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Does Education Matter?

Jakob Jenkov
Last update: 2014-05-25

One of the big questions faced by many software developers is how much education really matters for their career. By "matters" I mean if education means they get higher salaries, or if there are jobs they can only get if they have certain educations.

In this text I will take a look at the purpose and significance of education for software developers, as I have experienced it here in Denmark. You may have different experiences in your country, and if you do, I'd be happy to hear about them.

The Primary Purposes of Education

First of all, let's take a look at why you would educate yourself. The primary purposes of education are to achieve:

  • Credibility - that people believe you posses certain skills.
  • Ability - that you actually do posses these skills (e.g. developing software).

The first thing you need in order to get a job is credability. The employeer needs to feel assured that you are able to do the job you are being considered for, or at least that you are able to learn it.

In order to keep the job you must also be able to do that job, or at least show that you are able to learn how to do it. You can get the required level of ability through either education or by self study. Software development is a little bit special compared to some other areas of work. You can learn how to program at home with a set of books and a computer. A biologist or chemist often need access to a lab to learn parts of what they need to know to do their jobs.

To summarize, credibility is important to get the job, and ability is important to do the job without getting fired.

Common sense suggests that you should first achieve ability, then through your ability achieve credibility. However, I know of several people who have done things the other way around. They build up credibility without having the ability to back it up. You know, lying in their CV's, or at the job interview. Once they get the job, they work frantically to catch up to the required level of ability. Personally, I have never done this, and it is not a practice I recommend. It is possible, however. I have seen it work before.

Even if I don't suggest that you lie in your CV and at job interviews, I still believe that credibility is more important than ability. You can be as skilled as you want, but if you cannot convince potential clients or employers of your ability, you still won't get hired. Additionally, if you don't have the skills necessary, you might still get the job if you can convince the employer or customer that you will be able to learn.

So, the primary reasons you should educate yourself is to achieve credibility and ability. There are of course other ways to achieve both ability and especially credibility than education. Learning how to be perceived as an expert is a complete education itself. Personal branding is outside the scope of this text, though.

Side Effects of Education

Education can have side effects, like opening your eyes to new interesting fields, and introducing you to new interesting people. I have been inspired a lot by the people I have met at university, and it is also here I have met some of my best friends.

These side effects may seem secondary to achieving credibility and ability.In some cases, however, they might actually set you on a completely different course than you planned.

The More Experience You Have - The Less Education Matters

Even if education can give you both credibility and ability, in my experience employers and clients seem to look more at your experience than your education. After all, an education is no proof that you can apply the theory you have learned in practice. Successful experience is. This is also why testimonials and references are so important to buyers (and thereby also to sellers).

A general rule of thumb is that the more experience you have, less your education matters. If you have 20 years of experience, chances are your education could be obsolete anyways. On the other hand, if you have little or no experience, all clients and employers have to rely on is your education.

Of course there are some companies who for some reason only hires people with long educations. But even in such companies they may make exceptions if you come with little education but a fantastic track record.

Of course, in tough times like the financial crisis of 2008-2009 a longer education might help you get a job. Still, I believe most companies prefer 20 years of experience over 5 years of master graduate studies.

Grades Matter Even Less

I have ever only once been asked to show my graduations papers at a job / contract interview. Being a freelancer, I have had 1-2 interviews a year since I started working. Most companies don't seem to care. They notice whether I have an education or not, and what level. But they rarely ask for grades. Several of my colleagues have the same experience.

Of course there can be industries or countries where this isn't true. For instance, and law student once told me that their starting salaries after graduation were pretty much proportional to their grades. But in Denmark, in software development, grades seem to be less important.

Perhaps a statistical study might show something else. That people with higher grades make more money on average. But that might not necessarily be because of the grades. It could be because people who get higher grades are more ambitious, and work harder to reach their goals. And if they work harder in their jobs too, no wonder they will end up making more money.

Working Abroad

In 2001 I moved from Denmark to Switzerland to work. I could not have done this without at least a bachelor degree. Many countries will not give you a work permit if you do not have a least 4 years of education after high school. This is what a bachelor degree typically take.

Education as a Way to Change Direction

If you want to change direction in your career, completing an education related to that new direction can be advantagous, even if you have 20 years of experience in your previous direction.

Let's say you want to work in marketing or project management after several years in software development. You don't really have much proven experience in marketing or project management even if you have worked 20 years as a software developer.

Like I said earlier, the less experience you have, the more your education matters. Therefore, if you want to change direction and have little or no experience in this new field, getting an appropriate education might help you get your first job.

Industry Certificates

You may ask yourself if it is worth getting an industry certification, like Sun's Java Programmer Certifications etc. In my experience a formal education from a university has more weight. But it can probably never hurt to get industry certifications.

I know this can be different in other industries. For instance, I have some friends working in computer administration (server and work station administrators). They report that their clients look more at industry certificates than they do in software development in my experience. You know, Micrsoft Exchange or Cisco certifications.

The Significance of Education in My Experience

In 1998 I started working full time in software development. At that time I was one course away from getting my bachelors degree. At that time I was working with several developers who had not completed their educations either. It did not seem to be a problem to get a job, even without a degree. Then why should I finish it? Remember, this was at the hight of the .com wave. Technology jobs were easy to get, and since all the technologies were new, employers did not expect years of experience.

In 1999 I pulled myself together, and finished the bachelor. Something inside me told me that it would probably be a good idea to at least finish that. After that I worked for about 4 more years. During that time I was constantly wondering if completing a masters degree would help my career.

During the 4 years I worked with several skilled developers who did not have software educations. They had backgrounds in biology, bio chemistry, economics etc. Some of them were actively educating themselves afterwards in software. But they were able to get jobs with high profile companies like e.g. IBM.

In 2003 I started my masters degree, and in 2008 I finished it. I had to work on the side to pay my way through. University tuition in Denmark is free, and you can get a little money from the state while studying too, but that is rarely enough. Anyways, I am sure I was better off financially than if I had to study in the US or somewhere else where tuition is not free.

So, did my masters help my career?

Well, there are some jobs I can get now, that I could not get before. For instance, I can now teach at universities. I need a PHD to get a job as a researcher, but teaching I can do. This was not possible without a masters degree. But I don't have any plans for teaching at universities at the moment. The salaries are somewhat lower than here in Denmark than if you work in the private sector.

I can still get a freelance job and it does not seem to be much easier than before. It seems to matter more if I have experience with the required technology, and in the client's industry (like finance, logistics etc.). Clients also seem to prefer people they know from earlier cooperation. A previously successful cooperation matters more than my masters degree.

What about salary then?

My freelance rate has not increased particularly after I graduated from my masters degree. I even know of people who have less education than I, and perhaps even less experience, who makes more money than I do. As a freelancer your rate depends a lot on our credibility and track record.

In some cases clients have already negotiated rates with the consulting agencies that sell us freelancers to the clients. This means, that no matter who you are, you can only get the same rate. Thus, education matters even less.

As an employee this may not be nearly as true as for freelancers. Employees typically negotiate their salary directly with the company. But still, I believe that 10-20 years of experience outweighs a 5 year education.

Summary

The higher credibility you have, the easier it is to get jobs, and the higher salary you can command.

Credibility is build from:

  • Track Record (experience)
  • Education and Certificates
  • Other factors

"Track Record" covers your experience and results. The track record you have, the less your education matters. Your education might be important to get the first experience, though.

The "other factors" cover topics like recommendations from friends and colleagues, and other proofs of expertise, like developing an application that everybody knows, writing a book, speaking at conferences or appearing in tv-shows. All this might end up being more important to your career than your education and track record, but that is outside the scope of this text. This text was just about education.

What is Your Experience?

All of the above is based on my own experience, and that of my friends and colleagues. It is however perhaps not representative of how the whole world works. Therefore I am very interested in hearing what your experiences with the significance of education for software developers is, in your industry and in your country. You can find an email address on the About page.

Jakob Jenkov




Copyright  Jenkov Aps
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