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I’m nearly 30 and I work as a software {engineer,developer} in SF, but I never got a college degree. I realize that I am incredibly lucky to not have any student debt, but I am currently making preparations to go back to school. This is because (a) pretty much any time I want to switch jobs I play the “do they care about degrees?” game and are prone to it being a tie-breaker with another candidate, and (b) I earnestly love learning and it would open the doors to work with companies who solve harder problems than a startup who needs another CRUD app.

Has anyone else been in the some position? Did you decide to go back to school or did you decide against it?

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    I dropped out of college during the tech boom of the late 1990’s and have been gainfully employed ever since. I’m lucky to have been very successful in my career without having had a degree. I ended up going back to college in my 30’s primarily because (a) I had kids and I want them to want to go to college and (b) if the shit ever really hits the fan and I need a job I don’t want to be excluded solely because I didn’t check some box on some application.

    To that end, I ended up going with WGU. It’s not the most respected institution, but it’s non-profit, accredited, classes are available at any time, and you can test out of a class at the moment you feel ready. Since my only goals were to be able to check a box and say I did it, it made sense for me. The quality of the education wasn’t spectacular, but I’m also looking at it through the lens of 20 years’ experience so I suppose it’s not surprising that I already knew most everything.

    (I will admit that, sadly, I did learn something from one of the management classes and now have to admit that maybe there is something to all that management bullshit after all.)

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      Sounds like you were in a really similar situation! I’m definitely going about it in a similar way where price is the biggest factor for me (assuming the institution is properly accredited). It’s also nice to hear it from your perspective; my biggest fear is that I’m blowing away money on something that’s not worth it.

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        Same here. What I found though is I really like learning again, now that it isn’t mandatory, so I’m continuing on to get the MS (from another institution).

        In the mean time, I’ve been doing Coursera specializations to brush up on things I think will be in the MS degree program.

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        I recommend going back to school if you actually want to learn something, not for credentials. Once you have enough experience and skills, getting a degree doesn’t really have any relation to getting good programming jobs; I have multiple friends who dropped out from college and have worked at major software companies and startups.

        If you’re having trouble getting interesting jobs there are probably other things you can do. For one thing, stop worrying about “do they care about degrees”. Other than companies that get flooded by resumes so use bullshit credentialism to filter candidates (waves at Google), most companies don’t care.

        Personally I dropped out in 1990s from CS/Math program.

        When I moved to Boston in 2004 I went back to college, but not to CS - I got a liberals arts degree, focusing on humanities, from the Harvard University Extension School. Basically it’s Harvard professors who enjoy teaching enough to do so in the evenings, so really great experience.

        Learning things like writing and close reading was quite useful to my career as a programmer. But mostly it was fun.

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          I recommend going back to school if you actually want to learn something, not for credentials. Once you have enough experience and skills, getting a degree doesn’t really have any relation to getting good programming jobs

          Unfortunately, this is either not my experience or the professional years to academic years exchange rate is 4:1.

          If you’re having trouble getting interesting jobs there are probably other things you can do.

          I’m all ears. ?

          When I moved to Boston in 2004 I went back to college, but not to CS - I got a liberals arts degree, focusing on humanities, from the Harvard University Extension School. Basically it’s Harvard professors who enjoy teaching enough to do so in the evenings, so really great experience.

          This is awesome! I’m actually originally from Western Mass so I’d have a lot of connections in the area to move back. I’ll make a note to check it out.

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            Note that Extension School classes that are more professional track (CS, business) are not necessarily Harvard professors. Also note you can take many classes remote, these days, too.

            As far as getting jobs:

            Have a resume that emphasizes the right things can help, though not clear how much:

            • Eh: “I used technology X.”
            • OK: “I implemented this feature using technology X.”
            • Good: “Based on customer feedback I came up with a new feature, and then implemented it with technology X, resulting in 15% increase in user retention.”

            Make sure you’re at point where you can work independently, and that it’s clear in both resume and your interview.

            Figure out which skills you have that you take for granted but are actually valuable; in particular, things beyond “I know JavaScript.” Like, “I learn new technologies quickly”, “I am really good at extracting details out of users’ head”, “I can take a complex domain and build a simple model to reason about”, all backed by actual stories.

            Advice from former coworker: find the thing the company needs but no one else will pitch, and talk about that. His example was something like “everyone will say they know Python, but I was only one who said ‘I can help you grow team since I’ve done that before’”. Original quote here: https://codewithoutrules.com/2017/01/19/specialist-vs-generalist/

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            I recommend going back to school if you actually want to learn something, not for credentials. Once you have enough experience and skills, getting a degree doesn’t really have any relation to getting good programming jobs; I have multiple friends who dropped out from college and have worked at major software companies and startups.

            While that’s true, there are a lot of companies that filter on degree, regardless of experience. Obviously a person can find a good job without a degree, but not having one does remove some options.

            It doesn’t matter so much in Silicon Valley and trendy startup areas, but some sectors (like defense contractors, finance, etc.) can be really picky.

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              Sure, but… that’s the initial filtering. If you know someone inside the company you can bypass that. E.g. I worked out at Google as a Product Manager without a CS degree, because company I worked for was acquired. I knew a really good Product Manager there who wouldn’t have been hired under their new criteria, since they started requiring CS degreee and he only had an MBA and Computer Engineering degree.

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                If anything, that just emphasizes what I was saying.

                It’s not impossible to get a programming job without a CS degree, but having one removes a hurdle.

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                  It’s a hurdle you can remove in much easier ways than spending tens of thousands of dollars and years of your life, though.

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              use bullshit credentialism to filter candidates (waves at Google)

              The interview process at G-unit is capricious and arbitrary so I am loathe to defend it, but one of the most senior and capable people I know there doesn’t have a college degree. It certainly helps to have one, but it’s not a dealbreaker.

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              If the tuition cost is the most important factor consider studying in Europe. A US-American friend of mine earned both her BSc and MSc in CS in Germany. Graduating debt-free from a respected university, she couldn’t have been happier.

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                Wow! Thanks for this! I’d have to get my partner on board, but this seems totally feasible. Do you mind sharing which college in Germany your friend attended? How much German did she need to know?

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                  One source of information is the German Academic Exchange Service’s list of English-language degree courses in Germany. Teaching bachelor degrees in English is a relatively recent thing in Germany, and is most common in areas like International Business where there’s an argument that even German students might benefit from doing the degree in English. But it looks like there are a few universities offering CS bachelors with English-language instruction. (English-language courses then get much more common for master’s degrees, with almost 10x as many offerings.)

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                I have thought of going back to school at various points in my career, but I’ve never done it. My degree is in a softer category and not well-respected for hardcore programming type jobs, but I have a good amount of real experience that balances it out a bit.

                I honestly think college is greatly over-valued for most jobs. You already have a job, you already have experience. Why burden yourself with something that may never pay for itself? School is increasingly expensive. Are you going to ever get THAT much more money to justify it?

                I also have the issue of three children who will be looking to start college within the next 8-12 years. Maybe not all will go, but at least one will I’m sure. Why add to that inevitable debt or cause undue stress just for a slip of paper?

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                  I think if I were in your situation (BA degree + kids) I would do exactly the same thing. Unfortunately, I think there’s quite an advantage to having any degree over none. This may play into people’s unconscious biases, but I won’t get into that.

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                    I would definitely not go back for a second bachelor’s if you already have a bachelor’s. If I went for anything it’d be a masters. You don’t typically need a CS BSc to do a CS MSc, just evidence that you have enough CS background to be able to handle the courses. If you’ve worked in a tech job that’s probably enough evidence; mostly schools just want to make sure they aren’t admitting people who know nothing at all about computing (e.g. don’t know how to program), since a MSc isn’t going to start from Intro to Programming. Masters courses are also more likely to offer flexible evening/weekend schedules, and some larger tech companies will even cover the tuition.

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                      I’m not sure if other universities in the US are doing this, but the University of Pennsylvania have a programme called MCIT. The “IT” in the title may be a negative signal to some people, but this is a pretty heavy-duty CS course. My wife found it to be very rigorous and the approach was helpful for someone without programming experience. In the UK, it was fairly common (circa 2004) to find various MSc programmes that were termed “conversion courses” intended for individuals without a CS undergraduate degree.

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                    I did my BSc and BSc Hons. full time, but took my comp sc. up to BSc Hons level via a correspondence university and then my MSc part time while working.

                    So depending on your financial situation I would say from my experience….

                    • If you have no dependents and don’t mind taking a massive financial hit. Do it full time.
                    • If your work place is supportive, doing it part time is next best, but I found the commute to classes on top of the commute to work really really killing. (Ok, it was a loong commute on a very busy, rather deadly road.)
                    • A good correspondence university is actually a pretty good option if you have self discipline. Personally I cope better with a well written, highly detailed textbook compared to a hand waving lecture.

                    ps: Actually ask your lecturers / tutors questions. Most of them feel gratified if someone is paying enough attention / care enough to ask, even fairly dumb questions.

                    pps: You may find full time a little trying… as some lecturers persist in treating students like school kids…. who then respond by behaving like school kids.

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                      ps: Actually ask your lecturers / tutors questions. Most of them feel gratified if someone is paying enough attention / care enough to ask, even fairly dumb questions.

                      Such good advice. Traditional students (those right out of high school) don’t always realize that professors are people.

                      Ask for help early. Professors will work with students who say they are having trouble early. They have little to no patience for students who wait until the end of the term to ask for help (especially when it’s mathemtically impossible to pass).

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                      I went to college straight out of high school, so I can’t comment on your situation exactly, but I did go back to school after starting my career. All I can tell you is prepare yourself.

                      I wanted to avoid online classes as much as possible. I’ve always felt, and still do, that online school work doesn’t provide you with as good an education. With that said undergrad courses are almost never offered after work hours (not in my experience). All the jobs I’ve ever had were not ok with me missing work to attend class. So attempting a second BS was a no starter for me.

                      I did, however, go back and get an MBA. They were much more flexible and understanding that I work for a living.

                      Long story short: Find as good an online program as you can.

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                        With that said undergrad courses are almost never offered after work hours (not in my experience). All the jobs I’ve ever had were not ok with me missing work to attend class. So attempting a second BS was a no starter for me.

                        I just talked to an admission counselor and they deduced that I would not be able to work while completing my degree due to the course load. That means $$$ in student loans that I’m already preparing myself mentally to do.

                        Long story short: Find as good an online program as you can.

                        The tragedy is, (and I’ve searched and searched and searched) is that there’s no online BS of Computer Science in existence (at least in America). There is one offered by Oregon State University, but it requires a prior Bachelor’s degree to be admitted.

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                          I just talked to an admission counselor and they deduced that I would not be able to work while completing my degree due to the course load.

                          Since you’re in California, one option is to do a 2-year community college degree and then transfer the credits to continue at a 4-year university. California mandates that the state’s public 4-year universities have to facilitate this route (at least for transfers from in-state community colleges), so the degrees are designed to make it possible. Since community colleges have very low tuition and flexible scheduling, you can probably do the first half while still working (though it might take you more than 2 years if you’re taking classes part-time). That’d let you get half the degree done pretty cheaply and part-time, and then only do full-time university at a UC or Cal State school for the 3rd and 4th years, which also means only 2 years of real tuition. The Cal State system (4-year non-research universities) is especially targeted towards facilitating this kind of route for non-traditional or older students.

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                            I just talked to an admission counselor and they deduced that I would not be able to work while completing my degree due to the course load.

                            It’s worth mentioning that this is a stock line used by counselors the world over. It’s probably pretty good advice for the median case but it’s not an inviolable law of nature. I’ve had counselors tell me that me that my course load was unreasonable when paired with work when it ended up not being too much of a struggle at all.

                            So you should take your counselor’s advice seriously and think about it, but realize that you’re one in a large long string of students they talk to every day and not every piece of advice they hand out is going to apply to you personally. Especially when they’re concerned about student burn out.

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                              True. Especially if I can pick up some contract work that doesn’t rely on 9–5 hours.

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                          I went back to school in 2010 at the age of 38 and finished my degree in three years. I’d been skipped for some coding jobs because I lacked a degree, and I hoped to learn something useful. My instructors were younger than me, and (except for one) did not have commercial software experience. After fifteen years of professional software dev, I didn’t learn much about coding. The experience had good points, except student loans go on forever.

                          I don’t know if a CS degree is worth the money anymore, I’m on the fence about whether I made the best choice.

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                            My instructors were younger than me, and (except for one) did not have commercial software experience.

                            Honestly, I’m kind of expecting this. I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two about CS, but I’ll probably be able to work on large codebases far more deftly than any of my professors. Outside of CS, though, I think I’d learn a ton. Next time I’m asked to whiteboard geometry for a Microsoft interview I won’t be stumped.

                            I don’t know if a CS degree is worth the money anymore, I’m on the fence about whether I made the best choice.

                            This is my #1 fear. Right now I’m in the minority in being debt-free and maybe having a harder time switching jobs is better than being saddled with debt.

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                            I flunked out of college just in time to enlist in the First Dot-Com Wars, but the timing also meant I was out of a job in a year and a half. I ended up taking night classes at a state school for a couple of years, then finishing a degree in EE seven years later.

                            Would I do it again like I did it that time? I suppose so. I went to state school, so I didn’t rack up much debt. I don’t work in EE but enjoyed learning it. And having a piece of paper made it easier to get my next job and maybe the one after that, though I don’t think it’s mattered since.

                            Would I do it again now? Not if there weren’t a damn good reason. Being poor sucks. Going to college means I would be poor again. Writing software full-time means I’m not.

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                              Being poor sucks. Going to college means I would be poor again.

                              This is why I chose work over school in the first place. ?

                              I totally feel this though, and I’m a little concerned about adjusting my lifestyle back to being a student. Luckily, I’m pretty shrewd anyways, so it’s probably not too big of a leap.

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                              Apparently, cost is the main problem to you.

                              I spent my last master degree year in Sweden, there were a lot of young American students fleeing away from student dept. All master classes were held in English. I don’t know what are the admission conditions, but I am sure they where studying there for free.

                              If money is the real deal breaker, studying abroad can be an option to consider.

                              BTW: 30yo is not that old for a student, at least here in Europe.

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                                I intend to go, but can’t afford it, until I get a job. And once or if I do, I’m concerned my battery might not be large enough to study & work full time.

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                                  My sense is that for the majority of software engineers, going back to college won’t have a positive ROI. This is largely because the field is soo hot right now, and so many people are trying to break into it. There’s a flood of people entering the field from bootcamps and from colleges, but there’s a shortage of experienced senior engineers. It seems a little crazy to me to move yourself from the 2nd category to the 1st, unless you’re pretty sure that your dream job is beyond your reach.

                                  There’s all kinds of caveats. Maybe there are things you feel like you need to know that you feel like you can only learn in a college environment. Maybe you have an interest in one of the specialties where degrees are more highly valued (machine learning, etc). Maybe the employers you really like care quite a bit about degrees. One example might be a more traditional (hardware) engineering organization working on products you genuinely care about.

                                  But aside from that, it’s been my experience that you can get good offers doing interesting (non CRUD) work for top employers without a degree. I can specifically vouch for Twitter and Amazon with the caveat that I’m sure things vary a little by hiring manager.

                                  Personally, I absolutely plan on going back to school, but not for monetary reasons.

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                                    My sense is that for the majority of software engineers, going back to college won’t have a positive ROI.

                                    My concern isn’t ROI, but longevity. I’m concerned as this market becomes more crowded that companies will be able to be more choosey.

                                    Maybe there are things you feel like you need to know that you feel like you can only learn in a college environment.

                                    An autodidact who broke into the industry believes he can only learn at college? I think not. ?

                                    Maybe you have an interest in one of the specialties where degrees are more highly valued (machine learning, etc). Maybe the employers you really like care quite a bit about degrees. One example might be a more traditional (hardware) engineering organization working on products you genuinely care about.

                                    This is right on the money. I would love to work either on hardware (I have connects at Intel but they require min. of a master’s degree in EE/CS) or aerospace, which I’d love to take physics classes for.

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                                    I’ve thought about it, but then remembering just how much work Mrs Funk had to do in order to finish her law degree while working really puts the kibosh on it for me.

                                    Also: I definitely wouldn’t go and do CS, I’d go with some form of engineering or perhaps nuclear physics, or architecture. Something technical, that could either give me a unique advantage as a programmer, or my experience as a programmer could give me a unique advantage in the new field.

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                                      Personally I went the usual route (first college then job) but doing the reverse can be really interesting. There are several subjects taught at my college that only after years of working I can say were very high quality but unfortunately during studies I didn’t see it that way. That includes cryptography and systems theory. Actually I remember years ago before Bitcoin existed that one of the assignments was to design virtual currency. We’ve been using EC cryptography and Merkle trees. It’s really something to find the same things in contemporary technology.

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                                        I have been in this position. I made the decision not to bother with a degree. But, I have a degree now.

                                        TL;DR - If you can get the degree for no/low cost. Go for it. Beware burnout. Be aware classes may not be fun, even if you enjoy learning, because you don’t choose what they want you to learn.

                                        I started a CS degree in 1990, failed out, went back after two years off. Got through just enough to qualify for co-op (if you don’t know co-op, think paid internship). Never went back. Was able to be employed. Decided I didn’t need the degree. I was mostly self-taught. What I used was mostly not from the classes I had taken.

                                        Over time from I drifted from programmer to systems administrator. My first sysadmin-only job was back at the college I’d left, RIT.

                                        Not having a college degree there was pressure for me to finish one. Working at the school, tuition was free. I spent some time getting stuff in order. (I inherited a mess, which was a bunch of work, but meant as a sysadmin, my work wasn’t invisible since it made a noticeable difference to the faculty and staff). It took 10 years of working there for me to finish my BS. That was with all my credits from my previous stints. Working full time and taking more than one class was a bit much for me. It would work fine for the first term, okay for the second quarter. By the third term of two classes I was burning out and my work was suffering, so I bailed and didn’t take classes for a while. This repeated more than once. At one point in there, I switched from CS (which I was trying to complete because that’s how I started but was no longer my job) over to Applied Networking and Systems Administration. I eventually finished, but was pretty burned out after keeping the pace of two courses per term steadily for 2 years.

                                        Cautions from me to you:

                                        1. Watch out for burnout. If you are not going full-time and are paying per-class, feel free to take your time. Burnout is a real danger. I realize some folks don’t have those problems. Maybe you are one of those. But, just be aware. Slower steadier progress can be better than my burst and stall cycle of burnout.
                                        2. You are anxious to learn. BEWARE - If you are already very knowledgeable in the field you are going to study, be prepared to do a lot of stupid work. Yes, you will fill in gaps in your self-taught knowledge. Very valuable. There will also be plenty of times they will have you do things that will madden you. I enjoyed the last couple years of my degree work the most because I was finishing my liberal arts concentration and electives. I got to choose things I liked, and didn’t have to do silly busywork that barely makes sense when learning.
                                        3. I didn’t have to pay tuition, I just had to buy books. If I had to pay full tuition rates, I’d probably have ignored the degree. More prestigious institutes cost more money. That really only counts fresh out of college. Don’t saddle yourself with lots of debt. I can definitely recommend getting a job at an academic institution who gives you free tuition though :)

                                        Good parts of being a “crustacean”:

                                        1. I was a much better student as an older student. Part of it was I got the value of it. Part was because I now understood professors are people.
                                        2. Part of being a better student came from our accelerated sense of time. I would hit the panic point a week before an assignment was due, rather than hours before when I was 18-19.
                                        3. Professors are often more understanding with older students.

                                        If you have the financial means to attend full-time, I’d do that. But, for me, financial means means no more than 20 hours per week working outside to support you. Being an adult student, this is probably not you.

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                                          I graduated at a big school in CS. However, I do want to go back to get my major/grad school in CS some day. I don’t have a reason other than I like to learn. I love the academic environment and my dream job is to be a professor or teach. My brother did this, but in statistics and just finished his PhD in December 2016.

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                                            I went back to school in my 30s and here’s my advice: only do it for the love of learning. Do NOT do it if you think having a degree will make you more desirable to employers. If you’re worried about breaking a tie with another candidate, break the tie by spending n-years working your ass off on your own for free.