Textbooks or tech forums? Lecture halls or laptop screens? As the ever-advancing world of web development and design cements itself as a popular career path, many interested in diving in are faced with a weighty decision: should they shoot for a four-year university computer programming degree, or use online and peer resources to teach themselves the craft?
While more than 500 universities in the U.S. alone offer a computer science degree, an increasing number of websites offer an array of inexpensive (if not free), up-to-date courses accessible from anywhere. According to these three web developers, the cheap and speedy self-taught route has proven to be anything but regrettable.
New York’s Josh Bergeron, a UNIX web engineer, says that university programs lacked some of the information he needed to progress in his career—at least in the mid-00s.
“I never was really into the formal education scene,” says Josh. “I wanted to focus my attention towards what I was really interested in, and that wasn’t being offered in school.” After using online tutorials and forums as professors, Josh landed a developer job straight out of high school—and hasn’t looked back since. However, he doesn’t entirely discount the benefits of formal education, especially when it comes to getting a job now.
“I know there are a lot of places where computer degrees go a long way in getting hired,” he says. “In the future, I’d like to see less job opportunities where that’s required. It can’t fully speak to a person’s skillset anymore.”
Ironically, this idea harks back to earlier days of web development. Barbara Shaurette first stumbled into the untrampled field while working as a secretary in 1999—a time when drafting a Microsoft Word document required basic coding tags.
“I wasn’t making much and was looking for something else,” says Barbara. “So I took my boss’s laptop home one evening for work and went online. I think I accidently right-clicked on a URL and the page’s HTML coding popped up. It was so similar to the coding I did at work, it was impossible not to teach myself right away.”
In the middle of the Internet boom, it was relatively easy to get a job in the field, as long as you knew basic HTML. So Barbara took a couple of days off from her job in Los Angeles, packed her bags, and headed to San Francisco, where she easily landed a position at a top-notch web company.
Despite the huge steps made in Internet development since her start, Barbara has found it easy to advance in her 15-year career without any formal education.
“I took one UNIX class at a community college once,” she says. “Some little parts were helpful, but the rest I had already learned on my own. It wasn’t too useful.”
While her transition into web development was enviably painless, she admits the situation would be a lot more challenging these days.
“It was a perfect storm of circumstances for me,” says Barbara, who now works as a senior software developer in Austin. “Now you need to know a lot more than simple code to get a job like that.”
Which is exactly why Portland, Oregon’s Tracy Abrahms is studying. Tracy quit her health care administration job after championing the transition to digital medical records—a shift many of her coworkers feared.
“My husband, a programmer, too, told me, ‘You think just like a programmer, you need to be one,’” she says. “So here I am.”
After setting a deadline to educate herself loan-free—via online resources (like Coursera and Codeacademy) and networking with local developer groups—Tracy quickly found herself infatuated with the field. But finding a job, she learned, wouldn’t come as easily.
“I interviewed all spring and got no offers,” she says. “Which was a learning process on its own. Finally, I found a company that offered an apprenticeship—they wanted to help me succeed.”
Despite the trying job hunt, Tracy says the difficulty had nothing to do with her lack of degree, only her lack of experience.
“It’s my understanding that a degree has little to no correlation to one’s ability to get a job in web development,” she says. “It just takes your own motivation to get you there.”
How important is formal education in the field of web development? Share your experiences and opinions below.