6 Things Self-Taught Programmers Don't Know They're Missing

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You’ve always had an impeccable memory and you love solving puzzles. These are just a few of the reasons you’ve decided to become a computer programmer. The next logical question you’re probably asking is, “Do I really need a degree to do it?”

The honest answer is no—you don’t need a degree to become a computer programmer. You could find a job and make decent money as a self-taught programmer, like many others have. But there are several overlooked advantages that come with earning a degree.

We enlisted a handful of programming pros who insist their formal education has played an integral role in their careers. Our experts identified six things they never would have acquired without earning their degrees.

6 things self-taught programmers often miss out on

There is no shortage of resources on the web to help you pick up popular programming languages, but our panel of pros agree there are several important intangibles that self-taught programmers commonly lack.

1. Foundation in theory & understanding

“There’s an awful lot of theory you’ll learn when earning a rigorous computer science degree that you won’t initially find exposure to as a self-taught programmer,” says John Peebles, CEO of Administrate. The rest of our programming pros agree this is hands down the most valuable takeaway from a formal education.

Peebles says learning about databases, operating systems and a variety of algorithms in college provides you with a strong foundation on which to anchor your entire career. Jacob Glenn is the chief operating officer at SpiroSano and frequently hires computer programmers. He echoes Peebles’ belief that understanding the big picture is imperative.

“If the foundational knowledge exists, the rest can be picked up on the job,” Glenn says.

2. Learning how to learn

“Having a firm understanding of computer science and programming logic allows one to adopt to new languages quicker—something crucial in the rapidly-changing tech world,” says Daniel Gigante, founder of Crowdshare.

"When hiring I give more weight to candidates with degrees due to that ability to learn new things."

He believes collegiate programming curriculum helps train students to understand and think critically about problems. Tim Segraves, co-founder of Revaluate, agrees that formally-taught programmers tend to have the ability to learn new languages or frameworks with greater ease.

“When hiring I give more weight to candidates with degrees due to that ability to learn new things. You never know when your company will be adding a new technology,” Segraves says.

3. Broad knowledge & adaptability

The techniques and technologies that exist in the world of computer programming are vast. Individuals who are well-versed in a variety of programming areas are extremely valuable in the workforce, according to Glenn. He says the fundamentals typically remain the same, so formally trained programmers are often more versatile.

“Self-taught programmers tend to be much more attached to a specific language versus being open to using alternate technologies based on the task or project,” Glenn says. While specializing in a single skill can be valuable in a freelancing capacity, he believes adaptability is more attractive to most employers.

4. Understanding the difference between code & ’clean code’

There’s a big difference between code that gets the job done and “clean code.” In Glenn’s experience, self-taught programmers tend to be more task-oriented and less focused on ensuring the code is efficient, readable and maintainable. This less-disciplined approach to programming is often more prone to errors and more difficult for others to work with.

“I prefer hiring candidates with a degree because there are some important algorithms and best practices to squeeze inefficiencies out,” says Roger Wu, cofounder of Cooperatize. He explains that a process that saves even one-hundredth of a second becomes significant when multiplied by a few million queries.

5. Ability to work well with others

The stereotype that computer programmers work in isolation is becoming less common in today’s workforce. While there are opportunities to work from home, many programmers work in an office interacting with other team members, such as software developers, project managers or graphic designers.

The ability to work in a team setting is important, according to Kenn Palm, CEO of Pilgrim Consulting, Inc. He says self-taught designers commonly lack the communication and cooperation skills honed by working with peers in a degree program. He adds that these individuals can also lack the demonstrated ability to answer to authority, which can be concerning for some employers.

"Self-taught programmers don't know what they don't know, which becomes a ceiling that they'll struggle with their entire career."

6. Proven diligence & self-worth

Having a degree on your resume is an automatic indicator that you’ve undergone several years of diligent effort to complete something, which Peebles believes is priceless. It represents your self-worth and commitment to develop as a technology professions.

“We value diligence and perseverance through tough times,” Peebles says. He explains that programmers with degrees have inevitably been faced with assignments, classmates or professors they didn’t particularly enjoy, but they were persistent and made it through.

Don’t miss out

If you’re not convinced yet, Peebles makes a simple case: “Self-taught programmers don’t know what they don’t know, which becomes a ceiling that they’ll struggle with their entire career.”

These programming pros have made it clear there’s a lot to gain by earning a degree. They also agreed that the diploma is merely a starting point. Every successful programmer must become self-taught after graduation because the industry is constantly evolving.


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