In the Breaking into Tech series of posts I will weigh the pros and cons of the three basic means of preparing yourself for a career in tech: certification, formal education, and experience. For each category I’ll give separate advice for those seeking a corporate career versus those seeking to start their own computer business. Drawing from my own experiences, as well as my observations of other successful people, I hope to give a realistic look at what it takes to break into tech.
You’ve just graduated high school and the whole world is at your doorstep. You have unlimited options open to you, yet you will most likely end up going into huge debt to earn a degree you’re not sure you’re even interested in that will probably never match the career you end up pursuing afterward. Welcome to the formal education system.
Earning a degree is the least focused, most expensive, and most time consuming of the three categories I’ll be covering in this series. That may sound a little harsh, but hear me out. I’m going to explain why college degrees can be a dangerous trap for those in IT, especially those looking to start their own business.
This post isn’t all doom and gloom for the college bound. College is a wonderful, priceless, and necessary institution. A college education will open you to vast opportunities and advantages. But it can be misleading for those looking to start a career in IT, and utterly useless for those who want to start a computer repair business.
I’d also like to distinguish a career in IT from careers in programming and engineering. IT, for the sake of this article, includes support positions like system administrators, help desk, application support, infrastructure, hardware, and other positions that help keep the technology running for business. Programming and engineering focus on building and creating which requires a more specialized education. These fields benefit from a college education, and are not included in my definition of IT.
Lets explore the pros and cons of formal education as it relates specifically to both a career in Corporate IT and starting your own business as a computer consultant.
I speak from experience when I say that a college degree is not a golden ticket into your first job. I broke into IT without so much as an Associates Degree. I later earned my AS in Information Technology and found it virtually useless to advancing my technical career, other than looking good on my resume. To break into the world of IT I recommend earning a basic certification and then starting an internship, apprenticeship, or volunteer position in the field you’re interested in. That’s how I broke into IT, and that’s how many of my peers did as well.
Experience trumps a college degree for almost any IT position. When all things are equal, someone with experience will the get the job before someone with a degree does. This is because IT is an extremely dynamic profession, with very few steadfast rules. It changes at an incredibly rapid pace and businesses are always looking to utilize the latest and greatest tech. The only way an employee is able to keep up with such a vibrant industry is to actually be a part of it. Formal education cannot keep up with the real-world state of things.
Once you break out of the technical world and into the management world, degrees become much more important. My company doesn’t hire people for management unless they have at least a bachelors degree. Many at the Director level and above also had earned a Master of Science in Management or similar degree. However, once you start your IT career and you later decide that management is something you’re interested in, THAT’s when you can start pursuing that degree by taking evening or online classes. At this time, you should be better prepared to take on the financial burdens of higher education without going to deeply into debt. If management doesn’t interest you, then you don’t have to waste time and money on an expensive and virtually useless degree.
If you only plan on running your own business and you don’t ever want to be hired as an employee by another company, then I would argue you should skip the college degree entirely. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get some formal education if that’s something you desire, but don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s going to make one bit of difference to your business. A business degree is a good thing to have and may help you take your business to the next level, but it is not necessary.
It’s a cliche by now, but many of the top IT business owners in the country never graduated from college; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, Tom Anderson, and Mark Zuckerberg, are all college drop-outs. This tells you something. College is meant to give you a broad education based on standardized curriculum. Starting a business is a very specific, focused, and personal career path, something formal education is not well equipped to teach. There are many great business schools out there, but they are more focused on being a cog in the corporate business machine than on true entrepreneurship.
College can actually hurt you as a computer consultant because of one word: debt. Traditional higher education is extremely expensive. Most folks need to take out student loans to be able to afford college. This will put you into a good bit of debt which makes it harder to start your own business. You will not make you a lot of money at first with your own business, and you don’t need the burden of college loan payments adding to your stress.
It is important that you have the right skill set before you start your own computer repair business, but this skill set is best learned through experience, self-teaching, and certification.
There are career paths that benefit greatly from a college education, such as doctors, lawyers and even computer engineers and programmers. You may benefit from a degree later in your IT career, but it normally isn’t required for entry level positions. If you can pay for college out of pocket, or if you’d like to get into management, then going to college is a great idea. Otherwise, I recommend waiting on that degree until you’ve already got your foot in the door on your chosen career path and you can better afford to pay for college on your own.
For you future freelance computer consultants who want to start your own business, steer clear from college and instead build your skill set with experience, certification, and specialized self-teaching.
What are your thoughts on formal education as it relates to the independent computer consulting industry?