Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




Hiring someone who *almost* has a degree?

I have somewhat of a unique situation.  I left college at the end of 1997 for financial and personal reasons when I was one semester shy of my B.A. in Computer Science.  All my CompSci requirements were long ago fufilled, I just needed some electives and social science courses.

Anyway, for those of you who are part of the hiring process where you work, how would you view this, in terms of evaluating a prospective hire? 

Naturally everybody is welcome to respond (not that I could stop you! haha) but I think the most valuable feedback would be from people who are a) involved in the exvaluation/hiring practice and b) people in the same boat. 

John Rose
Friday, December 12, 2003

Small correction- that would have been a B.S., not a B.A.  With proofreading skills like that, no wonder I never graduated.  :-P

John Rose
Friday, December 12, 2003

I don't have a degree, I do have 20 years of experience in the software development industry.

My lack of a degree has not hindered my career.  Right now I am in charge of a development department where one person (the junior) has a degree and one persion (the senior) does not have a degree.

I personally weigh a degree along with experience:

If looking for a Junior:
- a degree or 2 years experience

If looking for an Intermediate:
- a degree and 2-3 years experience
- or 5-7 years experience

If looking for a senior
- a degree and 5-7 years experience
- or 10-15 years experience

Before anyone craps on me, those are loose guidelines, everyone is treated differently depending on what skills they posess.

Gregor Brandt
Friday, December 12, 2003

Allow me to rephrase: would a candidate who is several credits shy of a degree be viewed more closely to:
a) a candidate with little or no college education, or
b) a candidate with a degree

And how closely?  :-)

John Rose
Friday, December 12, 2003

I've been a perpetual Senior since '92 and the lack of a degree really hasn't hurt me.

However...I've been enormously blessed and quite lucky. The demand during the boom meant nobody really cared what my educational background was.

Today, it might be different. I dunno, I'm not looking for a job. Some of my clients have a policy of not hiring developers that don't have a degree. These are large corporations where it's ingrained that no degree equates to poor quality. These are also good development shops, so one can't just say "Well, I'd never work in a place like that!" These folks do things right.

Bottom line is YMMV. Some companies care, some don't. One thing to consider is that if you and another candidate are neck-and-neck for the job, but he has a degree, then that degree can often be the tie-breaker.

Mark Hoffman
Friday, December 12, 2003

Just a question, but how difficult would it be for you to finish your college education at night or over the web (distance learning)?  That is likely to be viewed favorably by HR as you've shown a desire to increase your skills (that's how the HR folk will look at it).

Lou
Friday, December 12, 2003

Oh...and when I hire, a degree means nothing to me. But I'm biased. :')

Mark Hoffman
Friday, December 12, 2003

re:  just needed a few credits

There's the kicker.  The ability to follow through is one of the most important traits to demonstrate and you've come up short in this instance.  You need to emphasis what you GAINED from the experience, not what you DON'T have.  Or you need to go GET it, and demonstrate your ability to follow through.

As for the usefulness, I've worked in places where bachelor's were expected and more was desired (and CS knowledge was useful) to places where nobody had a degree except me (and CS knowledge was icing, but totally unnecessary).

not mr. johnson
Friday, December 12, 2003

I was in the same situation for 4 years and it didn't cause any problems. I eventually finished the two classes I needed to take, and got the degree (last summer).


Friday, December 12, 2003

My concern about would be why you dropped out.  Providing you were up front at the initial CV / resume stage  then it wouldn't be a problem.  However, some sort of evidence of your existing credits would also be a good idea. 

I changed jobs while I was doing a management course by distance learning and made sure to document the units involved.

A cynic writes
Friday, December 12, 2003

"I personally weigh a degree along with experience."

I don't give a whit about either, personally. If you buy into Joel's theory that the best people are SMART and GET THINGS DONE, then that is what you need to test people for. A degree can be evidence of getting things done, but a lack of one does not necessarily mean that the person can't follow through.

Evaluate each person as a person, not as a diploma and a work history.

Brad Wilson (dotnetguy.techieswithcats.com)
Friday, December 12, 2003

Previous work experience is a pretty good indicator of smart and gets things done, why wouldn't I care about it? A degree also shows this, but albeit to a lesser extent.

Gerald
Friday, December 12, 2003

"If you buy into Joel's theory that the best people are SMART and GET THINGS DONE, then that is what you need to test people for".

True; but I would argue that one of the ways in which a person "gets things done" is to finish a college education. You know how there are some people who always seem to have bad things happen to them, that get in their way of finishing tasks? Well, I believe that such people often create their own luck, and nearly finishing a degree seems to me a big warning sign that you may have such a person on your hands.

Exception guy
Friday, December 12, 2003

Speaking as someone who has hired you before, I prefer to hire smart people with a passion for doing the work.  If you truly like what you do, you will take pride in your work and do the best job you can.  I would give you a good reference as long as you promised you could make it into work on a consistent schedule.

I would think the degree would mostly help in larger organizations and you wanted to traverse a management career ladder which isn't what I think you want to do.

Wade Winningham
Friday, December 12, 2003

On your resume, for the educational background section, put down the degree you expect to have and when you expect to finish it by (you do plan to finish, right?).  During your interview you can discuss your little setback and that it's just that, a small setback, and it is not going to stop you from getting your degree.  I, too, left college without my degree.  I had one incomplete independent study class due to having taken an insane credit load (all my classes that term were 400 and 500 level CS classes except for one art class).  I finished my degree without going back to school.

Even companies that typically require a degree will often hire people without a degree with the stipulation that you must finish your degree.

anon
Friday, December 12, 2003

I think this whole topic is poorly treated and is a bit strange. Someone who's done three and a half years of an engineering degree has completed more work than the holder of a 3-year science degree. Yet applying the simple has / doesn't have criterion somehow says the degree holder is more useful? There's no logical reason that's the case.

Second, I think the importance of finishing the degree derives from an earlier time when only rich people went to university, and failing to finish really did mean inability to graduate. These days, it can mean the student ran out of money, chose better employment options or had other commitments.

In some ways, non-completion is a bold step, and can indicate the confidence of a more capable candidate.

HR maven
Friday, December 12, 2003

My first *real* job out of college was programming for a University.  Actually, I was still *in* college but wanted a job so badly that when I saw a position open at my Uni I applied and was accepted.  In the interview I said that a condition of employment was that I would be given the time to leave work during the day to take classes with the intent to finish my B.S. in CS; they agreed and their only stipulation was that I worked at least eight hours a day.  Since I was working for the University I was taking classes at they were free, which is about the best way to go to college that one can get. :)

Besides the obvious difficulties of taking several senior-level computer science classes (and working hard enough to earn good grades) *and* working 40+ hours a week it ended up working fantastically well.

MR
Friday, December 12, 2003

It is not a question of why you do not have a degree. It is a question of the reasons behind why you did not complete the degree.

Did you give it up because you were bored?
Did you give it up because you wanted to hitchhike through Europe?
Did you give up because the cost was too much?
Did you give up because you got a job?

If it was something like the first two I would tend to look unkindly to the lack of degree because it would seem to me that you are not comitted enough to see things through especially if your resume reinforces it -- like if I see lot of job hopping

If it was because of the last two reasons I would probably not hold the lack of degree against you.

But in the final analysis a company will hire you  (or not!) based on how useful they think your experience is for them...

Code Monkey
Friday, December 12, 2003

As someone who "dropped out" of GA Tech as a senior, I can say that not having a degree never hurt me up until the last year or so. Companies in NYC make a BIG DEAL about having a degree.

On the other hand, when I'm hiring I seldom even look at the education section. I just don't care, because I know how little of what I learned in school actually got used in any of my jobs. (As compared to what I've learned on my own.)

So, it really depends on who's reading your resume. Now that I have over a decade of senior-level experience under my belt, education has become simply a bullet point along with German language proficiency (regrettably poor these days), Eagle Scout, and avid photographer.

Jeff
Friday, December 12, 2003

Umm ... do the smartest students actually get a degree in CS? I don't thinks so. I think the smartest go to Med and Law ... what else ... So by having a degree in CS you automatically put yourself in a lower IQ group. Me ... I'd hire the guy who loves his work and I'd judge him by his work and references.

Me
Friday, December 12, 2003

The smartest students don't necessarily go into medicine and law.  In fact I'd say those professions take less smarts than a lot of others.  They do, however, take a lot of drive, ambition and memorization.

chris
Friday, December 12, 2003

I agree that the you difficulty will depend on who is doing the hiring.  A lot of medium to large size companies will filter you out right away without a degree, especially if you don't have work experience.

chris
Friday, December 12, 2003

I would like to add that you should only get the degree if it's something YOU want.  I don't think people should run their lives thinking about what will be the most marketable to a future employer. 

not mr. johnson
Friday, December 12, 2003

Doing job but didn't get degree = smart enough to learn on own, able to keep up with changes.

Has degree = comes from comfortable background; don't know how they will go when faced with a real challenge.

y
Friday, December 12, 2003

Tangent: doctors

I thought this was funny.  My entire group of friends from highschool are med students now.  (It was a Governor's School -- essentially a residential super-magnet school.)  I'd planned to be to, though I was more thinking of medical research.

So I definitely believe that smart people try to become doctors.

On the other hand, my med student classmates are all still in school.  At best, they may start to graduate this spring.  Then they still have to deal with the "startup conditions" that pervade medical residency for another few years at least.  While I, on the other hand, learned several years back to just say no to 80-hour weeks.  Finally, they get to start paying down 8 years worth of school debt, plus interest, before they can afford to buy a house or have children or travel the world or save megabucks for retirement.

Yes, they'll make a little more per year than I do in the end, but (assuming programmers don't all get outsourced) I don't think they'll break even before we're 40.

So I don't believe that becoming a doctor is a very smart thing for all these smart people to do. ;)

Mikayla
Friday, December 12, 2003

If you are that close, you can always actually try to complete your degree and put, BS in whatever, anticipated [this year] on your resume.

me
Friday, December 12, 2003

I’m in a similar position.  I was in college during the boom and kept seeing stories about people making ridiculous money straight out of high school because they knew a little HTML.  I got curious and put my resume up on Monster.  A few months later, as I was starting my last year of college, I was offered a great position.  Many of those who followed through to get their degrees instead of going for the quick money ended up wearing things like a Burger King uniform to their first job out of college so I certainly have no regrets. 

There are places that will absolutely not hire you if you don’t have a degree but there is also no shortage of places that will hire you if you don’t have a degree but know what you’re doing.  If you’re good, a degree shouldn’t be much of an impediment to your career (unless of course you want to get into teaching or something like that).  If the degree is important to you or you want to have it for that extra little bit of security, by all means go for it. 

I tried finishing up the degree part-time but it’s hard fitting in the extra hours, particularly when product release crunch time happens to coincide with exams or the first week of class.  When everyone else is putting in long hours to get things out the door, it doesn’t look good when you insist on leaving because you have class.  I’ve considered taking off from work and dipping into savings to finish off the degree full-time but as far as I can tell, the degree would never make more money for me than I’d spend on it. 

The thing I wonder about most is how to represent this on a resume.  Putting “In progress” isn’t exactly accurate and seems to imply that I’m still in school and not working full-time.  On the other hand, not including it leaves out a good chunk of information that might be useful to a potential employer.  “Not finished” is too negative. 

SomeBody
Friday, December 12, 2003

"Previous work experience is a pretty good indicator of smart and gets things done, why wouldn't I care about it?"

So, if I worked for 14 years at MCI/Worldcom, how does that tell you whether I'm smart or can get things done, exactly?

Or, perhaps you didn't mean what you wrote, and instead meant to say that someone with experience means that you'll have a frame of reference against which to judge those things, because you can ask them about said experience.

If you meant the latter, then I agree with you.

However, if you truly did mean that work experience was an automatic indicator or SMART and GETS THINGS DONE, then I couldn't possibly disagree more. There are a ton of places that people can go into vegetation mode at, even places with very good reputations.

Brad Wilson (dotnetguy.techieswithcats.com)
Friday, December 12, 2003

Brad,

Obviously you look at someone's work experience in some sort of context. Is work experience an automatic indicator of smart and get things done? No. However it's not something to be discounted out of hand either which is what you appeared to be saying in your first post on this thread.

Gerald

Gerald
Friday, December 12, 2003

I was saying that it doesn't matter in the final calculation; i.e., I would hire someone without a degree and without experience if I believed they were the best person for the job.

Brad Wilson (dotnetguy.techieswithcats.com)
Friday, December 12, 2003

Finish the darn degree.  Coming that close and not finishing after so many years makes you look like a quitter.

T. Norman
Saturday, December 13, 2003

>"Doing job but didn't get degree = smart enough to learn on own, able to keep up with changes.

>"Has degree = comes from comfortable background; don't know how they will go when faced with a real challenge."

Still has only 90% of a degree after having six years to finish the last 10% = lack of determination.

T. Norman
Saturday, December 13, 2003

> Still has only 90% of a degree after having six years to finish the last 10% = lack of determination.

But if he is gainfully employed doing the work he set out to do, and doing it better than others, then that's higher determination.

By the way, I know several of these types of people. After a while they often enrol in a masters and generally do much better than their conventional colleagues. One guy was the absolute top of his class of about 1,000.

y
Saturday, December 13, 2003

>"But if he is gainfully employed doing the work he set out to do, and doing it better than others, then that's higher determination."

Declining to finish the degree after coming so close and having such a long time to finish it, is indicative of someone who doesn't complete major tasks when there are obstacles in the way.  The person's other credentials would have to be extra impressive to make up for that negative.  For every brilliant person who drops out and doesn't finish despite being so close, there are a dozen others who did so because they just don't have the determination to finish what they start.

T. Norman
Saturday, December 13, 2003

"Declining to finish the degree after coming so close and having such a long time to finish it, is indicative of someone who doesn't complete major tasks when there are obstacles in the way. "

Major tasks and obstacles, huh?  That's an interesting way of looking at it.

My "major task" was to be a professional programmer, and I've achieved that quite well for the last 6 years.

School was never the end, only the means.  I could have finished my degree easily, if I gave up my programming jobs and moved back in with mommy and daddy and borrowed money for school.  But I decided to go out on my own and achieve my goal of being a programmer despite the major (to some people) obstacle of not having a degree.

See, it's all about what you view as the goal and what you view as the obstacle, isn't it, now?  :-)

John Rose
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Thanks to everybody for the replies so far.  Good discussion.  I've purposely avoided responding until now because I wanted to see how the discussion and thought processes would play out on their own, rather than turning it into a "me defending myself" sort of thing.

Please, keep it coming!    :-)

John Rose
Saturday, December 13, 2003

So many people complete bachelor's or master's degrees from start to finish, while working full-time all the time and even raising kids in some cases.  And to finish one semester's worth of studies in a six-year period is too much for you?

Fine, don't finish the degree.  It will just make it easier for me to compete against you in the job market.

T. Norman
Saturday, December 13, 2003

You sure?  Last guy I replaced had a degree.  ;-)

John Rose
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Non-sequitir.  It will be easier for me to compete against a John Rose who doesn't have a degree than against a John Rose who has one, whether I have a degree or not.

T. Norman
Saturday, December 13, 2003

But it's the new graduates who aren't getting jobs, T Norman.

Also, the claim that the degree represents completion is a pretty dumb appreciation of the situation. That sort of logic would say that it's best to keep working on a load of rubbish that can never work, simply for the benefit of finishing it. Smart people adjust their priorities to maximise success.

y
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Regardless of whether or not finishing the degree will make a difference to whoever is interviewing you (despite all the "it wouldn't matter to me" comments, I think it probably would make a difference to most employers), it will undoubtedly make a difference in terms of starting salary for someone just getting into the software industry in today's economy.

anon
Saturday, December 13, 2003

John Rose,

If you already had a preconceived answer that you wanted, please don't waste our time seeking advice.

I understand your need for an ego-stroke and reassurance, but it's really not in your best interest to seek that from an anonymous message board.

hth
Saturday, December 13, 2003

hth,

Not the case at all.  While I got involved in a little personal banter with T. Norman, I do realize there's no doubt that, all other things being equal, having a degree is of course better than not having one- as he noted in his last comment, which I agree with 100%.

I'm just interested in how much of a difference it makes in various peoples' minds, especially the fairly unique case where a degree is *nearly* complete.  The thread has been very educational- a lot of people have inidicated that it's not a big difference, as long as its compensated for in other areas such as experience, attitude, etc.

It's also shown me (and this is the part I hadn't fully considered before) that the non-completion of the degree could be viewed as a sign of person who is not necessarily lacking in programming skills, but as a sign of a person fails to follow through on goals.  I had always looked at it in the more literal sense of "well I'm not going to be a better programmer if I take those last remaining social sciences courses" but I now see that it can be viewed from a different angle, like T. Norman said.  So it's definitely worthwhile to stress to interviewers that the degree was not finished due to relatively positive reasons such as a passion for pursuing a software development career and not laziness, etc.

So thanks to T. Norman and everybody else for the replies!  :-)

John Rose
Sunday, December 14, 2003

Sorry John, but it will sound worse if you tell an interviewer that you didn't complete your degree because you were pursuing a career in software, and it will insult their intelligence because it is likely they will personally know of people who have completed degrees from start to finish while working full-time in software development.

There are many justifications for not completing the degree within 4 years.  It is the not the lack of initial completion that is the problem, it is the failure to make any progress towards its completion since then.

Unless you had some extreme circumstances like being overseas in the military for the majority of the six years (or being in a coma), the only way to satisfy an interviewer who thinks degree completion is important is to finish it, or at least be enrolled in a class towards its completion at the time of the interview.

T. Norman
Sunday, December 14, 2003

I finished a 2nd degree in computer science while working full time as a programmer.  Married, but no kids.


Sunday, December 14, 2003

T. Norman: yes, yes, yes, we get it: anything less than a degree is a total failure to you for reasons short of capturing Saddam Hussein or suffering multiple simultaneous limb amputation while achieving enlightenment in the Himalayan mountains.  You may stop repeating yourself now; even without a college degree, my under-educated mind has managed to grasp your much-belabored point.

Could you post or email me the name of your company?  I just want to make sure that I don't accidentally send you a resume next time I'm job-hunting.  :-)

John Rose
Sunday, December 14, 2003

"It will be easier for me to compete against a John Rose who doesn't have a degree than against a John Rose who has one, whether I have a degree or not."

I have never found this to be true, for any job which I cared about. Even in these times, I am still employable w/o a degree. During the deepest times of the depression, I was still getting calls and interviews, and did eventually get a job. There were clearly lots of available people w/ degrees.

Brad Wilson (dotnetguy.techieswithcats.com)
Sunday, December 14, 2003

Brad, you didn't get his point.  His point was that if the company that hired you had a choice between

a) you with a degree

or

b) a clone of you w/o a degree

the company would probably choose "a".


Sunday, December 14, 2003

And I would like to add that getting that 2nd degree while working was hellish.  I had to drive all across town, I wasn't learning anything I didn't already know, and I don't think it has increased my marketability any at all.


Sunday, December 14, 2003

I've never run across a clone of me w/o a degree. Have you?

Seriously, that's a ludicrous straw man. Every person is different. Did you really think it a valid logical argument?

Brad Wilson (dotnetguy.techieswithcats.com)
Sunday, December 14, 2003

I guess there's also the cover-your-ass aspect to consider.  A manager looks bad when a new hire doesn't work out.  So if all other things are roughly equal, a manager will have an easier time defending his decision to hire a programmer with X years of experience and Y degrees than a programmer with only X years of experience.

John Rose
Sunday, December 14, 2003

Brad, you're still missing the point.  The point is would you be better with the degree.  I'm not saying you would or wouldn't, but I know a lot of hiring types that would say yes.


Sunday, December 14, 2003

I find myself in agreement with absolutely everything that everyone has said so far. Especially the diametrically opposed points of view.

The one thing that could tip the balance, I guess, is that by choosing not to finish your degree, you will have something that requires explanation and justification. Choosing to finish it leaves you with nothing to explain.

Fernanda Stickpot
Monday, December 15, 2003

"I find myself in agreement with absolutely everything that everyone has said so far. Especially the diametrically opposed points of view."

That doesn't make any sense.

John Rose
Monday, December 15, 2003

Not finishing your degree if you only have a few credits left is kinda loserly. Saying "I almost have a degree" doesn't mean anything. It's like trying to claim membership to a club that you aren't a member of. Either finish the degree, or stop saying "I almost have a degree".

And I'm not suggesting that your education isn't valuable just because you didn't get the parchment, but you should present it as it is, not as it *almost* is. In other words, tell the potential employer "I've taken courses on software development, operating systems..." blah, blah "primarily at Acme College" blah, blah. If they ask you if you have a degree you say "no". Maybe, MAYBE, at that point it might be okay to say "I almost have a degree", but to say it up front just sounds so totally lame.

nb
Wednesday, December 17, 2003

I AM

aL tRENA l. nORWOOD
Tuesday, June 15, 2004

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home