Is University The Only Way to Become A Developer?

In a career talk with Ho Chi Minh City University of Polytechnic’s students, I was asked a question: “What do the scores on my transcript mean to recruiters?” I answered that when you are just out of school, it is the only evidence of your ability to complete what you started. The next question was, “what if there are no scores, or a candidate did not go to university, or didn’t complete school, what does it mean to recruiters?” I can’t speak for all recruiters, but I will share my opinion about it.

There are countless success stories of dropping out of university, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but traditionally in Vietnam, everyone must go on to university. Typical reasons for not attending include not having the intelligence required, or not having enough money. While these are sometimes true, there are many other reasons a person might choose not to go to university or to drop out.

Let’s say you don’t feel that you have the talent to learn math, physics or science. You tried hard but could not pass the entry exam or could not graduate. My advice is to find another profession. A programmer needs logical thinking skills and passion for science. If you don’t have these skills it will be painful to invest time studying and working, and still struggling while your classmates can do it with just a finger snap.

What if you have the ability to learn and are passionate about those subjects, but your coursework grades don’t reflect that? Thought it might seem that if you’re passionate, you can still find a career as a developer, recruiters don’t necessarily see it that way. They can’t be sure they can give you assignments that you always love. In business, many times you have to do what is needed for the business, even if it is boring to you. My advice to you is change to “love what you do” not “do what you love.” Find motivation in contribution and achievements you made for the company and society, rather than only being motivated by things that you personally like. The value you create is much more important than the difficulty of the code you write.

If you have the ability, but your lack of motivation and self-discipline kept you from graduating, my advice is to give yourself a second chance by starting over with something else. It could be a project with a group of friends, or participating in an open source community, or even go back to school and get your degree. If you can follow maintain consistent performance and contribution, recruiters will have faith in you, and they may believe you will consistently contribute to their organization. Sit down and start working seriously on something. This process will train you to focus and complete something to the end – what recruiters want to see and what you couldn’t do with your degree.

Did you drop out because you had an idea, or saw an opportunity and couldn’t wait until completing university? It is reasonable but there are two things the recruiters would consider:

  • Are you a responsible person, did you throw away your family investment and expectations, for your own hobby and desires? One day, if you have a brilliant idea, will you just quit the job?
  • Do you have long term commitment to the company, or this is just a temporary job until you mature your personal plan?

If the answer is no for both questions, the company will not give you important positions, nor invest in or plan for your career, because you might quit anytime you want. They will just use your skillset, but wouldn’t be surprised if one day you’ll take off.

If you thought university was a waste of time, or there are too many impractical courses, you will have to prove you have another and better method to develop yourself in programming. The recruiters will be very concerned that you may have a tendency to reject a plan or program that you don’t agree with, while you are unable to point out a better plan. You should understand that in programming, there is never a perfect solution, there is only a “best solution possible.” A person who always points out the negative things in policies, decisions or plans without suggesting a better approach will be a major pain in the organization. To ease this concern, you should be able to explain how you successfully learned and mastered technical skills without a university. If you can do that, recruiters have a better chance of believing you are the type of person that thinks outside of the box, with creative ideas, that can turn them into a satisfying result.

If you have financial difficulty, that left you unable to complete your university education, recruiters will want to know how you compensate for those missing years of learning. If they decide to give you a shot, they will carefully evaluate your skills. If you prove you can learn and master coding skills without going to the school, you may get a chance.

These are all real world cases from candidates I have reviewed and interviewed. Having a university degree provides a competitive advantage – it proves you have gone through the exams, that you can complete projects assigned to you, and that you have basic knowledge in sciences and software development. But if you can prove that you have your own way to obtain this knowledge, your own challenge you wanted to tackle, or you can develop your skills and contribute to the company, not having a university degree shouldn’t deter you from applying for programming jobs. My best advice to you is to be completely open and honest with yourself and with the interviewer. Failing an interview might be bad, but to be hired into a position where you struggle is worse for you and the company.

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