Dave Fecak

About Dave Fecak

Dave Fecak has been recruiting software engineers for start-ups since 1998 and he has served as the founder and president of the Philadelphia Area Java Users’ Group since 2000. Dave is often cited and published on career topics for technology professionals, and he blogs at JobTipsForGeeks.com.

How To Succeed in Software Without a CS Degree

This week I was approached by two individuals seeking advice on finding employment in a programming capacity, yet both lacked the traditional standard requirement for entry-level positions – the BS in CS (‘BSCS’). I get asked about entering the industry often, and each scenario has a unique wrinkle.

The most recent candidates were a fresh Ivy League liberal arts grad and a Physics Ph.D. The former had brief hobbyist programming experience and the latter gained light exposure during school. Both are immediately employable in other industries, but perhaps not in the field they now target.

Of course, both may still be able to earn a BSCS (or MS) and take the traditional route. For our purposes here, let’s take that option off the table. For a Ph.D., the thought of additional classes might be hard to swallow, while costs might serve as a barrier for many others.

Non-BSCS candidates are often at a distinct disadvantage when competing with BSCS grads for entry-level positions. It’s becoming more common for CS grads to enter the workforce with multiple internships and code samples to bolster their candidacy. It’s reasonable to assume that typical non-BSCS grads have nothing comparable, in addition to what may be considered a less attractive degree.

One important point to remember is once you’re in you’re in, meaning that the most difficult job search for non-BSCS grads should be the first one. After gaining a bit of experience, your risk factor subsides (assuming you didn’t perform horribly in your first job). After three years no one cares about your major, and after five no one cares about your degree.

What are the common approaches for a non-BSCS grad to break in?

DIY and self-study (AKA GitHub, apps, certifications, blogs, and sites) – This method is based on the philosophy that you get a shot if you have a body of work. The wealth of freely available resources makes this method attractive to both the confident and the frugal. There can be a fine line between rigorous code immersion and post-graduation idling, so it’s helpful to set tangible goals, a schedule, and practice self-discipline.

When given no direction on what to build, people usually struggle to find projects ideas. Look for suggestions like those on Martyr2′s Project list, and improvise. As for reading material, there are extensive lists of free programming books that may be helpful. All the material you need is out there and easy to find.

Bootcamps – Any conversation today about breaking in for the non-BSCS will include bootcamps, and I have mentioned thoughts on them before. Bootcamps may be regarded as a compromise, where the investment of both time and money rests between DIY and degree programs. Some view bootcamps as an accelerated BSCS, or a hybrid internship and apprenticeship with classwork included. Most bootcamps appear as preparatory schools for startups based on the skill focus and instructors. Do your homework, and use caution when discussing the value of bootcamp experience versus degrees to avoid insulting employers.

Internships, or cheap/free labor – Some organizations (think small businesses and non-profits) will let a non-BSCS perform development tasks as an intern or volunteer. This can be a clear ‘win-win’, as the organization gets productivity while you get somewhat valuable real-world experience. A combination of volunteer or internship and personal projects starts to level the playing field for a non-BSCS.

Training in – There are companies that hire non-BSCS for entry-level programming jobs, and the first months include corporate training programs designed for non-CS grads. The positions may pay less than entry-level programming jobs, with curriculum intended to produce effective employees instead of versatile engineers. For example, instruction could focus on proprietary technologies and frameworks instead of popular industry offerings.

What are some key items to consider?

Get out of the basement! – Some DIY’ers bury their head in code and books with no human interaction. Make community learning events and outside communication a part of your diet. This will help you measure your knowledge in a live setting while also providing the opportunity to make some industry contacts.

Don’t enter the job market too soon – For CS grads, the natural time to start the search is around graduation. No mystery there. For the non-BSCS, there is an instinctive rush to start applying to jobs early in order to take the temperature of the job market. Fight the urge. If you apply to a desirable company today and are subsequently deemed unready, don’t expect to be reconsidered in three months (when you are ready). Make sure you know enough to succeed in technical interviews, have your GitHub code clean and optimized, have any apps or sites tested and fully functional, and are prepared to make a strong impression.

Leverage the skills you have to acquire the ones you want – Bringing useful abilities and experience that can pay immediate dividends (no matter how small) to an employer mitigates their hiring risk. If you are able to contribute to an organization beyond just code, providing both a learning opportunity and a decent wage is easier for firms to justify.

Be realistic – Your three months of self-study or bootcamp are not likely to get you the dream job at Google. Be willing to start towards the bottom and pay your dues to move up.

Beware certifications – When faced with a choice of proving abilities with either code or certifications, always pick code. Many industry pros attach a stigma to those who focus on getting certified instead of just doing.

Make learning opportunity your #1 job search criteria for first jobs – The money will come. Trust me. If provided multiple job opportunities simultaneously, opting for a job due to an extra $2K or a commuting difference of five miles will be regretted. Find a place where you can learn and grow.
 

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