Drop out of college; earn a six-figure salary coding

A four year degree isn't the only path to a great development job -- if you have the coding chops

dropout_shansby_flickr_290.gifImage credit: Shansby/Flickr

Savannah Kunovsky was working toward a computer science degree when she learned of Hack Reactor, a coding boot camp in San Francisco. She applied, got in, and ended up walking away from the four-year degree program. At first, she intended to go back to school after sharpening her coding skills. But – a year later – she doesn't think college will happen any time soon. “It was life changing," she says of the immersive twelve-week program. It saved her the cost of two more years of college and landed her a well-paying job she loves. “You can earn the cost of college in one year after this program," she says. But that's not the only reason she did it. “College was an awesome experience. I grew socially. I figured out how to work hard and find balance in my life. But here? I am constantly stimulated and get to meet people from all backgrounds. College seems stagnant by comparison." (Disclosure: She works as a software engineer at Hack Reactor.)

Savannah is part of a growing number of computer science students being lured away -- sometimes right from high school -- from a traditional four-year degree path directly into an IT job. Instead of investing four years and as much as $100K in a college degree, they learn to code at a boot camp or by taking online classes and go directly into lucrative and interesting work. No one's path is exactly like anyone else's but an ecosystem has sprung up – especially in the high-tech corridor of the San Francisco Bay Area – where there is so much demand for programmers that it is the actual skills – not a diploma that indicates they have those skills – that gets you in the door.

It's easy to see why some companies are looking past degrees for people with the skills to get the work done. According to Code.org, there are 80,000 positions requiring a computer science degree going unfilled – a situation that promises only to get worse. By 2018, US computing occupations will grow about 800,000 new jobs and US college graduates will be able to fill only 29% of them. It's a matter of supply and demand. Companies need to get the work done. There aren't enough people with the skills to do that work. So that filter – a degree from a good college in the right subject – isn't always applied. Google, for example, has some engineering teams where as many as 14% of members do not have a college degree, according to an internal Google PR rep. This is, by no means, a common way in the door at Google – or anywhere else (See "How to get a job at Google"). But it is a way, especially for people with the right talent who can't afford a computer science degree. “There are two ways to look at this," says Hack Reactor's Chief Strategy Officer Ruan Pethiyagoda. “If your goal for going to college is to spend four formative years immersing yourself in an academic atmosphere, learning from people with a variety of backgrounds, and you can afford to do that, there is significant value to that. But we have found that some people are willing to sacrifice that experience and – for a five-figure investment – go directly to a six-figure salary." (Hack Reactor claims it places 99% of graduates and that the average starting salary is $105K.)

Fredric Paul, editor-in-chief at a San Francisco software company watched as his son, Grant, make this "sacrifice" to go to work – right out of high school – for Facebook. Grant didn't even stop at a code school on the way. He had started hacking his Dad's cast-off technology when he was only in grade school; he started building apps in high school. Some of his apps became so popular that, when he was fifteen, Facebook contacted him asking if he'd like to bring his app building skills in house. But when Grant confessed he was only a sophomore in high school, the company invited him to do an internship before his senior year instead. Grant applied to college along with his peers. “Probably because his parents insisted," laughs Fredric. “He got accepted to a few schools, nothing that thrilled him. Probably because he wasn't that focused on trying to get in." But, after he completed the Facebook internship, Grant turned the schools down and took a job. Fredric worries that Grant is missing an important experience by not going to college. “I think skipping college is almost always not the right choice," he says. But there are worse concerns to have when you are the father of an eighteen-year old. Grant is happy, making good money, and doing what he loves. Most people take a lot longer to figure out how to do that in their lives. “I am not worried he won't learn," says Fredric. “He is working with some really smart people. And if he wants to go to college down the road, this experience will probably make him a better candidate."

Fredric raises good questions, though, about people who are going into white collar work after what is, essentially, a vocational school education. It's hard not to wonder if this fast-track is a good long-term career -- or life -- strategy. What about the people you meet in college? What about those late nights cramming that lead to lifelong friends? How about athletics or hobbies or extra-curricular interests? How about subjects other than coding? “I don't recommend students skip college to learn to code," offers Hadi Partovi, Co-founder & CEO of Code.org. “But it's worth noting that computer science degrees are the best-paying college degrees, because of the dearth of students and the growth in opportunity. And if you can't afford the cost of college, you can still learn many of these skills online or at a coding boot camp." It is certainly a decision to forgo a luxury that many consider a rite of passage and a desirable -- if not necessary -- entre into the adult world of work. But, in an economy desperate for coders, it's more like a challenge that can be overcome -- with a bit of resourcefulness -- than a setback. “These engineers enjoy very generous comfortable lives with reasonable hours and generous vacation packages," says Hack Reactor's Pethiyagoda. “They find that sort of activity– rock climbing, kayaking, and other hobbies -- with their peers outside of a college environment. The difference is they are earning good money while doing it."

But won't they someday find themselves thwarted in the pursuit of opportunity by a failure to produce a framed copy of that degree? “I have only heard of one instance of a grad being told he could not have a promotion because of his lack of degree," says Pethiyagoda. And in that case, the manager who made that decision lost a valuable programmer to the competition. “In most cases, this is a meritocracy because it is quite easy to measure performance." But it's true, he says, that someone else will probably have to do work that requires an understanding of hardware engineering. And if the lack of supply and intense demand for software engineers that currently exists changes, it is likely that the students who put in four years to get a degree will have an easier time getting doors to open.

But this is a situation that's been going on for many years and looks as if it will continue for as many more. Sonja Erickson, is VP of Engineering at tech startup, We Heart It. She started working in technology in 1987 -- without a college degree. Nearly thirty years later, that decision has not stifled her career. “Experience and results speak the loudest," she says.

That's not to say, though, that it has never come up. “I've had some awkward moments where it would have been easier for me -- and for others -- if I'd gone to college," she admits. “In fact, there is one memorable one when a very prominent Silicon Valley VC brought in an entourage of Ivy League students to show off ‘his' company. At the meeting, he asked me to share some college experiences with the students. It was awkward for everyone."


App Academy (San Francisco)

An immersive, full-time, twelve-week web development and job-placement program that does not charge tuition. If you find a job upon graduation, you pay the school a placement fee of 18% of your first year salary.

Code.org (Online)

Find a selection of online classes that will get your mind in gear, teach you some basics, and set you on your way to either teach yourself to code or prepare you for one of the boot camps or at least help you see if you want to pursue a computer science degree.

EdX.org (Online)

EdX.com offers a two-course XSeries ($90) – courses that can be taken together and earn an EdX.org certificate of completion -- in computer science that you can take from anywhere. Plus it's taught by Eric L. Grimson, the Chancellor of MIT and a professor there of computer science and engineering so that's not too shabby.

General Assembly (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities; online.)

Immersive, full-time classes that run simultaneously in eight cities worldwide. The Web Development Immersive ($11,500) is a 12-week program designed to turn beginners into work-ready junior developers. According to GA, more than 90% of the job seekers who complete this program have jobs within 90 days of graduation.

Hack Reactor (San Francisco)

An immersive program ($17,780) that's not for complete beginners (though you can learn enough to apply during the application process) teaches software engineering, creates an ecosystem of fellow-coders to return to, and even encourages students to go to the gym. 99% of graduates get a job on graduation (the school helps with this and tracks graduates) with an average salary of $105K.

HackBright Academy (San Francisco)

A 10-week fellowship ($15K) in coding for women only. Includes an education in software engineering that assumes no previous experience, mentorship, job fairs, and an introduction to companies that are hiring.

This story, "Drop out of college; earn a six-figure salary coding" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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