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Can someone find a job as a programmer without an education?

I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger and never ended up graduating from even my ninth-grade classes (this is Canada and I'm going to admit ignorance as I'm not sure how the educational systems differ between countries). I'm 24 now and have been looking for work in regards to programming for quite some time. Everybody seems to want degrees (be it University or College) in computer programming of some kind, so that leaves me at an impasse. I don't have my high school degree, let alone one that is post-secondary.

What does a guy like me do to be taken seriously as a programmer? I am self-taught, but no one seems to put much stock in that this far in Northern Ontario.

I've considered coding in open-source and trying to build a portfolio out of that, but, again, I don't know if that'll be taken very seriously. I've even considered blogging about programming, if not to just have some sort of validation that I know what I'm talking about.

Unfortunately, it's way too easy to pretend to know anything about anything these days, so I'm just wondering - are any of you drop-outs and, if so, how did you get taken seriously? Also, if there are people who hire programmers, what would someone have to do to be considered in your eyes?


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marked as duplicate by Karl Bielefeldt, Glenn Nelson, FrustratedWithFormsDesigner, Mark Trapp Dec 1 '11 at 20:18

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

To summarize Chris Rock, "A high school dropout is qualified for the same jobs as someone who dropped out in the fifth grade. In fact the guy who dropped out in the fifth grade is more qualified because he has six years experience." – Ryathal Dec 1 '11 at 19:18
Touche. I never heard that quote. Love that Chris Rock. – VirInvictus Dec 1 '11 at 19:19
Don't blog unless you burn to write. Enthusiasm and lack of same shows. – user1249 Dec 1 '11 at 19:21
Not a lot of opportunities for s/w dev in Sudbury. I'm from North Bay, and it was the same kind of thing there. If you can afford it, head to Ottawa or the GTA. You'll have better luck, but the education thing is still going to be a big barrier. – Shawn D. Dec 1 '11 at 19:50
In my experience, the best programmers are either electrical engineers, or are self-taught. Let's remember that the fathers of computer science didn't have PhDs in computer science (as they didn't exist). Get to a psychologist, and fix your issues first. then get your ass on khanacademy and project euler, and do everything. then prove yourself not with credentials, but by doing amazing work. open source is your friend here. – Neil McGuigan Dec 1 '11 at 20:43
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Just to touch on something that some others may have glanced over:

I am self-taught, but no one seems to put much stock in that this far in Northern Ontario.

As a programmer who works in Northern Ontario, it is not easy to get a programming job here. Worse yet, if you're not around a "hub" (Sudbury, North Bay, The Soo, Thunder Bay, even Timmins) it can be even harder.

Most of the Tech jobs are IT related (Sys Admin), or programming that requires more low-level knowledge (PLC Programmer) that is found in an Electrician/Automation Engineer. This, accompanied by the fact that the two big mining companies (even the Paper company on The Island) are Unionized also leads to education, not skill, being a requirement.

Note: Vale just outsourced their IT work to HP for the next 5 years, so it is especially hard to get in with them.

As far as software development goes, you'll probably need to find a private company (usually a smaller one) who will give you a shot.

Since not having a degree is quite the set-back in this environment, I think showing contributions to useful Open Source software will be the key. If you can tell the Sr. Developer who uses Notepad++ every day that you contributed to it, they'll be very impressed. An online resume that shows off your web chops isn't a bad idea either.

Hope this gives you a more localized answer to yourr question.

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This was a great answer. I do, in fact, live in Sudbury - and I applied at Vale for a number of jobs (am now applying at other places for positions like Web Designer (which seem to be in need in this city). And I've noticed the PLC requirements for some jobs (Bestech, for example). I've never even looked into that kind of work before. Again, you provided me with exactly what I needed. – VirInvictus Dec 1 '11 at 21:22
+1 for the open source idea – Rob Fox Dec 8 '11 at 12:33

This might sound harsh, but then again you posted this on the internet I assume you are looking for honest answers and points of view.

From your post you are a self-admitted non-starter and non-finisher.

You have found every excuse in the book not to start or finish things, professional software development is about being a self starter and finishing things.

To a hiring manager or peer that might interview you, your self admitted track record on these basic fundamental requirements is ZERO.

No one is going to take that kind of history of pathological behavior seriously, no matter what the industry.

Your perceived personality from these lack of accomplishments is either you have some pervasive personality disorder or you are lazy, or some of both. The first is excusable if you work at a remedy, it can be remediable if not completely overcome, the second well, can't help you there

If this is something psychological holding you back you should seek counseling. I am completely serious here.

First you need to be accomplish something, anything to be taken seriously as a person, then worry about being taken seriously as a software developer.

To get a job in anything you have to be able to demonstrate you can add value to the company that is more than what they are paying you. The word demostrate is the important part.

People might pretend to know things, but they only hold jobs long enough for employers to find out they can't actually demonstrate what they said they knew. These people don't even make it past a telephone interview to seasoned hiring managers.

Look at my profiles, I don't have a CS Degree, actually I have no formal software development training, I dropped out of college because I ran out of money, after 4.5 years, for the expensive Art School I was attending.

I taught myself to program ( games ) on 6502 ASM and Apple/C=64 BASIC, this was the infancy of personal computers, it was easier then, you get dumped in the deep end of a dozen or more things you have to master now.

I have had a more successful career in software development than many people I know with CS Degrees. Because I have a passion for what I do ( some would call it a clinical obsession ) and I can articulate and demonstrate what I know.

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You know what, you're right. I've screwed the pooch too long. I spent too much time playing Dwarf Fortress and building scripts in Lua for my MUD games rather than got my education. I'm lazy. I'm going to bust my butt over this. I realize I may come across a little sarcastic right now, but I'm serious. Sometimes, it takes someone blunt to make the truth apparent. – VirInvictus Dec 1 '11 at 19:14
"Building scripts in Lua" - hey, this might be something, if they do something worth showing. – user1249 Dec 1 '11 at 19:22
Perhaps he's not self-motivated enough (and asking stackexchange for direction). I've hired a self-taught programmer with little self-motivation (I didn't know he lacked self-motivation before hiring...). The guy was extremely competent, and would close many tickets every day, provided I assigned them to him. Once I figured out how to make him productive on the team, he was actually fantastic. I worked with him for a few years; I'd gladly work with him again. So, VirInvictus: demonstrate competency enough to make up for your apparent lack of self-motivation. – ccoakley Dec 1 '11 at 19:34
@ccoakley this is a catch 22 in many cases, only motivated to do what is fun will never get you there with someone telling you what to do every step of the way. My 6 year old can be more self starting than that on chores he doesn't want to do. Plus you will never give that person you have to micro-manage a raise or promotion, because they are a fry cook that has to be told when to do everything at best, they will never make past that level without some internal motivation. – Jarrod Roberson Dec 1 '11 at 19:48
@JarrodRoberson: No doubt. While I'd work with that guy again, He'd be a bad choice for project lead, CTO, etc. And I shouldn't understate the factor luck and bad HR (on my part) played. Had I known he wasn't a self-starter, I probably wouldn't have hired him in the first place and wouldn't have developed a productive working relationship with him. Vir's got a big hurdle to overcome, I just wanted to point out that he's not a lost cause. – ccoakley Dec 1 '11 at 21:08

What does a guy like me do to be taken seriously as a programmer?

You need to get your degree. It’s never too late. Take the GED (Or that Canadian equivalent to that) Then go back to school. Go at night, Go to an Online school. But just do it.

If not, you will be regretting it for one reason of another your whole life.

That's not to say you can’t get a Programmer job without it… But you are going to have to work twice as hard for the rest of your life to compensate for it. Even if you are the best Dev in the world, you will never get past the HR drone (If there is one), or the recruiter, who is working off a requirements Check list.

You are still young, and it’s never too late. Just do it.

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+1 - A large part of being a programmer is dedication. Without even a high school degree, it's difficult to believe someone will complete a task that they may not enjoy. – P.Brian.Mackey Dec 1 '11 at 19:06
Thanks to this post, I actually went about looking at the GED option. Unfortunately, I have to wait 'til February to get a shot at it, but that gives me plenty of study-time and time to raise $100 to take the test. Thanks for the inspiration. I already regret my lack of effort and I'm already 24, I can't imagine what it'd be in 15-25 years. – VirInvictus Dec 1 '11 at 19:17
+1 - programming is about learning – user1249 Dec 1 '11 at 19:23
@VirInvictus: I waited until I was 45 to get my college degrees. Don't wait that long. At your age, a degree is worth probably an additional million dollars in income over your lifetime. – Robert Harvey Dec 1 '11 at 19:37
@VirInvictus: I spoke to a friend working at a community college (math) who mentioned that her students had a bi-modal age distribution. People were either coming right out of high-school or were coming a decade later after doing crap for a decade. She said that she preferred the older students (who seemed to have more uniformity in their motivation). I don't know about your area, but it seems you've started getting your shit together a few years earlier than similar people in her area. Now, keep your shit together and good luck. – ccoakley Dec 1 '11 at 19:40

I've occasionally been on the hiring side of the desk. Hiring people is incredibly expensive and hiring mistakes are seriously unpleasant for everybody involved. To get taken seriously you need a track record.

Unfortunately, dropping out is a negative track record. Claims of self-education are not a track record. As you say, anybody can pretend to know things. A blog is a limited track record of your ability to communicate and reason, but that is pretty weak tea for a programming job. A degree from a school I respect is a track record, and will usually get you past the HR keyword filters. Source code I can review and discuss with you is really the best track record of all, but it may not get you past the HR filters, and it means that I (the employer) have to put more work into evaluating you. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but I'm a busy guy and a little lazy, so you've just given me an excuse not to call you in for an interview.

The safest thing to do is to get your high-school equivalency and then get a college degree.

Failing that, if you can actually write good code, you need to start writing a lot of code and create a portfolio you can show employers. Beware! It sounds like you are somewhat isolated, and folks in isolation often overestimate their skill and underestimate the competition. Try to find somebody with experience to look at your code and give you an honest evaluation of it's quality. Making crappy or trivial code publicly available will not not help your prospects.

The best thing you can do is follow both tracks. Get your degree and build up a portfolio.

You will also probably have to be willing to relocate.

Good luck.

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Without a degree on your resume, without any cool open source projects, without any interesting articles, without any actual references, how should you be taken seriously?

I don't have a degree myself. I dropped out of university as soon as I realized, that I am interested in software development and that the CS courses offered simply wouldn't prepare me for that.

But actually before studying, I participated a lot in online communities (mostly help forums around ActionScript and PHP) and wrote a lot of software, even when I was conscripted to civilian service right after school.
After my service I got a small job through one of the help forums I was involved in, which quickly led to more projects. In the 4 months between my service and my studies I made a sizable amount of money and a finished handful of projects to go into my portfolio. And ever since then, my work just spoke for me.

You need something that speaks for you. That shows you have passion, knowledge and discipline (or at least one of the three, as a degree would show for example).

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In the short term, you could pursue technical certifications. This could give you some initial credibility or at least this could get your foot in the door so you can start gaining some real experience. For someone who is just starting out this can be really cost-effective, self-paced, and require no classroom time.

For example, if you’re developing with Microsoft technologies they have lots of cert programs.

Additionally, start becoming active in the open-source community. Don't join any technological religious wars, but find a couple projects you like and dive in. This can persuade some employers to look past the formal degree and give you a chance.

Good Luck.

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Certifications are only beneficial to the certification body! they are a complete waste of money and time if you think they will help you get a job, even a minimum wage IT job will require more than a fist full of paper you paid for, and I mean paid a lot for! There is no quick and easy way to get experience people will respect other than putting in the time and demonstrating what you know. Certs demonstrate that you can take expensive tests. – Jarrod Roberson Dec 1 '11 at 19:51
I truly believe a lot of employers; for whom I am one; are willing to give people a chance who do not have a 'traditional' education. That said, we need to see something that suggests a level of competency (even a basic one) and/or motivation. Both of my suggestions speak to those elements. I can't speak for all certs, but we generally accept that Microsoft certs in developments technologies indicate some level of competency (more often than not). For some people, these options are quite practical – JoeGeeky Dec 1 '11 at 19:57
Microsoft certs are the worst, duing the dot com bubble, I interviewed dozens of people with MSXX this and that, all recently acquired after attending training on how to pass these tests. Real Estate agents that pass a MSCD are still Real Estate agents and not qualified to do anything but re-take that test. That few years soured everyone I know, if you have a arm lengths list of certs you get dumped in the trash immediately. – Jarrod Roberson Dec 1 '11 at 20:00
I wish I could upvote Jarrod's "Certifications are only beneficial...." comment more than once. – MetalMikester Dec 1 '11 at 20:05
I agree that certs are typically not worth more than the paper they are printed on. But like it or not, there are a lot of employers who think they are worth something. So getting a cert isnt necessarily a bad idea if it might get him in the door somewhere. – GrandmasterB Dec 1 '11 at 20:10

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