Everyone knows that the tech industry is a good one to be in these days.
Information Technology is in the top-20 projected fastest growing industries in the United States between 2010 and 2020, with 4% annual growth, according to the federal government. Occupations across the industry from computer programmers to software developers and systems analysts have high annual earnings, in the $70-$95,000-a-year range. And that's to say nothing of the insane perks that are being thrown at programmers these days—free food, artisanal beer on tap, housecleaning services, private Wi-Fi-equipped shuttles to and from work, massages, and all-expense-paid "offsite" ski vacations, to name a few.
But the best-kept secret in the business is that to nab one of these fast-growing, high-paying jobs, you really don't need a diploma.
Believe it or not, only about one in four workers in the industry have a four-year degree in computer science, and a hefty 36% of IT workers do not hold a college degree at all. While the technology industry spans the gamut from relatively low-level tech support specialist, network operations maintenance, and security jobs, up to computer programmers, software developers, and research scientists, even programmers don't always need a sheepskin. Even at Google.
Google's Senior VP of "people operations," Laszlo Bock, recently told the New York Times:
"One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation... What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college."
That said, being a self-taught programmer has its pitfalls. Learning one computer language is not the same as having a foundational computer science education. There are plenty of engineering job applicants at tech companies, both with credentials and without, who can't really program. That's why it's essential to continuously test yourself by working on real projects as soon as you can, and be prepared for a long road of several years to reach true competence.
So you want to work in tech—even at Google—but skip paying the bill at Caltech or Columbia. How do you do it? There are three major approaches, all of which are complementary.
Ryan Carson was looking for a more scalable education model when he founded Treehouse in 2010. "We aim to make mobile and web developers job ready in six months for $25 a month," he says. "So you're really only looking at $150 all told." For that price you get video-based courses, quizzes, coding challenges, and forums, with a point system to motivate it all. They currently have 40,000 paying students (like 19-year-old Martha Chumo, who taught herself enough Ruby to get hired by a local startup in six months and is in the process of founding a hacker school in her native Nairobi, Kenya).
Treehouse's enrollment has been growing at about 300% year over year; the classes are even being offered as an elective in some high schools. Success stories are highlighted on the website, but Carson—who sold a conference company before founding this one—has hired a data scientist to try to build a case for the connection between earning points on his site and earning dollars in the real world. "What we'd like to be able to show is that if you earn 2,000 points in Ruby on Rails, you'd be twice as likely to get a job that pays $40,000 a year or more," he says. "The problem with traditional education is it’s a big black hole. You pay for a BS in CS and there's no data to prove what will happen then. The beautiful thing about online education is that it's driven by algorithms. How good are you, how much do you know, when did you learn it—all that, every single data point, is measurable."
Benefits: There are nearly infinite resources out there for motivated independent learners with an interest in technology; one of the strongest communities for learning in any industry.
Drawbacks: Doing everything on your own. No credentials. Must actively reach out and network to find a community and a job.
Cost: Free to a few hundred dollars.
Remember Kio Stark's mantra for independent learners: Figure out how you learn best, create a project for yourself, and find a tribe. There are many opportunities out there for people who want a face to face educational experience while advancing as programmers. Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock, one of the founders of Hacker School, never went to school before showing up at Columbia's computer science program. He was "unschooled," a particularly liberal form of homeschooling with no tests, no assignments, and no grades. Just intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning. "Have people write code they care about; that's how they'll learn the best and the most."
It was on this model that he and Columbia classmate David Albert and Sonali Sridhar, a graduate of NYU's ITP program, created Hacker School, a three-month immersive learning experience in New York City dedicated to helping people learn how to create aesthetically pleasing code that is also highly useful to other programmers. Oh, and it's free.
The program, which has a high percentage of female participants, is known for a culture of "intentional community" and respectful communication, where saying "I don't know" is actively encouraged. Bergson-Shilcock sees Hacker School and programs like it providing a substantive alternative to college. "A lot of the value of traditional universities and colleges is the network they provide," he says. "They put you in really close quarters with really great people. It seems odd that you should have to pay $40,000 to $50,000 just to have that."
Benefits: This is a place to perfect your code, with a decent chance of getting hired at companies like Etsy, Dropbox, Yammer, or GitHub. No fixed curriculum, no lectures, everything is learned by doing.
Drawbacks: It's extremely competitive, with acceptance rates in the single digits or low double digits. You must already love programming and have at least two months of experience at it. No formal credential.
Cost: Free (supported by recruiting fees from tech companies).
Maybe you've read through all the ideas here, but you're still not ready to take the independent learner walk. You're interested in the career advancement that may come from an official degree-granting institution, preferably a prestigious one. But you don't want to pay top dollar. In computer science, there's an option: the Udacity/Georgia Tech/AT&T master's degree in computer science.
The Georgia Institute of Technology announced earlier this year that they would unveil a two-year online master's degree program in partnership with Udacity, a company founded by Google's Sebastian Thrun as a platform for online college courses.
The courses will be offered with limited support from mentors and professors; students will be asked to rely on each others' help in forums, just as they do in a community like Stack Overflow or Treehouse. "There is a revolution in higher education. We don't want to be part of it, we want to lead it," Zvi Galil, dean of the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said on the occasion of the announcement.
"This is good for America," he told Fast Company. "We should find a way to bring the price tag down and have more access and make it more affordable...the exciting part is the innovation, being first, going into uncharted territory."
Benefits: This is a fully accredited master's degree in computer science from a top-5 engineering school at a sixth of the cost.
Drawbacks: This is an online degree program with a largely untried, untested model, overseen by professors but managed largely by course "mentors" who are not traditional PhD students.
If you're a closet self-taught hacker, or even a non-technical person looking to bluster your way into the technology industry, you could do worse than attend the annual TED conference in Long Beach, California. Entrance to the main event is $7,500, and you must apply to attend. But once in the door, the networking opportunities are incomparable. About the only place on earth where you'll run into more Internet millionaires and billionaires is Burning Man.
[Image: Flickr user Alexander Kachkaev]