It might be the most curious phenomenon in the recruiting world: why do tech companies make room in their employee selection process for college dropouts? Instead of trawling Ivy League schools for the next generation of programmers and developers, some of America’s most profitable tech companies aim much, much lower. But is that really what they’re doing?
To shed some light on the subject, we decided to ask several tech CEOs to put their hiring decisions in perspective for us. Here’s what they had to say about why highly motivated autodidacts are worth a second look.
Dave King, one the developers of Reddit, once said that 90% of developers won’t use the computer science theories they learned in college in their day jobs, and most of our respondents seem to agree with him. According to Morris Tabush, president and founder of the Tabush Consulting Group, the industry is changing so rapidly that “Anyone who ‘learned technology in college’ only knows what they learned, which is only a fraction of what they need to know.”
Bypassing college, then, allows talented candidates to skip student loan debt and focus purely on their tech interests while developing their practical skills. In doing so, they gain a better understanding of what’s expected of them and what they have to learn to be successful.
In the fast-paced do-or-die world of tech startups, an employee’s practical skills tend to take precedence over his or her background in the eyes of employers. Companies don’t need Ph.D. candidates – they need developers who can rapidly churn out accurate, error-free code for a variety of applications. As Curt Finch, CEO of Austin-based software company Journyx puts it, “I couldn’t care less about what degree an applicant has. If they can do the job, that’s what matters to me.”
Finch, like many other tech industry CEOs, bases his employee selection process around practical skills tests. When Journyx needed a developer fluent in Python, he didn’t bother posting on Monster.com or other popular recruiting resources. Instead, he looked up a local programmer’s resume on Google and downloaded a section of open-source code the programmer had written.
After analyzing the code himself, Finch called the programmer and asked him to come in immediately for an interview. “When he arrived,” Finch says, “I asked him why his code was buggy at lines X, Y and Z. His response was ‘You’re right. That code sucks. Here’s why and here’s how I would fix it if I get time.’ That was the response I was looking for, so I hired him on the spot. He’s still doing great work for us today, and he doesn’t have a college degree.”
Another reason why many tech companies tend not to factor a college education into their hiring decisions is that many founders and CEOs don’t have degrees themselves. Some of the most profitable companies to come out of the tech bubble were founded by dropouts like Noah Nehlich, who left college at 19 to start a 3D software company called Structure Studios. The firm is now one of the leading providers of 3D visualization software in the country, and its rise to prominence has given Nehlic a new perspective on the hiring process.
“A degree tells me that the candidate went to school. It doesn’t tell me anything about how skilled, experienced, and dedicated they are or how they will interact as part of a team on the job,” he says. “The most qualified candidates are often those who grew up spending their free time immersed in technology. Regardless of whether or not they pursued a college degree, they’re highly motivated to keep up with developing technology and to explore creative solutions rather than relying on book knowledge.”
As these industry experts have shown, you don’t need to hire a bunch of Harvard graduates to succeed as a tech company. The best programmers and developers teach themselves everything they need to know to be successful employees. In many cases, the fact that these candidates are passionate enough to learn the trade on their own is evidence that they’ll be highly motivated to succeed on the job as well.
As Nehlic puts it, “Technical skills can be taught. It is much more important to build a team with people who have the interpersonal skills to work together productively and communicate than it is to hire someone who just looks good on paper.”
So the next time your tech startup is looking for a programmer, consider leaving a college diploma out of your employee selection equation. The hiring decisions you’ll end up making will be different, for sure. But the results can be surprising.
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