For more than a decade, tech team leads have lamented the fact that software engineers are among the toughest jobs to fill. But in some ways, their frustration is self-inflicted.
It is almost a given that a lack of higher education represents a deal-breaker for hiring decision-makers. The same goes for job seekers—it can feel as though the lack of a degree drops your résumé to the bottom of the stack. But the mandate for software engineers to have a formal education beyond high school may be one of the biggest mistakes I have seen companies continually make in my 20-plus years in the technology space.
By no means am I against pursuing a higher education. Colleges, universities and technical training programs can offer real value when it comes to learning the finer points of software development. But too many talented candidates get tossed out of consideration simply because they lacked college diplomas.
In my experience, it’s possible to hire engineers fresh out of high school with five or even 10 years experience in coding and development under their belts. If that sounds absurd, consider that there are hundreds of apps designed to teach code to kids as young as 3 years old. In fact, Mattel has a Robotics Engineer Barbie and Fisher-Price has introduced a “Code-a-Pillar” aimed at toddlers that instills the basics of coding. Soon, the generation graduating high school will have been building their developer chops since they were in diapers.
It’s understandable why employers believe a stellar education and a prime résumé are the prerequisites for good candidates. However, great engineers and developers share some common qualities, whether they have a degree or not. Eliminating higher ed requirements can net talented individuals overlooked elsewhere and potentially allow you to offer lower starting pay. When making hiring decisions, I look beyond the “education” section of the résumé and focus on these qualities instead:
- Look for “closet coders.” A great engineer excels at scripting. I call these agile individuals “closet coders” for their ability to code their way around a brick wall. A tinkerer by nature, this type of candidate grew up taking apart the family computer and successfully putting it back together, or taught themselves Python for fun. In the workplace, especially in a DevOps environment, this person can fill gaps in the tools they are using and build ways for the rest of the team to automate processes. In the interview process, make sure you’re asking questions that require your candidates to think outside the box and demonstrate they can come up with solutions in really tough scenarios.
- Hire a true team player. The concept of the “brilliant jerk” in engineering is finally falling by the wayside, and for good reason. This tongue-in-cheek term refers to giving miserable and cocky developers a pass simply because they are so talented and sharp. But the best engineers are those willing to share their talents with everyone, making the entire team stronger in the process. This type of collaboration goes beyond simply teaching. A great engineer also shares scripts, tools and other tactical assets they use to do their job so well. When screening candidates without a degree, look for individuals who attend hack-a-thons or local code meetups. This is a good indicator they’re willing to work in a collaborative setting and will be an effective teacher.
- Get an engineer who can fail forward. The best developers and coders thrive in an agile environment. They run toward the problem when things break, eager to find a way to fix it. If it’s their fault the failure occurred, they take it in stride, learn from the mistake and make sure others do as well. This “fail forward” attitude leads to a more iterative process, where risk is embraced for the benefit of making breakthroughs. Candidates without degrees are more likely to have these qualities than those with a formal college education. Why? Because they’ve taught themselves the skills they possess, meaning they’ve broken plenty of things along the way and found the fixes on their own. A candidate who doesn’t give a “safe” answer when asked about past failures is someone who deserves further consideration.
A college degree is usually a “nice to have,” but not a “must have” when it comes to hiring decisions. Some of the best engineers and developers I have worked with and managed haven’t taken the traditional education path to earn a degree and possess a unique skill set that can be a huge asset to the team dynamic.
By not discounting these individuals, I’ve gained a competitive advantage over competitors who shell out top dollar just because of a résumé line—and I can definitively say they’ve missed out on what could have been some of the most talented people on their teams. In your next round of hiring, commit to talking to at least one candidate you wouldn’t traditionally give a chance. The result might surprise you.