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Recruiting for IT Skills? Not Everyone Needs a College Degree

The huge demand for tech talent has prompted a notable shift. More and more, employers are giving IT candidates who lack a college degree a second look—and looking more carefully at their skills.

Recruiting for IT Skills? Not Everyone Needs a College Degree

By: John Rossheim

In this age of hard-to-find tech talent, is it a sustainable recruitment strategy to limit your IT candidate pool to computer science grads? More and more employers -- and the staffing firms that supply them with tech talent -- are saying no. 

“Candidates without an IT degree are more common than those with a degree,” says Henry Boulos, a vice president at technical staffing firm Talener. With tech talent as tight as it is, his clients must consider non-degree candidates for many roles or risk missing business opportunities.

Employers whose IT needs are heavily geared toward front-end development tend to agree. 

“We have a lot of positions that don’t require it,” says Evan Thomas, CIO of Loan Services at Computershare. “I don’t have a university degree. When I moved to the IT department, I had experience with how the business works. I could communicate with the end user -- that’s a huge win.”

Here’s how to assess whether the IT candidate skills you want in new hires will require a college degree. 

The nature of the role determines the need for a degree
To be sure, some IT roles -- for example, those that require advanced mathematics or the development of complex algorithms -- will require a computer science graduate.

“The non-degree candidates you see are in front-end development -- they’re UI programmers working in infrastructure, sysadmin, DevOps, mobile developers, open source technologies like PHP and Python,” says Boulos. “Candidates with degrees in computer science or engineering tend to be the ones to work on heavy enterprise, back-end systems involving Java, C#, .NET.” 

Some candidates were trained outside of higher education
Smart people can take several avenues to become effective practitioners of many IT specialties, without earning a specialized degree. 

“A lot of people move into IT from another area, picking up certifications along the way,” says Laura Handrick, a human resources analyst with Fit Small Business. “If your ATS is set to require a degree, these people will be missed.”

Of course, many techies earn their stripes outside of both academia and the corporate world. “Non-degree hires with great IT experience can be candidates from military backgrounds, where they've worked in high-tech IT jobs,” says Handrick.

And then there are the hackers, the ones who figure out programming for themselves and strut their stuff on open source communities like Github

“There’s a lot of interest in the self-taught programmer,” says Boulos. “There’s value in being the type of person who likes to take things apart and put them back together, including software applications.”

How to evaluate non-degree candidates
Regardless of how non-traditional candidates acquired their IT expertise, their skills require validation. “More and more clients are putting together code tests specific to their environment,” says Boulos.

“When we’re interviewing IT candidates, we talk about the technology stack they’ve been working with, where they have  worked, what applications and products they’ve built,” adds Boulos. “More of our clients are willing to take experience over a recent grad.”

Non-traditional candidates must also be able to communicate well and work in a group setting, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone. 

“With our small team, we have to make sure we don’t make hiring mistakes,” says Carlos Sa, chief technical officer at Mortgage Network. “We’ll bring a candidate in and you can tell within half an hour if it’s going to work out, based on how they’re talking about technology.” 

Employers debate the value of code academies
Code academies or boot camps are currently all the rage. “There’s a trend toward specialty code camps just for women,” says Nelly Yusupova, CTO and creator of TechSpeak.co Bootcamp, which teaches entrepreneurs how to manage technology teams and projects. 

Yusupova says hiring from boot camps has become kind of the norm. “People create a portfolio on Github to showcase their skills.” Yet some doubt that coding boot camps are a significant sourcing channel. 

“Code academies have gained traction over the past few years, and they’re trying to increase enrollment,” says Boulos. “With the current supply-and-demand situation, if we have someone self-taught, we can get them an interview with an employer without code academy.” 

Degree or no, soft skills rule
In the end, along with programming skills, “attitude, tenacity, communication abilities and knowing how to be a good worker are more important to many employers than the college degree,” says Yusupova, who herself holds a computer science degree.