Self-learning in software development: core skills vs qualifications

After Elon Musk’s recent recruitment drive for people to join his Artificial Intelligence (AI) team without requiring a degree, it’s a good time to reflect on how hiring takes place in the technology sector. For software developers, self-learning is encouraged and fostered, which could have more value than a qualification when job hunting.

On 2 February 2020, Elon Musk announced on Twitter that he was recruiting for his AI team at Tesla. But, in a surprising move, Musk has declared that “A PhD is definitely not required” for the role. Similarly, he doesn’t care if candidates have finished college or even high school, if they have “a deep understanding” of AI and all candidates “must pass a hardcore coding test”.

This isn’t the first time Musk has expressed his opinion on degrees being irrelevant to employment. In a 2014 interview with Auto Bild, Musk said he instead looks for:

“…evidence of exceptional ability. And if there is a track record of exceptional achievement, then it is likely that that will continue into the future”.

It’s refreshing to see this sort of approach being taken, particularly by such a prominent figure. However, the number of times I see specifications for software development roles stating a requirement of a degree, ideally 2:1 or above, still surprises me. Is having a good degree essential to being good in software development?

A formal education absolutely holds its value, particularly with graduate and junior software developer and testing roles. Degrees and qualifications can also be a valuable metric to consider when hiring. However, what makes a good software engineer is their inquisitive nature: having the drive and the hunger for self-learning, personal development and growth of knowledge within their field. These core characteristics remain vital, even as technology continues to evolve.

There are some great platforms out there for candidates and employees to learn new technological skills or expand their existing knowledge, including Pluralsite, Udemy and even YouTube. In a world where companies dedicate funding and working hours to upskill using these resources, it seems an odd choice to turn away applications from capable candidates because of a lack of a degree. Instead, if an individual can demonstrate they have the skill set required to perform the role, and would add value to the company, then, arguably, they should be given the opportunity to interview.

We’ve seen the evidence ourselves of how an employer can benefit by employing these self-learning software candidates. Over the years, my team have placed developers and IT professionals who have been self-taught with no degree and, in some cases, little formal experience. Before help from Reed Technology, they had been struggling to find any company who would even consider them. But many of those who were given the opportunity and investment have grown into the most capable and dedicated software engineers in their organisations.

It’s time to rethink how we hire in the technology market. With an increase in ‘bedroom developers’, it’s clear that qualifications are not the only way to learn. Instead, self-learning is becoming increasingly more valuable to be a good software developer and tester, especially as technology rapidly develops.

If you’re a software developer or tester looking for a new role, or are recruiting for an IT professional to join your team, contact your local Reed Technology branch.

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