to vanish.