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Ask HN: What other good careers exist for those without a college education?
77 points by EduardoBautista 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments
So I never graduated from college but have been working on web apps (Ruby on Rails and Ember are what I mostly work on) since I was 19 (I am 25 now).

I always wondered what I would do if for some reason the market for software developers would go down. I worry I would not able to find an interesting job, let alone a lucrative one.

Is tech the best path out there for interesting and/or well paid work without a college education?

As someone with access to free education but without a college degree, without rich parents and still having done pretty well for myself, let me tell you my way of thinking about this.

There is a difference between getting an education and being educated. If you focus on educating yourself without worrying about what your title you have the chance of learning about subject matter transcendence i.e. you will become skilled at some mixture of subjects without being "the best" at any one of them.

This subject matter transcendence I believe is one of the keys to staying relevant and aware of what is going on around you as it gives you an intuitive understanding of how various areas could be connected.

As typical example is the designer/developer. A person who both know how to design and how to code. That person might not be the best at the individual disciplines but the combination is in itself providing them with an edge on 80% of the people BOTH in the design field AND in the development field.

Don't worry about confining yourself into becoming an expert in one field who then will need to compete with other experts.

Instead become an expert in your own chosen subject matter no matter how fractured and you will be able to if nothing else, start your own company solving a problem your unique understanding of the world might lead you to.

In other words. Don't worry just keep educating yourself that's the best you can do.

You have six years professional experience in programming. You can probably get onto the Oxford M.Sc. in Software Engineering but the deadline is soon. If you miss it the next one is in March.


Applicants are normally expected to be predicted or have achieved a first-class or strong upper second-class undergraduate degree with honours (or equivalent international qualifications), as a minimum, in a related subject, such as computer science, informatics or engineering.

For applicants with a degree from the USA, the minimum GPA sought is 3.5 out of 4.0.

Applications are invited from anyone with sufficient experience or proven ability in software, security, or data engineering. A typical applicant will have at least two years' experience in a professional environment, and an undergraduate degree in a related subject. However, more extensive experience may compensate for a lack of formal qualifications, and a strong, immediately-relevant qualification may compensate for a lack of professional experience.

Emphasis not in original

This is interesting information, but I don't think it really answers OP's question. They're specifically asking about interesting jobs other than software engineering[0] that don't require a university education, and you're highlighting a chance to get a university education in software engineering.

[0] - "what I would do if for some reason the market for software developers would go down"

In work now so can only skim, but how long does it take to complete part time? I'm guessing you need to be on campus?

You need to be on campus for one week per module, then you have six weeks to complete your assignment, you need to complete ten modules to get the Master’s as well as attending a week long course on how to do a 15-20K word thesis based on project work.

Your real issue here is the irrational worry, not the lack of alternative career paths. I'd look into techniques for coping with anxiety if this seriously bothers you.

I'm sure there was a more polite way to put this, on the one hand.

On the other hand, I have to agree. Six years experience means OP is a developer eligible for 'senior' roles; just stay current and do your job well, you'll be fine.

It isn't that irrational. I know many people who didn't have very good career prospects before getting a career in software development or system administration. And while most people are making decent money the tech industry is bad at providing other values. In a downturn a lot of us would end up competing for the same jobs. If you are lucky you are just stuck in a job you can't get out of.

So I would say that diversifying and investing in the future is a good idea.

Expecting a radical downturn in the market for software engineers is irrational. Software is continuing to eat the world.

I know some people who sell cars and don’t have a college degree but pull in close to six figures. They enjoy it but they also work for higher end dealerships and get to take fun cars (like a brand new WRX STI...) for a spin sometimes.

Cooking or baking is another option. Some great chefs out there never graduated from college or culinary school.

Running a business also doesn’t require a college degree. My wife owns a café and never graduated from college.

> Cooking or baking is another option.

Celebrity chefs can make a lot of money, but I’m pretty sure just about everyone else is just barely scraping by.

The question said interesting work and/or money. So I guess I went with the “or” rather than the “and”.

Just like lawyers.

Lawyers earn a median amount of $120,000 a year - https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm#tab-5

Chefs and head cooks earn a median amount of around $50,000 a year https://www.bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/chefs-a...

So I'm not so sure about your point.

There are plenty of lawyers who are basically scraping by. Advocacy lawyers (e.g. someone working for the ACLU) generally don't make that much, as far as I'm aware. They take their pay in policy victories. (Or, I guess, in the satisfaction of struggling.)

But that's less than 50% of lawyers, and it's voluntary.

The point is that there is a pretty big disparity between the big paying law jobs and the normal jobs on a frequency basis, the median earning value doesn't demonstrate this reality.

I did the research on this when I thought I wanted to go into law myself.

Wait that’s why you use the median

Lawyer salaries follow a bimodal distribution[1], that's why the median isn't very helpful. Besides showing the distribution (what the article does) the more interesting figures would be the two modes.

What might be relevant for the discussion here is that lawyer salaries have been unimodal 25 years ago but have changed over the course of time. It has been argued here on HN [2][3] and elsewhere [4] that developer salaries are bound to suffer the same fate.

[1] https://www.biglawinvestor.com/bimodal-salary-distribution-c...

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16337434

[3] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12588202

[4] https://danluu.com/bimodal-compensation/

Lawyers also rarely graduate with anything less than six figure debts and many are forced to live within the lifestyle/means of someone with half their salary for a decade plus because of it.

Any great chef though is either formally trained or has undergone an extensive apprenticeship under a formally trained chef. Time and again, you can tell the difference in execution between self-taught and formal training, and this goes beyond cooking. The importance of rigour is frequently underestimated.

Are you based in the US? Can’t say much about that then but if you’d be in Germany I would advise you to pick a craft like heating technician (Heizungsbauer), electrician or plumber: Due to the demographic change and the government efforts pushing more and more people to study instead of doing an apprenticeship there are fewer and fewer qualified people around that are able to fix our heating, plumbing or wiring. In Germany (and many other countries) these areas are also regulated so if you made it through your apprenticeship you are somewhat protected from too much competition, which is a nice advantage to e.g. being a programmer where everyone with a computer and some coding skills can compete with you. Also, heating systems and electric appliances are not going away anytime soon and they regularly break, so you have pretty much guaranteed business.

I’ve heard from many friends that have extreme difficulty finding someone to e.g. redo their roof or tile their floor as most professionals can just afford to wait for large, extremely lucrative jobs instead due to the high demand overhang. Single gigs can be in the ballpark of 50 to 100 thousand €, with hourly rates in excess of 100 € not being uncommon. Easily beats the going rate for developers here (which is around 80 € / hour).

Depending on where you are, a tugboat captain can clear $500k/year, and you'll have a 6 figure pension when you retire. Other hands on jobs that have lots of overtime potential (e.g. police or fire department, oil, welding, etc) can also pay really well depending on your level.

"Tugboat captain" seems like a field that could be fully automated. I found this cool video of a university project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0nA8G2vbsY

That would be a really interesting project to work on. Some Tesla engineers that work on self-driving cars could probably do very well if they started their own company doing this for tugboats, or just the shipping industry in general.

Now that I think about it, autonomous self-flying airplanes should be coming pretty soon. Found this article about it: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/16/business/airplanes-unmann...

We're going to look back on this period of time and shudder at the thought of humans in the cockpit, or humans working as air traffic controllers.

How much is a tugboat?

I think the term I should've used is "pilot boat captain", or "harbor pilot" actually. The ones by me work for the government. They don't need to provide their own boats.

A lot. But most tug captains work for someone that owns the boat and over time might buy into the boat ownership or buy their own. You can still make a big salary while running someone else’s boat though.

I had a friend who got into working on boats like this. She worked her ass off, but made really good money for someone just starting out.

> I always wondered what I would do if for some reason the market for software developers would go down. I worry I would not able to find an interesting job, let alone a lucrative one.

You are right to worry ( https://stackoverflow.com/jobs?q=bscs ). It will be more of a problem when you're in your late 40's, maybe married with kids, and laid off in a tight economy, without a degree. I mean, if you ever see it in job ads, or have it mentioned in interviews, then it is a thing.

Consider signing up for a local college with a decent CS program (public or private) and taking one course a semester at night or on weekends. Then the default becomes you graduate eventually. Also, the fact that you are going and making progress helps as well. It also helps your programming - reflecting on mutual exclusion and critical sections for a semester will not hurt you any in your job.

Everything computer-related is best right now. (Web design, UX, "social media person".) However, if for some reason you want to change that, I have found that writing and composing music are also well suited for the same type of mind. (You need imagination, constrained by rules. We're good with rules and, as far as I can tell, we're not bad at creativity either.)

writing and composing music

I'm not even sure how to approach criticizing this, because I'm sure you mean well, but if someone aims to make a living in these two things, they better get ready for a lifelong dose of failure.

You're (somewhat) right. I was mainly addressing the "find an interesting job" part, not the "lucrative" one.

There are ways to become successful as a writer, but you need to be either very lucky, or cheat. See [1] for an example of the latter.

[1] https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/B0056BMK6K

You can work on a bakery, waiter, cleaner, sales and a lot of other jobs. Even if you are an introvert, there will be a job for you.

But I don't believe tech is going away. You better work on getting this anxiety away, you were probably thinking "oh shit, things are going down because there are too much clowns getting funding and giving web dev projects that makes no money for them and go bankrupt". I did that frequently, maybe you also did, I'm just trying to view things from your perspective.

The other side of the story is that for every 100 clowns, there is 1 that succeeds and controls a whole industry. Programming will be well paid for a while. Most of the people can't/won't even learn how to program or be willing to do it to earn a living, no matter how good it pays.

Consider actually learning other platform, such as systems engineering/mobile etc. That will definitely help you out with that.

Even if you would help people writing VBA functions in Excel you could make money. There are a lot of old people making 6-7 figures that can't open a PDF. Remember that. The economic and the system as today, isn't going away. There will always be banks, politicians and entrepreneurs creating jobs and keeping people busy.

As long as you are willing to work, you will do just fine.

  But I don't believe tech is going away.
Tech doesn't need to 'go away' for the likes of us to have a bad time. All we need is a repeat of the 2000 dot-com bubble bursting.

In that case, companies with solid products at good prices still went bankrupt, as the customers-of-their-customers had trouble and demand for their products dried up; and as investors were spooked out of the entire sector. The damage wasn't limited to the likes of pets.com!

I don't know anybody who became UNEMPLOYABLE at that time.

Sure, you might need to work under some bad conditions or take a pay cut, but that is just life. For who has great experience shit shovelling their whole life, this is nothing. For those who doesn't and can't take a crisis, they wouldn't be able to take it in any field of work.

I think there will be always well-paid work for people who are analytical, maybe you need to start over on another field, but it isn't that bad. Idk really, anything could happen, but as soon as I look around, I'm usually the most employable person ever, can speak a few languages, can do a lot of stuff, IT, development, I welcome new opportunities and things, can deal with money well and has my whole life studied finance.

I think for a lot of people on our field it is like this. I actually would appreciate if we would have a crisis, because that would be definitely the time I would be able to take part in those businesses that grow on those times and end up being huge. At the present there is a lot of shitty companies with huge valuations and providing nothing, crisis are good because they really shake the status quo and those who think outside of the box get out of it much better than if everything was perfect.

Think positive.

I second the idea of diversifying your platform skillset. Not only with it future-proof you as a developer, it will give you a better comprehension of computer science that will aid you in your current career.

  Sewer Diver	       		130000 EUR
  Federal Minister		124046 EUR
  Flight Controller		 78000 EUR
  Offshore Mechanic		 58500 EUR
  Elevator Technican		 52000 EUR
  Driving Instructor 		 47500 EUR
  Garbageman   		         42000 EUR

These are annual gross salaries in Germany. None of the jobs requires college education. To put it into perspective, web dev averages around 55000 EUR here.

Consulting is a lucrative career path that relies less on college pedigrees and more on networking/reputation.

Consulting is a weird place. Just recently I had a customer decide they wanted to hire me full time (I’ve been consulting with one of their internal divisions for awhile, and the company wanted to make me available to everyone) and they balked when they saw I didn’t have a degree. But then I turned the interview into a pitch for using my consulting services for everyone instead of hiring me and the worry about my degree went out the window. Somehow it seemed ok to have a contractor without a degree but not an employee.

Without a degree, doing what you're provably good at is your best option. A degree is basically an substitute for proof that you're good at something. (A degree doesn't actually prove you're good at it; at best it means you're more likely to be good at it, since you've been exposed to education about it.)

So if you're good at software, then do that. There's little chance for the demand for software developers to go down; it's one of the safest career paths there is. There is of course a chance that the software market will change and that demand for Ruby or Ember will drop. But if you can learn those, you can also learn to develop in Python and Vue or something.

Keep learning, keep diversifying.

Of course it's possible you have other talents. Maybe you're a good comic artist, cook, salesman, manager or something else entirely. Work on those skills when you can, and build up a portfolio so you can prove to people that you're good at these things too. There are plenty of fields where talent is far more important than a degree. A degree is merely a way to develop that talent and prove you've done that.

People want to hire intelligent, hardworking people.

If you don't have a college degree, you just need to find other ways to show potential employers you're intelligent and hardworking, regardless of industry.

To think about this from any other perspective is to unnecessarily pigeonhole yourself.

Exactly this.

I don't have a degree, but I still got the first job I ever applied to (as a full-time BI dev, not internship). I was lucky that they had an entrance "exam" that I could use to prove my capability.

The entrance "exam" looked like this: they asked me what programming languages I knew. I answered Python, C, awk. They said ok, then here are 3 simple tasks, do these in either Clojure or Elixir, get back to us when you are ready. I submitted my answers in 72 hours, talked my way through them on the interview and basically that was it.

The whole point of this was (I guess) to measure how quickly can I learn new things (functional languages need a different mindset than imperative languages).

Now I'm focusing on doing side projects that I can put on my webpage and resume, right next to the work experience.

I totally support college education because of its numerous benefits. When I studied in college I had to ballance between study and work and deal with all those paper works. I even hired specialists from writing service here https://writemyessayonline.com/ to write my essays on time at the highest level. Because I'm sure with a proper education you are more likely to become financially stable in the long run.


Because your output is more measurable than in most other roles, credentials matter far less.

IT, you can learn it by yourself, you can contribute to open source and get recognized and on the end run get the experience and recognition as an IT professional

If you're good you can do well with a lot of career paths, e.g. master woodworker, or expert welder or a good accountant. Of course, you'd have to learn a lot of new things first and that takes years, so it's probably not such a good idea to switch profession without a good reason, and it's even more unlikely that you'll really have to switch it ever...

Master? Expert? That are some high goals - not everyone can be the best. Not everyone should be.

Well, in this context it doesn't mean "the best", it's more of a honorable title for highly skilled craftsman - something achievable with a lot of practice and hard work and love for that job. And while you're totally right, and it's totally fine to be a part of mediocrity (like most of us are), people usually don't quit their well-paid jobs and change carriers completely in hope to be crappy at something else...

Your problem seems that you are relying on someone else to employ you. Why not create products by yourself and become a potential employer? Unless the society itself crashes due to large scale wars or natural catastrophes, people will always want and use useful software, and that includes time wasting entertainment ones. There are so many things that need to be done, so as long as what you create is not yet another tool that does the same old thing that twenty others already do with no differentiating aspect to it, its worth pursuing this path.

Software engineering is the most equalizing field in modern society. I mean, anyone with interest and reasonable intelligence can get good at it; they just need a used laptop and a decent internet connection. Add a good amount of CS understanding, and general creativity, one stands to make it big in this field. Compare that with trying to build the next generation automobile by self studying mechanical engineering, or creating a drug to cure your least favorite disease by learning bio chemistry through a MOOC.

Software engineering is the new humanities, albeit a lucrative one, in that you need just a bit of push in the beginning after which it is all up to you to explore and get good at.

> Why not create products by yourself and become a potential employer?

Usually the added hassle of the business logistics (paperwork, additional business taxes on top of your payroll, etc) and everyone under the sun trying to lowball you. Not everyone has the intuition and patience necessary to handle all this extra work. There's also the added time commitments.

It's a lot higher risk to start up a business yourself.

Air Traffic Controller. Saw it mentioned in a similar thread and sounds like decent pay for the trade off of high stress and crappy hours. Still it's defiantly something worth looking into if you are willing to make compromises.

Every single one and no one.

Your education increases the chance of you getting into a particular field, but doesn't guarantee it. If you are capable of exploiting opportunities - there is no field that you can't get into.

Aside from the very obvious jobs that require a qualification (doctor, lawyer, etc) you can do pretty much whatever you want. After my first job my degree was more or less pointless. As for the first job, or any other, stop worrying about what's on a piece of paper and start figuring out what you're interested in and what will make people interested in that. Then just get out there and meet people. Conferences, meet ups, whatever. These are the people who will employ you, work with you, work for you, and introduce you to people who will all of those. Of all my friends that earn very, very well, there's little difference between those with lots of qualifications and those without - and far more so in tech. Good luck!

Lambda School comes to mind. Try them, they seem to be working out for lots of people.

had to look that one up. seems like a refreshing concept:

>Lambda School trains people online to be software engineers at no up-front cost. Instead of paying tuition, students can agree to pay a percentage of their income after they're employed, and only if they're making more than $50k per year. If you don't find a job, or don't reach that level of income, you'll never pay a cent.

it has been discussed here before too: https://hn.algolia.com/?query=lambda%20school&sort=byPopular...

Make sure that you have soft skills, the ability to learn by yourself and problem solve.

Coding is obviously super relevant now, and I personally believe for still a while, to remain employed. Yet, if you look at WEF prediction[0], it is soft skills – with obviously technical knowledge (that you already have) – that will matter in the long run.

So what does it means for you? The future of work is not about learning one tool (programming language for instance) and be done for a career. We can actually extend this to a type of job. The key is to be able re-train and re-tool. College education, and in general, lecture/instructor-based education, is generally training us the wrong way: we feed students with knowledge that is the answer for the exam in 2 weeks. In real life, we make money or are paid by solving problems (exams) but it's up to us to find the answer (the lecture). So it's completely backward.

Progressive Education[1], a movement that was created at the end of the 18th century is super relevant for our time. It's advocating for students to learn something by doing, to focus on problem-solving and critical thinking, soft skills and become a life-long learner. I am so in love with this methodology that I created a software engineering school using it, and it's working amazingly![2]

Since you seem to be self-taught, you probably already have this ability to self-learn, that's HUGE! My advice to you would be: try to learn something completely new, on your own. See how it goes. It might be painful, if so that is normal, keep going. I see that with our students who, especially when they start, are frustrated by the fact that we, as a school, are pushing them to find the knowledge by themselves instead of giving the answer by just raising their hand. The key here is not only to learn a new craft, but also and very importantly, to develop the ability to self-learn.

Develop your soft skills: collaboration, coaching, empathy, writing, negotiation, public speaking. Those are key to grow in seniority in the software track, but really, it is for any career.

Finally, I believe that tech isn't going anywhere, it's widely used by retail, finance, transportation, media, healthcare... Considering that you cannot remain employed as a software developer, no matter which position you end up working in, having tech knowledge will make a huge difference or be just essential.




Cleaning toilets?

The illusion of the requirement for a College Education to get a high paying job in any field is starting to diminish. Now Yes, it will be a bit harder to get a job when your competition has 6 Masters degrees and 2 PHDs. All a degree tells a potential employer is that you are supposed to know the degree field. It isn't ordinary for employers to give you a test to determine your knowledge, that's why everything on the Resume is vital and a degree usually stands out above the rest. With that out of the way, Especially when it comes to IT, most companies look for experience. Light up your resume with the experience in Ruby (or any other knowledge you have) and pound on it, sell it to the employter that you know what you're doing even more so than Joe Smith with his 90+ Degrees. I highly doubt that the demand for IT will go down in any field. If that is the case; You can always learn Welding (which will require a very short technical school,about 3-6 months for the price of a few paychecks dependending on where you live) Construction is also a decently simple field to get into and its usually union with very.. very high paying opportunities along with the self satisfaction of building structures to be used for years. But I recommend staying IT, Many other companies have a plentiful amount of openings in IT though it may not be Software Developers, Your experience so far will help you honestly find any door in Information Technology regardless of a degree.

1) almost no one has multiple Masters and even fewer multiple PhDs.

2) A degree tells a potential employer you have knowledge in a field and the persistence to stick with a project/goal for 4-6 years. The latter possibly being more important than the former.

3) Focus on persistence and experience in particular technology or projects is definitely a good boost.

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