Self-Taught vs Graduate Developers

My name is Jonathan Moran and I’m an IT & Digital Recruiter here at Chroma. This article is based on a subject that I’ve given a lot of thought to recently. As a recruiter who spends his working week interacting with software developers I’m full of admiration for the job they do and whilst I understand the fundamentals of programming, I make a point of telling candidates I’m not a “techy” person and I can never vet the quality of their code and it isn’t my job to do so. This article is based on my view as a recruiter and not saying any career path is better or worse.

When I entered the world of recruitment two years ago after previously working in tech businesses as a marketer, I assumed that most software developers had taken a computer science degree, before joining a graduate scheme at a tech business.  I thought that anyone that was self-taught was simply a hobbyist and wouldn’t be taken seriously in a commercial world in the same way as me making a very tasty shepherd’s pie isn’t going to win me a Michelin star!

As I started to meet more lead developers and hiring managers, I noticed something that is quite unique in this industry; they made a point of telling me if I find a school/college leaver that has been coding since their early teens they’d love to meet them as much or even more so than a computer science graduate. There are however some important points to consider in each case.

 

Employable Self Taught Developers

Due to the skills shortage, most tech businesses have had to adapt and started to be creative when searching for the best talent, in my experience those that have not yet woken up to this are missing out on an untapped talent pool. However, if you’re considering trying to get employment with no commercial experience your CV almost becomes secondary. Some larger employers offer apprentice schemes for school leavers, but smaller employers are going to want to see some code. As a recruiter when I speak to someone with no commercial experience that wants to get into development, I have a couple of questions.

  • Do you have a GitHub / BitBucket etc.? Whilst I can’t judge the quality of the code, I can see how many personal projects you’ve been working on, it tells me if this developer genuinely loves to code or if they just tinker every now and then.
  • Are you willing to do projects for free, for friends or family? Nothing teaches you like experience, and while you are still looking for a job as a developer to gain that experience, you can always help a friend with a website, or a small app that you can showcase to potential employers.

I recently placed a self-taught developer who dropped out of college 4 years ago to start work as a developer. His salary at his new job is nearly 50% above the national average despite his tender years. When you click on his GitHub account it’s a wall of green projects – he literally codes every day. Whilst this is an extreme example of what can be achieved as a self-taught developer if you can’t show some code or portfolio it’s going to be a challenge to get work.

 

Employable Graduates

Some employers still stipulate (rightly or wrongly) that a relevant degree for junior roles is essential. A lot of employers value the foundation and structure that graduates receive over a three year degree. It would be wrong of me to comment on the technical pros and cons of this route as I’m not technical myself. I have however given some thoughts from my experience as a recruiter.

  • Candidates that have completed a four year degree with one year spent in the industry are more interesting. It shows potential employers that you’ve worked in a commercial environment and makes your CV stand out Vs the 10 other candidates applying with a degree but nothing else. A lot of students take part-time jobs to help them financially whilst they study. I would advise that before taking a bar job, you should be proactive and approach local tech businesses about the possibility of working with them for a few hours every week. You then have some experience to show alongside your degree and it could even end up in a permanent role once you graduate.
  • Whilst university undoubtedly gives a great foundation to your chosen career, a big problem I’ve noticed is that the courses and modules offered can’t keep pace with what’s happening in the industry. Some of the latest tech/frameworks that employers are working with are not being taught at university but are being catered for at code camps like Northcoders.
  • A lot of graduates I’ve spoken to have not been encouraged to upload projects to the likes of GitHub / BitBucket and have had to ask permission to share them. (I assume this is to prevent plagiarism) Whatever the reason it’s a big problem when grads enter the job market without any code/portfolio to show.
  • Graduates in Manchester in my experience will earn between £22,000 – £28,000 which is reflected by co.uk. The dilemma comes when considering the average student debt in the UK is now over £50,000 and if you’re willing to incur that when not every employer demands a degree even at senior level appointments these days.

 

This is the first part of a short series of blogs about the best route into software development. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts and experience on this topic.