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Some back story, and then my question:

I took a "break" from getting a university education last year to work full time as back end developer on a GIS application at $10.50 an hour. Later that year I was hired on by a fairly prestigious organization on their GIS application for a meager salary + rockin' benefits (not that I need them). I agreed to work on this project through Summer 2012.

I don't feel like I'm being fairly compensated for my time. Other team members make between 3-5 times as much as I do, and their work isn't 3-5 times as good as mine, nor do they have 3-5 times as much output.

I don't think this is a rectifiable situation within this institution. They've got a set of personnel charts and the way it gets computed, I make less money than any of the janitors (who are very good, and very nice people to boot, and I'm glad they get paid so well. I wish everyone got livable wages).

I'm pretty bright, but school's a drag. I don't want mega bucks, I just want $40k/yr (localized to the southeast united states) so I can save enough money to travel, or maybe "finish [my] education".

My question is this: Are people without degrees ever compensated commensurate with other people who have degrees? As a someone who never "finished their education", how badly do you think this as hurt you? How do you navigate the job seeking and hiring process? As someone who hires programmers, do you pay more for diplomas? Is that an institutional necessity, or based on your own value judgement?

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closed as too localized by ChrisF May 3 '12 at 11:46

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If you're being paid less than the janitors, then this isn't an issue of "degree = well-paid job, no degree = poorly paid job"; it's an issue of "degree = job, no degree = internship/apprenticeship" –  Carson63000 Apr 21 '11 at 22:41
This question is a duplicate of duplicates: programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/24270/…. A degree guarantees you have certain breadth and depth of relevant knowledge, and that you have the self discipline required to get it. –  Apalala Apr 21 '11 at 22:41
@Apalala While it may be, the thread you've linked to appears to ask a different set of questions than mine. I'm not asking if I should get a degree. I'm asking what my expectations should be as someone who doesn't have the fortitude for that particular gauntlet. –  user20134 Apr 21 '11 at 23:03
Are you sure you weren't employed as an intern? –  Dean Harding Apr 21 '11 at 23:18
One of the most interesting people I met in grad school was one of the janitors. –  David Thornley Apr 22 '11 at 14:26

7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I don't have my degree and have a very lucrative salary, especially considering my location. I made around $40k out of high school, but it wasn't easy at all.

First and foremost, I was accepted into one of the better schools in the nation, but couldn't go because of the cost. I was naive and banked on the one school I wanted to get into, and my parents just would not support me in my quest. I spent a lot of time in high school developing web applications in volunteer and hobby roles instead of (sometimes) doing homework and studying, so my parents assumed I would carry that behavior over to college as well. It was too risky of an investment for them.

I started at 18 in the professional realm of web development and used my hobby and volunteer projects to get me in at a junior role. I worked extremely hard and learned constantly to stay sharp and earn my salary. I developed/leveraged my soft skills to show that I'm not only a good technical asset, but also a great team player as well.

I carried that experience over to my next position, and the one after that, and so on until this very day. In my opinion, some employers are looking for someone with experience AND fantastic soft skills, and you could have that with or without a degree. If you have a degree but are terrible with people, you're not going to be a complete asset, no matter what. I think the best assets are the ones that are a combination of education, experience, and soft skills - get all of them and you could be extremely valuable.

Edit: I think Martin nailed your situational details exactly how I was going to write it. If I were you, I'd finish out your project and aim for as many accomplishments as possible to justify a better salary. If they're not open to that, then start looking elsewhere and leverage your accomplishments.

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+1 for "I've actually been there." –  Robert Harvey Apr 21 '11 at 23:29
Thanks for your response. I try to work hard, and my project manager makes a point of assigning me tasks outside of my skill set so I can get better. It's heartening to hear that hard work has paid off for you. What size entities do you tend to work for? Large, medium, or small? –  user20134 Apr 21 '11 at 23:46
@canisrufus I currently work for a large non-profit. If you continue to perform above expectations, no matter what the situation is (and excel), you are going to be a wonderful asset with or without your degree. It's the "killer instinct" that will get you places, so don't stop producing because others around you aren't. –  Nic Apr 22 '11 at 0:44

Ask for more money. You'll need to be persuasive and backup your claims with eveidence of deserving the money, but you still have to ask. Keep looking for a better job.

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+1 Many times, people think you're happy with what you have or think they can exploit you, until you ASK. –  Nav Apr 22 '11 at 4:29

Think of it as an apprenticeship that you get paid for.

The others did 4 years at college without getting paid (that's 4 years of experience). Once you have 4 years experience (practical or college) you will (or should) get the same pay as they do.

But its unfair to the company (and the other developers) to expect to get paid as much as somebody else when you have much less experience than they do. You may not think that you are less productive but in reality you have not encountered all the same problems that they have thus you will have to learn from you mistakes (thus waste time at some point). The lower salary is an expectation that you will need more time to solve problems that you have not encountered.

If you are really as good as you think you are (and you don't fall into the holes the others have already hit) then your merit increases will be larger thus allowing you to catch up quickly.

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I hear this theory a lot about 4 years of experience being equivalent to 4 years of college. It's a nice idea, but it's not really true. It's not true from a corporate standpoint (many companies view degrees in a significantly different way than experience), and it's not true from a learning perspective (if done correctly, school teaches fundamental and generalized knowledge applicable to many areas, whereas job experience can be highly specific). –  Robert Harvey Apr 21 '11 at 23:24
thank you. I agree that my project manager's decades of experience make him a better software developer than I am. I think this makes him worth more money. In his words, though, "Of course you should be paid less than us because you have less experience, but I'm pretty uncomfortable with the current delta." I am trying to think of it as a road to better things. Part of that is this question, finding out if there are actually better things in store ;) –  user20134 Apr 21 '11 at 23:33
@Robert what you say rings true about my organization. Folks care about degrees. –  user20134 Apr 21 '11 at 23:37
@Robert Harvey: I agree that there is not an exact equivalency between college/practical experience. But by the time you have 4 years (college/apprenticeship) + 15 years work experience under your belt the difference is not noticeable. But without a college degree you diminish your chances of working on cutting edge research projects. –  Loki Astari Apr 21 '11 at 23:40

I don't think this is a rectifiable situation within this institution.

You are correct. And there are a lot of other companies in the world with similar principles [1]. Taking a break from education is one thing, dropping out is something different. Trying to work a career without a college degree is possible, but will be harder than it needs to be.

Are people without degrees ever compensated commensurate with other people who have degrees?

America is not a meritocracy, no matter how much we want to believe otherwise. At the moment, programming is still one career where it is possible to thrive without a college degree - and it might remain so for years or it might change. For many people, your skill at negotiating and networking are more relevant factors in how much you earn. Licensure for engineers and accountants will make significant changes in 2015[2]. You cannot guarantee that programmers will succeed at not needing professional certifications and licensing.

I'm going to recommend that you finish your degree while you are young and can afford to do so. I've got a friend who is in his mid 50s and he hasn't got his bachelors degree. Half the companies he applies throw out his application due to the lack of degree. He's got a high-maintenance wife and as a result, he cannot even afford going to night school [3]. It is possible that you will get tired of being a developer some day. It is possible you may want to become a project manager. The PMP certification requires a lot less time as a project manager if you've got a 4 year degree.

To your current employer, it appears that you've been placed into the "college dropout" bucket. That's why your PM cannot get a raise for you. The only solution is to quit, or to go back and finish your degree [4].

1 - My current job is at one of the national labs. With the exception of some interns who are seniors in engineering disciplines (the other 3/4 of interns are graduate students with an engineering degree), everyone else in the office has at least a 4 year degree (including the secretaries) in engineering (except for the secretaries).
2 - For engineers, you'll effectively need a masters degree in 2015 and beyond, at the moment 10-15 years of work experience can replace 4 years of college, that ends in 3 years. Education will be required.
3 - In the past 2 years, he's gone from making 50% more than I was making, to the same I'm making. Because he spends so much time running in place, he can't sharpen his skills to try to get ahead. His brilliance at interviewing and getting hired has stopped being a help.
4 - Most universities have a policy where credits earned more than 7 years ago can no longer be applied to a degree program. So if you take a long enough break from college, you may find you need to take all the classes all over again.

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Eee. Sobering. Got me thinking about taking out loans... –  user20134 Apr 22 '11 at 0:30
Although, my older brother is pursuing his masters in industrial engineering, and engineering, as far as I can tell, is something you can't fake an education with. Software development seems a bit different.. –  user20134 Apr 22 '11 at 0:32
@canisrufus, if you are planning on staying out of college for more than a few years, take a look at your local community college to see if you can use what you have now to get an associates. That will at least "lock in" the first 2 years of your college and in Florida, anyone with an AA from a community college has an automatic entry to the state university system. If you stay out of school too long, check note #4. –  Tangurena Jun 21 '11 at 0:55
Hey, thanks for following up. This discussion actually motivated me to go back to college. Doing the working full time/taking courses thing. I appreciate you taking the time to give advice. I only wish I'd been thinking about/receptive to this stuff several years ago. C'est la vie. –  user20134 Jun 21 '11 at 2:11

I have met people without any college degrees who were working in challenging positions in technology, but this is very rare. Every person I met had an amazing back story. One was working as a full civil engineer at the age of 17, due to taking over his father's job when his father got sick and then passed away - leaving the son to take on his job full-time and support the family. The average person doesn't have this kind of astounding experience demonstrating their tenacity and ability to handle challenges, so a degree is pretty much a necessity for the rest of us. This was less true 20 years ago, before the dot-com boom made technology work relatively mainstream. Even a non-CS degree is a huge advantage over no degree at all in entry-level positions.

Having said that, you should be able to do better with "some college" than you are doing. If you aren't legally committed, you should start passing your resume around. Get another offer that pays more, then inform your company that they need to raise your pay or you simply won't be able to afford to stay there.

If you do go the non-degree route, negotiating for better pay and better positions need to be key skills for you. Are you prepared to start interviewing for a new, better position after a year in any job, until you catch up with actual graduates? Are you disciplined enough to constantly study as if you were in college for the next 5+ years while working full-time, so you can get ahead in your field and be able to jump into better jobs? Do you have a high level of self-confidence, so that you can "sell yourself" (honestly) to potential employers? You still will probably lag behind those who graduated in terms of salary, but you might be able to make up for it financially by investing some of your earnings while the students are taking on debt. Even a small return on your investments will be better than interest on student loans. At some point, your lack of degree will become less and less significant for a large number of employers, though no degree will always mean fewer options.

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Thanks for your response, Ethel. –  user20134 Apr 22 '11 at 13:16
'? Do you have a high level of self-confidence, so that you can "sell yourself" (honestly)' Quite honestly, no ;) It's a really interesting point that your negotiation skills will be a lot more important for you versus an individual with a degree. You're in the position of convincing other people that you have a level of competence that is assumed of college graduates. Which makes sense... –  user20134 Apr 22 '11 at 13:34
I'm also referring to the fact that you will be starting at a lower position than a graduate, more than likely, and to 'catch up' you will need some promotions - and the fastest way to get promotions is usually to jump jobs aggressively, every 1 to 2 years, each time landing a slightly more senior position. You can also get lucky in the right start-up, but it's hard to plan for that. –  Ethel Evans Apr 22 '11 at 18:20

This really varies from company to company. Especially in the case of working for software companies vs software departments of a larger corporation.

Even in software companies, there are varying levels of opinion and understanding. I've been with some who actually shy away from programmers who had degrees. About half seem to follow the pattern "you need a base amount of experience along with either x years degree or x+2 more years of experience" One thing I notice is that if you are banking on you experience, you need to appear a certain way.

In my opinion, project directors who are 'in the know' realize there are amazing, self-trained developers out there. The problem is that knowing that doesn't help much in differentiating those natural-born, lifestylers from script kiddies.

A good portfolio and the right attitude can.

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Thanks for your response. What does "One thing I notice is that if you are banking on you experience, you need to appear a certain way." mean? –  user20134 Apr 22 '11 at 0:08
Mostly it means that folks in hiring who understand will often respond better to a pragmatic person who can prove they get jobs done and do them well than they will respond to an academic ball of knowledge and theory. There's a noticeable difference between someone who is programming because it's part of who they are (whether or not they have gone to school) and someone who picks a career, grabs a degree and says "ok time to go to my day job". –  Garet Claborn Apr 22 '11 at 1:42
It also means finding ways to get past HR, which will very likely not pass your resume on to a hiring manager if there's no degree on it. It means not working at places where there's a corporate rule against hiring programmers without a degree. –  David Thornley Apr 22 '11 at 14:29
@David: Ah yes, the dreaded HR department. shiver me timbers –  Garet Claborn Apr 22 '11 at 20:49

The general rule that I've found is that the more work experience you have, the less post-secondary education matters. Now that doesn't mean that post-secondary education doesn't matter at all - I know that in order to "level up" in a career there will be that barrier at some point in time preventing you from getting that promotion, because you don't have a degree or a diploma.

A degree in anything is fine with enough work experience, what matters is that it shows you have dedication and fine time management skills, as well as the ability to learn and adapt your way of thinking to new information.

Your mileage may vary, but doing school at least in part-time may be in your best interests in the long run.

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Yeah, that makes sense. If school didn't make me slam my fists into the ground and shout "I hate it, I hate it!" at pretty regular intervals, that might be a workable solution. –  user20134 Apr 21 '11 at 23:55