Information technology is one of the most dynamic industries in the global economy. Pivotal to its rapid evolution is constant innovation that continuously generates new technologies and products. If you work in the industry, keeping pace with change is crucial.
Depending on your role, a significant part of your job might involve working with the latest technologies, platforms, and applications. Because being current is critical, learning on the job or alongside work is a reality for most IT professionals.
While most high-paying entry-level IT jobs go to those with at least a bachelor's degree, some roles in support, cyber security, and software development don't necessarily require formal education and are open to non-degree holders who possess the relevant skills — and a knack for learning on the job.
While large organizations still seem to prefer degree holders for all but some computer support and helpdesk functions, small- and medium-sized businesses tend to be more open to hiring people without formal computer science or engineering degrees, and then training them on the job.
One of the reasons for this flexibility is simple economics: a non-degree holder who learns on the job costs the company less than someone with an IT degree. Additionally, many entry-level technical functions don't require the breadth of knowledge that a degree program typically confers.
Non-formal routes to an IT career
In many companies, helpdesk, desktop and networking support roles are staffed by non-degree holders who started out working as apprentices or interns. Some have also taken relevant certification courses.
We've all heard about students who began coding in their early teens and developed applications while still in school. Such individuals attract attention from employers because they demonstrate a strong bent for programming and are self-starters motivated by their passion for technology. They enjoy IT and are inclined to continuously improve their skills.
Not everyone, of course, who lands a developer's job began by developing programs at school. Some learn on the job through internships, projects, and part-time positions. Freelancing is a good way to get experience, build a portfolio, and gain visibility.
Motivated individuals can join open-source projects like GitHub, where they work with a diverse range of specialists from across the globe in a virtual environment. This not only fosters skill and knowledge development, and team spirit, it also makes recruiters notice you.
There are also numerous online tutorials and guides for those looking to learn programming languages, software methodologies, testing, and other technical functions. Joining an online community such as Stack Overflow enables developers to interact with professional peers, share knowledge, ask questions, and offer solutions. Over time, participants earn a reputation based on the quality of their interactions, which can lead to freelance projects and full-time job opportunities.
Connecting with similarly skilled people and experienced professionals in the industry helps to expand your network and keep you abreast of the latest developments. According to a recent Stack Overflow survey, 28.3 percent of developers surveyed in the U.S. reported having landed a job through personal referrals.
Thanks in part to the Internet, there are a large number of self-taught IT skills available to dedicated individuals. Some of the more common skills often acquired on the D-I-Y are listed here:
Helpdesk — Tech support roles don't necessarily require a degree. Many computer support technicians learn on the job. It helps to have a way with computers and software, be a good and patient listener, and be able to explain solutions in a clear, step-by-step format.
Computer and software support — This is another function that doesn't require a four-year degree. Apprenticeships, taking on technical roles at one's place of work, and vocational training programs are all possible routes to desktop service careers. If one is technically inclined and eager to understand how computers work, as well as being adaptable to frequent tech developments, then one can develop into a competent service technician.
Network support — It's possible, and somewhat common, to land a job as a networking technician either by taking relevant courses after high school or through apprenticeships.
Programming — Though many developers hold engineering or CS degrees, and mega-companies like Google and Facebook prefer hiring degree-holders, a large percentage of programmers don't have either of these degrees. Professionals who can code well often work as software and web developers as well as systems programmers.
According to the Stack Overflow Developer Survey 2015, 48 percent of developers surveyed did not have CS degrees. Whether one has a degree or not, practical experience is a differentiator. Recruiters value candidates who demonstrate genuine passion for coding, are analytical, pay attention to detail, possess good communication skills, and are flexible.
Cybersecurity — With hacking incidents on the rise, security is a major concern for all companies. Organizations need skilled people to protect their systems and data, but are often unable to find them because there just aren't enough trained professionals.
Though more universities are offering cybersecurity degrees, the demand-supply gap continues to widen. Firms like Symantec have initiated short vocational programs to train high-schoolers for entry-level roles typically not performed by cybersecurity graduates. Training is followed by internships, enabling companies to try out trained non-degree holders on routine functions such as scanning network activity, monitoring systems, ethical hacking, and other basic security measures.
Advantages and disadvantages of self-taught skills
One key advantage of self-taught learning is flexibility. You learn at your own pace. Also, university programs include a broad range of topics, some of which may not be of interest. Learning on your own gives you the freedom to focus on a few subjects of interest.
Two other major advantages are cost and speed. Learning through self-study and at work is much cheaper than paying college tuition. There are plenty of free and inexpensive resources available online. You also avoid spending time on courses, like science and art, which have nothing to do with IT.
Disadvantages include a lack of guidance and feedback from professors. Not having other students to discuss and solve problems with is another drawback. Other disadvantages include the absence of an alumni network and the accompanying lack of network-expanding opportunities, plus no help with job placement.
Additionally, self-taught IT professionals sometimes lack the fundamental knowledge of engineering and math that CS and engineering graduates possess. A foundation-level knowledge of fundamentals enables a conceptual understanding of IT and provides a base for learning different skills.
Ultimately, the benefits and detriments differ from individual to individual. A passionate and highly-disciplined programmer who loves his work has the potential to go places without a college degree and may see more career opportunities.
How certification can help
IT is a continuously evolving industry, and valid certifications validates the holder's skill in a specific technology, method, or product.
For professionals who develop skills through self-study and work experience, certification can round out their knowledge and expertise. Depending on their function, certain in-demand certifications can enhance the holder's appeal to recruiters as well as result in a greater salary.
A certification will typically give a self-taught professional an edge over those who lack certification. Certs from Microsoft or Cisco as well as some vendor-neutral credentials from Comp TIA do add value to one's resume.
Certification also has the ability to address shortcomings in one's understanding of a specific technology, application, function, or operating system. Since most certifications need to be renewed every two or three years, earning a valid certification enables one to not only be up to the minute in his area of work, but also develop expertise on the latest technology or product of interest.
Experience and self-study enable a person to acquire considerable knowledge and expertise in a particular domain. However, such an individual may lack exposure to aspects of that same technology, platform, or product. The work environment alone may not offer a self-taught IT pro the scope to develop and maintain their skills to industry standards.
Certification provides a benchmark for one's knowledge and skills. Because potential certification-holders are required to cover the prescribed course in order to earn certification, credentialed individuals are presumed to have the requisite skills in that areas of specialization.
When an on-the-job learner earns a certification, he benefits not only from acquiring comprehensive and current knowledge, but also from being measured against expected industry standards. This can enable him to outpace non-certified professionals.
It's the mindset, not the method
Many are drawn to IT because they have a passion and the Industry is a natural fit. Others because they want decent pay and a career with a future. IT is a rapidly and continuously evolving industry. Neither a degree nor self-taught skills alone are likely to guarantee long-term success.
Your emphasis should be on enthusiasm, career-long learning, and flexibility. IT professionals who invest time and money to earn certifications prove that they, have the requisite skills, are capable of continuous learning and that they are eager to further their careers.