This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 10, 2021 - May 16, 2021
It is easy to learn programming languages and other tech skills on your own, nowadays. You can just sign up for courses offered by tech training centres and learn a new skill in less than half the time it takes to obtain a university degree.
At the same time, employers are becoming more open-minded about hiring people for tech positions, regardless of their paper qualifications.
So, are university degrees still required for a tech job? This question becomes even more pertinent when you hear complaints in the industry about outdated university syllabi for tech subjects, and the fact that many famous tech founders are university dropouts.
But there are also arguments on the other side. An interesting one to note is the connections that you get by attending a famous university. For instance, Anthony Tan, the co-founder of Grab, is a Harvard Business School alumnus and counts many influential leaders as his course mates.
What do industry players in Malaysia think?
If you are applying for a tech job in more traditional and large companies, it is likely that a degree is still required, observes Derek Toh, founder and CEO of job-search platform WOBB.
This is because these companies may have hiring policies that require applicants to have a degree.
“I think part of the reason is psychological. The founder of a tech start-up may be self-taught but chief technology officers in large organisations are likely to have a university degree,” says Toh.
Without a university degree, you might not even get through the first level of assessment, given the competition in the job market. The technical assessment may only be given at the second stage of the job interview.
“But a lot of start-ups go straight to the technical test. Many brilliant coders probably learned the skills by themselves. It’s going in this direction now,” says Toh.
“However, as of right now, having a degree does open some doors. If you are only interested in working in start-ups or perhaps, a more progressive company, then a certificate from a coding school is probably enough.”
Do university graduates have qualities that set them apart? One common answer is that graduates have more soft skills and a broader knowledge base.
“I think there is some truth to it. But it’s more about time. Coding schools typically only last a few months, whereas a degree takes around three years. In that time, you would have experienced more group work and exposure to various topics. You might get a broader experience than what is most directly related to your role, which does have its advantages,” Toh points out.
Another point is that universities often require students to delve deeper into topics. A coding school or self-learning platform may be more focused on the practical skills.
“You can teach someone to be a mechanic and fix a car. But you are still not an engineer who can reinvent the car. To do that, you need a deep understanding of engineering and the science behind building a car,” says Toh.
But ultimately, it depends on the individual’s preference. Not everyone wants to reinvent a car and anyone who is truly curious can still pick up the required knowledge on his or her own.
“The university forces this information onto you. If you are not someone who takes a lot of initiative, then this method helps,” he says.
“I’m a very practical and direct person, so if I’m going for a tech job, I’d probably just attend a coding school and learn everything else on my own. I’d rather take my own initiative than be forced to learn subjects that I may not be interested in.”
WOBB is also on the lookout for software developers and data scientists to join its team from time to time. Toh suggests tech job applicants prepare a good portfolio of their work.
“Employers put you through a technical test because they want to know if you are just a book smart person or if you know how to apply your skills. Having a portfolio of your work is very important and it opens the door to interviews,” says Toh.
A university degree is not a must but could be advantageous for potential tech job applicants, says Steve Kucia, co-founder and chairman of fintech start-up Curlec.
“I think going to university forms a great foundation for anyone’s career, whether it’s in tech or not. I’m an ardent supporter of education. I don’t think universities are outdated although they may need changes. I do see a lot more collaborations between the industry and universities today,” says Kucia.
Curlec has been taking in interns to work on real-world projects over the past three years. This kind of experience is a great complement to what these students learn in the classroom, Kucia believes.
He does not expect university graduates to have all the knowledge required to succeed in the industry, as these skills can be learnt on the job. For him, attitude is a key factor he looks for in job applicants.
“The individual may not have the entire skillset that you want, but does the person have the right attitude and is [he or she] willing to work hard, be inquisitive and spend time researching things to come up with solutions?” asks Kucia.
Nevertheless, if there are two job applicants with great attitudes and similar skills, the candidate with a degree might have the advantage.
“A degree is not the be-all and end-all. Attitude is important, especially in small companies where everyone has an impact. But whether someone has gone to a top university and whether they have good grades is an indicator of success and attitude. While it’s not everything, it’s a way to assess the person,” says Zac Liew, co-founder and CEO of Curlec.
However, there is a need to differentiate between different types of tech jobs. If you want to become a web designer using low-code tools, you probably do not need a degree, says Kucia. Building complex software would require more skills.
In the same vein, it might be difficult for a mid-career individual to pivot to the tech industry if he or she does not have the relevant background. It would take a fair bit of effort to pick up an entirely new skill. “If you have some design flair, I think web design, graphic design and UI (user interface) could be good areas to explore,” he says.
“If you’re a 20-year-old without a computer science degree but you have some mathematical background, you could probably learn things like data science or deep tech on the job.”
Many companies are interested in upskilling their staff and hiring tech experts after the pandemic, observes Dwayne Ong, CEO of international certification body CASUGOL.
This urgent need meant that some companies did not mind if their potential hires did not have the relevant degree, as long as they were willing to learn on the job.
“But this shotgun approach may not be sustainable because it’s just to fulfil short-term needs due to the uncertainty after the pandemic. The companies are hoping to digitalise quickly,” says Ong.
In the long run, those with degrees might find it easier to move into management roles. “Of course, others might gain experience and managerial skills in time, but that might take a while. Having a degree could give people a head start.”
CASUGOL offers certification courses in technology and works with various institutions to upskill or retrain people. It also helps universities update technology courses to stay relevant. For instance, CASUGOL has partnered with Taylor’s University for its Master of Applied Computing programme.
Ong believes that a university education can equip individuals with communication and other soft skills, as well as good connections. But it’s not everything.
“Having a degree could give you a head start but not having a degree doesn’t mean you failed. It’s all about passion and understanding. You must always keep reading and understanding how you can develop yourself,” says Ong.
To gain a competitive advantage, he suggests individuals brush up on their digital literacy skills and understand the latest tech trends, as well as master data management skills.
“Also, learn some programming skills so you can put together solutions swiftly to serve specific tech needs,” he says.
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