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Ask HN: Returning to university as an experienced developer
10 points by kestrelhawk 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 14 comments
Hi HN,

For the past three years, I've been working as a Web Applications Developer (LAMP stack). Although having dropped our after attending one year of Computer Science in 2009 I was able to attain this position without a degree.

I'm not fully satisfied by the rate at which I'm currently learning and I feel I could be doing a lot more for my career/personal development. I now have the opportunity to attend an online Level 8 Certificate in Software Development in university based on my industry experience (cert equates to half an BSc Hons here in Ireland [1]). The cert is a year long with the option to stay on for a second year to obtain a BSc Honors. The entire course is very cheap as it's part of an upskilling initiative so money is not an issue here.

I've thought long and hard about this opportunity but the same question keeps arising -- Do I really need it? I'd love to progress my career, particularly into AppSec. A degree will give me validation and recognition in what I currently do and I have no doubt I'd learn something by completing a full degree; however, could this time be better spent within the industry in a more challenging role?

There is another certificate offered at the same institution which is broader but I'd find it a lot more interesting [2], and though it would mean a lot more time/difficulty in attaining the BSc Hons, I feel it would offer a lot more experience that I could use in a professional capacity.

I'd be grateful if anyone could share any similar experiences or any advice that may help me progress.

[1] https://www.itsligo.ie/courses/bsc-hons-software-development-online [2] https://www.itsligo.ie/courses/certificate-secure-it-deepmachine-learning

I returned to University in my late 20s after spending several years in industry. After three years, I completed a business degree (with a major in marketing).

While I can't claim that I learned many things that have actually changed the trajectory of my career, having the paper has certainly helped me get the first round of resume selections. It's really just a credential and checking off a box.

I did gain a tremendous amount from the students and (especially) professors I met. Three years in University in my late twenties has had a tremendous impact on my network. To this day (11 years after I convocated), I still reap the benefits from that network.

When I went back to school, I was quite a bit older than most of my fellow students, so I gravitated towards professors and older students. Being in business, many of the older students had huge amounts of experience in industry.

Three caveats:

1.) I studied business, not computer science.

2.) I studied in person and not online.

3.) I focused on building my network.

I hadn’t considered the networking part of it so thank you for that insight. Despite studying online I’ll probably have a chance to meet some people during labs which I need to attend in person.

If you already have experience, a degree doesn’t mean that much - at least in the US.

Also, again in the US, most online degrees aren’t taken seriously by hiring managers.

The best way to learn is by changing companies and learning from other people. You’ve taught yourself this much, stay on that road.

Coincidentally I was chatting to someone involved in HR who’s been involved in the tech industry since posting this and they mentioned the same; that they never primarily considered degrees during the hiring process. Thanks for confirming the same about the US as I plan to work and live there after a while.

Coincidentally, some of those same people who would say they don't primarily consider degrees will outright ask about education background when talking to a candidate.

The conversation will go generally positive. A month later of no contact/ghosting, and a form letter rejection pops out, with either the position being closed or "Unfortunately, we have decided to pursue other candidates whose background appears to match our needs more closely."

And that will be that.

I’ve been developing for 20+ years. I got my degree in the mid 90s. There is absolutely nothing I do today that my degree from a little state college in CS over 20 years ago helps with.

I’ve interviewed people for 15 of those years. None of the post interview discussions when we were deciding who to hire ever brought up there degree.

Well let me take that back, I know managers who would put people with degrees from Devry and online only schools at the bottom of the list and wouldn’t even consider them. Getting degrees from one of those schools were actually considered worse than no degree at all.

I don’t agree with that sentiment, but that’s the way of the world...

In my experience certificates like this are considered pretty useless by most software engineers. Anybody can do a certificate and have their hand held all the way through it. Real world experience in much more valued. Also software dev is both an applied skill and a fast developing field too in which not everybody agrees on the right way to do things, so its hard for universities to keep up with the changing times. Plus whatever job you get after university will probably require you to learn a ton of new stuff anyway. Basically I don't believe that software engineering is a field in which you can go off to study for a year and then be considered better at your job because of it. (This could be different if you were to study a more specific subset of computer science like security, computer graphics, machine learning etc.)

That said you've been a developer for three years so are in a pretty good position to try moving to a company which does more advanced stuff and further your career. This of course has the added benefit that you don't have to make any financial sacrifices, in fact you will probably get paid more by doing this.

Finally you mentioned getting into Appsec, if you want to specialise in a field like this then I would highly recommend that. As I said earlier spending time to specialise in a field like this would be worth while, you could do a degree or do a certification like the OSCP (unlike software dev, certifications in info sec are actually valued if you do the right ones). This is what I'm currently doing myself after 5 years as a developer now specialising in security.

Thanks for responding. Yeah I’ve heard mixed things about obtaining certificates — in this case it’s considered a “degree” despite having the ‘Certificate...’ label. Nonetheless, I know what you’re saying. I’ve decided to do the one year course in security as I’ll find the structured learning and exams a good way to discipline my learning, and as a result I’ll have more time to apply those foundations industry experience rather than spending two years in college. In the meantime I’m trying to find somewhere else to work that’ll hopefully help me apply what I’m leaning. I guess the need for validation in what I’m already doing is more a confidence issue that’s always made me reluctant to apply anywhere else - a mentality I really need to escape! Thanks for your feedback and good luck with the AppSec!

You will get paid more with the right paper in a lot of companies, for equal experience (and even 5+ years more in some cases). The degree is important, and in the right company a certificate can be too.

I believe formal classes in good universities certainly help. You end up learning things that you would think are too boring or not directly related to your job. But in my 15 years of working and dozens of interviews, no one ever asked me about my courses or anything related to my education. I never asked anyone I interviewed about what they lerned in college.

Worth it for me. I got a minor in CS, did web development for 3 years, and then enrolled in a CS master's degree for professionals at a prestigious (expensive) university. In school I purposely avoided "software engineering" type classes and focused on more theoretical, mathy CS classes. The classes exposed me to a lot of things I wouldn't have learned otherwise and the shiny master's degree probably helped me land a job at a prestigious tech company. In the end, I like school and didn't feel like I was finished at the end of undergrad. YMMV.

I did university late, after programming professionnal and hobby experience, but it was in the 80s. IME, it was interesting, but not that useful. The problem is that for practical work, you don’t learn more than what you already learned working, and what you really learn, the theory, you just cannot apply it in practice in the university.

Nowadays however, there are a few domains, that could be worth learning in university and open doors for nice jobs, such as deep learning, or biology (DNA, artificial life, etc).

A lot of jobs ask for a degree. If you don't have one you don't get past HR.

So I would say it's a benefit, and if you enjoy the course then why not.


Similar situation, sometimes just getting noticed or fighting these algorithms to get noticed is difficult. Luckily I found socialplan.co which totally helped me accelerate my career. The hard truth is there is no correlation with grades and distinctions to future income earning potential.

Become the best at what you do "skills" then promote your personal brand like a fortune 500 would, with no shame.



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