Interns, and College, and Certs. Oh My.

I do not have a college degree.

I think it’s important to lead with that, because while I’ve built a fairly successful career, I’ve done it without actually attaining a degree of any sort. I did attend college — a major university for 2 years, and a community college for a year. But in all that time (and all that debt), I never managed to piece together a degree.

Part of the problem is that like most college students, I changed my major multiple times. I started as an Electrical Engineer major. They seemed to make a lot of money, and, if I’m honest, that’s about all the thought I put into it. Then, in Calculus 3, I decided Electrical Engineers did things with numbers that just didn’t need to be done. I was also a Technical Writing major, and English major, and once I shifted to the community college, a “Liberal Arts” major. (I still don’t know what that actually means)

Don’t get me wrong, even though I didn’t get a degree, my college experience did actually help me significantly. I found myself skipping engineering classes at Michigan Tech, and hanging out in the computer labs all day (and night). There was a brand new NeXT computer lab, and it make Unix sexy. In fact, it was probably partially that time in a terminal window when I was supposed to be in engineering classes that made me fall in love with Unix/Linux.

Should I go to College?

This is question I get a lot. A lot a lot. It’s also a question I’m very hesitant to answer. Because the answer is a resounding maybe, and that’s not what anyone wants to hear. Another problem with the question is that the answer keeps changing. For example, back in 2012, I was asked this question at CBT Nuggets, and colleges were just starting to offer more than C++ programming as their only Computer Science class. Here was my response then:

This is still solid advice (well, as solid as advice from me gets anyway), but if anything, the college angle has gotten more attractive. Yes, education lags behind the cutting edge, but if you go into a university computer science program today, you’ll actually get a well rounded education on networking, operating systems, and actual useful programming languages. That still doesn’t mean it’s the right answer for everyone though, because college is very expensive, and you might be served better with a combination of certification programs, internships, and just plain old experience. When I was college-aged, there simply were no computer networking classes. Now there are, but there are also plenty of vocational programs that teach networking as well.

When I was college-aged, there simply were no computer networking classes. Now there are…

Let’s focus on my area of expertise; sourdough bread. No, just kidding, my technical specialty is Linux. And it’s an area that continues to attract more and more employers. Linux Insider posted an article during the pandemic pointing out the need for Linux-savvy workers, even as the industry moves away from traditional servers and hosts everything in the cloud. (Because guess what makes the cloud run? Yep. Linux.) And while colleges certainly offer Linux classes, they’re still lagging way behind current needs when it comes to employable skills. If you get your college degree, you’re still going to need to get certifications to not only prove your worth — but also to fill in the gaps dated college curriculum offers.

So College is a Waste?

Again, maybe. Here’s the thing, college does a couple things really, really well:

  • Teaches foundational knowledge that makes for better equipped professionals
  • Is structured in a way to teach a well-rounded educational base, wider than the specific topic of study
  • Gives students an opportunity to see if they like a variety of subjects (remember my Electrical Engineer “career”?)
  • Looks really good on a resume

And that last one is a real kicker. The current hiring process is largely automated at the early stages. Many employers use a college degree as a litmus test to determine whether or not to even interview a candidate. A college degree shows that a person has the stamina and hard work to achieve a difficult goal. Even if it doesn’t prove they’ll be a good employee, it’s often the first hurdle to even getting an interview. I personally think that’s sad, but I’m sure it’s a statistically viable way to sort the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, companies miss out on some really good folks who chose a different path.

I won’t lie, having a college degree does open doors, especially when applying for a job. It’s not the only way to get hired, but it’s important to judge if the cost and years spend getting educated at a university is worth it. It might be, especially if someone else is helping pay the bill. But going into $100k of debt will take a lot of years to pay off, even if you land a great job.

So What Else Is There?

This is where it’s much better to do what I say, and not what I did. When I left college, I started a small business. It failed miserably. (Like, really bad. It was ugly.) From there I got a tech support job at the local community college answering phones giving support to dialup Internet users. My experience in the computer labs at Michigan Tech, and my experience as a “small business owner” gave me enough resume fodder to get an interview. From there, after a series of very unfortunate events, I applied at a K12 school district for the technology director position. I shouldn’t have gotten that job, but I wrote a very compelling cover letter, and interviewed well. I also got very lucky. Getting lucky isn’t something you can prepare for, but all is not lost if you don’t go to college.

If you decide not to go to college, or at least not head off to university for a 4 year degree, there are a couple viable alternatives that will make you employable (even if it makes it tough to get past the automated resume filters):

  • Get an Associate’s degree at a community college.
  • Study on your own and get tech certifications from places like CompTIA, LPI, Cisco, Microsoft, etc.
  • Apply for an internship. If you can afford it, unpaid internships are an easy way to get experience.
  • Apply for an internship. Lots of interns get paid, if crappy. More on this later.
  • Get involved with some Open Source projects, especially if development is what you want to do.
  • Create an online presence. Certainly GitHub for developers, but also YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

I know this was the “no college” list, but a couple years at a community college is probably affordable, especially if you can stay home and commute. Having a degree, even an Associate’s degree, will open some doors. Even if your major is Underwater Basket-Weaving — just having the paper will potentially get you an interview.

Internships are incredible. They can be at a college, or a business in the field you’re interested in. They come in two flavors: Regular and crappy. Seriously though, some internships are unpaid. It’s the pre-employment equivalent of doing work for the exposure. It sucks. But, if there aren’t any other options, it’s a viable way to get your foot in the door and get some serious experience on your resume. There are many companies who pay their interns though, so don’t assume you’ll have to work for free. You’ll probably make a pittance, but it might be enough if you can still live at home, or have lots of roommates.

Lastly, the old adage is that nothing beats experience. That’s still true, especially if you can get to the actual interview process. An internship is incredible to put on a resume, but if you contribute to projects on GitHub (even documentation! EVERY project needs documentation!), or have projects of your own, that counts. And if a YouTube channel seems like a silly thing to start in order to get a job — I assure you, if you get to the interview stage, interviewers will check out your YouTube channel before they interview you. Same with blogging, tweeting, facebooking, linked-inning, etc. Put yourself in the hiring committee’s shoes, if they can “see” you before they actually see you, they’ll likely do so. Just be genuine, and it will be like an extended interview that you don’t have to sweat through!

You Avoided the Question Entirely

Yeah, I know. That’s what I meant at the start — it’s all maybe. Rather than a one-size-fits-all answer, hopefully this has given you a bit of insight to help you think through what will work best for you. Some of the ideas are valid regardless of your decision on college. All those bullet points above will make you more employable, and a better tech nerd in general. Getting involved in the community you’re interested in will only help make connections that might get you a job. Most of my “best” jobs have been because I knew someone who knew someone who saw my stuff. Good luck, and whatever your future looks like, I encourage you to seek after something you enjoy. If you don’t like calculus, don’t be an electrical engineer. Trust me.

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