Ask thoughtbot: college & degrees

Matt Jankowski

A blog reader asks…

I know you’re a professional in the field of web development, so I wanted to ask you a simple question: in your opinion, how useful is a computer science degree for a career in web development? I’m a second year CS major, and considering dropping out because I don’t see the value in it anymore. It’s just taking away my time from learning and doing what I love most–developing web apps. Will dropping out hurt me later on?

…I tossed this one around internally and we got a great range of answers from the thoughtbot team. First I’ll give this my answer and then I’ll let them have the floor. Let me answer as an employer first and a developer second.


When we review candidates for design and development positions at thoughtbot, we definitely do look at education, but there’s no particular requirement which will eliminate someone from the process because of education only. All of our employees without college degrees are great at what they do and have good experience during the time they would have been going to college. I think if I saw someone who did nothing for 4 years and then looked for a job, I’d be skeptical - but when I see someone who’s used that time to learn on their own and has great skills/experience, their degree doesn’t really matter. Even for people who do have a degree - I want to see that they haven’t just bought some meaningless stamp of approval and that the projects they worked on and skills they gained while at college are actually worth something.

As a small, owner-operated business, we may have more discretion in this regard than larger businesses. I know that at some larger organizations, you don’t even get to meet the person who is hiring you until you’ve passed the HR litmus test, and they are probably screening on a lot of things without totally understanding what sort of developer is actually needed. I’ve heard more than one person at clients of ours complaining about how hard it is to get people that they want to hire through their own company’s internal review process!

So, in regard to being hired - I think it’s worth just being aware that you will limit the places that you can “get in the door” … but if you don’t want to work at those organizations in the first place, maybe that doesn’t matter.

Personally, I’m glad I went to college and stayed there once I was there. This is all in retrospect, but here’s why.

Four years and a ton of debt is a big price to pay for anything, not just college. I know for sure that my 18 year old self absolutely did not have a correct perception of how much dollar debt he was getting into. Looking back though, if I’m going to work for 40+ years, taking out four years at the beginning to increase my skill set and network of future friends and professional associates is a relatively small price to pay, in terms of time.


One thing I do think would have given me more perspective - and probably led to a more mature focus during college - would be to have worked for one calendar year between secondary school and university. The Gap Year concept is popular in some places, for either military service or travel abroad. I think getting drunk in different parts of the world isn’t really an effective way to learn what to do next, but I think getting a year of “real world” work experience under your belt, and truly learning the value of the dollar, paying rent on your own, etc - could do wonders for many otherwise unfocused people.

For me, the specific technical skills I learned are mostly knowledge that I could have gotten elsewhere. This is probably more true in technical fields than in other areas - where a professor’s particular insight might actually be a legitimately scarce resource that can’t be found elsewhere - but in technology and software in particular, almost everything is online, and it’s almost always free. But, there are people I met who are lifelong friends, internships I had which I couldn’t have otherwise found, projects I worked on where the outcome didn’t matter but going through the process was huge, and so on. It’s hard to actually put a dollar value on some of that.

Of course … this is a question without any one true answer. So much is contingent on a person’s individual situation, there’s not a blanket response to give. I have friends and family members who have gone to college, not gone to college, dropped out, transferred, gone through doctoral programs, etc - and I can’t say that any one group of them is more happy or more successful than a particular other group. I think that your willingness to create your own opportunity and choose how you spend your time wisely – via college or otherwise – is what really matters.

Here are some thoughts from our team. On staying in and co-ops…

I don’t feel I would be in the same place if it wasn’t for staying in (and getting away from the boring work helped motivate me to look into Ruby, etc). If his school doesn’t have a co-op program and you want real world experience, well then, he’s probably wasting his time.

…on self direction…

I feel like the majority of things one needs to succeed in our field are learned best on our own. I have a chip on my shoulder because of my school loans and the amount of knowledge, or lack there of, that they imparted upon me. I’ll forever be a proponent of trying school. If it’s not for you, leave before it gets to be a burden and find a job.

…on try before you buy…

I think if you’re unsure of whether school is propelling you in the direction you want to go, and think you have the determination to it alone without structure in the hope of achieving a higher goal (i.e. not just working at that coffee shop), then try before you buy. Take a year off, find a job, learn as much as you can, and if it doesn’t work, you can always go back.

…on being interesting…

I don’t think “stay in school” is the right message, as much as that would make parents happy. I don’t think “drop out” is the right message either. Maybe a better message is “aggressively follow your interests to be interesting”.

…on being learny…

I think the biggest benefit I earned while studying was an appreciation for the pursuit of knowledge. Stay learny!

…on alternate ways to learn…

I hated high school and joined the Marines because I didn’t feel like college was my calling and I didn’t want to be stuck at Blockbuster Video for the rest of my life. There are tons of services (libraries, iTunesU, college book stores) that people can take advantage of if they want to learn the more technical aspects of programming; spending $20k+ a year for a degree isn’t always necessary.

…on avoiding patience for it’s own sake…

Don’t stay in college because “you should”. Stay because you want to learn. If you don’t feel as though college is allowing you to learn, leave.

…on crazy costs…

My general opinion is that education is suffering from massive diploma, grade, and financial inflation right now. I’ve heard of lots of positive experiences, but a decent college career can easily cost you $60k in debt, and I have a hard time believing losing four years and that much money gives you a leg up on the people that hit the trenches immediately.

…on gaining confidence in yourself…

One thing that I think was valuable for me about finishing my degree with decent grades was that it gave me a certain confidence that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to just apply to a web job without a degree.

…on timing and readiness…

The problem I had with college was that I simply wasn’t ready. College can expose you to lots of interesting things that are VERY applicable to web development. However, at the time I thought they were completely irrelevant so I avoided learning them.

So, there you are. This is a complex question with significant costs to whichever answer you choose. If I had to draw a theme out of all that, I’d say the theme is that real experience and constant learning will put you on the right path, college or not. If you go to college and try to get a great education, you can probably get one; if you expect to find a ton of toga parties, you can probably find them.

Hey!, speaking of “ask thoughtbot” - we’ve added an “ask thoughtbot” link over there. If you’ve got questions that we might have answers for, there you go.