Do you need a tech degree to work in tech?

25th October 2021
Beatrice O'Flaherty

London Tech Week 2021 offered an array of in-person and virtual events. Dimple Khagram hosted a panel discussion that debated whether a degree is still essential to working in tech anymore. Accompanying her were Alina Timofeeva, Ana Simion, Paul Wealls, Paul Guldo and Emma Hopkinson-Spark.

Timofeeva, principal at Oliver Wyman, a strategy consulting firm, offered insight from the perspective of a Russian immigrant who holds several degrees. She noted the benefits of having three degrees, as it proved useful in helping her obtain a work permit.

To be hired, she needed to stand out from native candidates, and prove that the company could not find another person in the UK or Europe to do the role. It took time, but it was eventually her qualification in Mathematics Science which landed Timofeeva her technological consulting role at consultancy, Accenture.

“I personally think three degrees is a little too much," said Timofeeva. "Particularly if you don’t have to prove that you’re the only person in the UK that can do the job.”

She argued that firms are more interested in hiring passionate individuals. Though it is an asset for your degree to align with your job, globally, there is a market shortage of technical skills. A combination of this, and the wide variety of skills needed for many tech-related jobs, means that the specificity of a singular degree can limit one’s capabilities in the field of technology, she said.

Her degrees relied heavily on theory, few proving helpful in terms of practicality, she observed. In the workplace, people told her that she had no soft skills and was “absolutely horrible at speaking to people.”

Simion’s experience was that approximately 15% of her degree pushed transferable skills, which most technical degrees do not cover.

Simion’s role CEO at Sophis, a London-based research and developing company, helps to bridge research and strategic leadership. There is a balance to be found between “sheer bureaucracy and taking a calculated risk of hiring fresh talent,” stated Simion.

Simion explored the conundrum that perspective candidates must be a generalist, but also a specialist, as well as having good story-telling abilities. She suggested that employers take an holistic approach to candidates, instead of narrowing their scope, and getting “wrapped up in the bubble of coding”; they need to adopt a pragmatic attitude and recognise adaptable skills.

Simion suggested that companies could involve themselves in school curriculums more, an increasingly important concept in the world of tech. (See also: Electronic Specifier the role that the defence industry can play in academia). With the universal skills shortage, it has never been more important for businesses and experts to offer advice to academia. This should make courses more tailored to careers, and can help ensure the balance of technical and soft skills.

Founder of IoT North, Wealls, does not hold a degree, yet has worked in tech for almost all of his career. He cannot code, but works in sales. He agreed with Simion that someone’s ability to problem-solve and work collectively will carry them in the industry. He argued that often it is a case of just enjoying tech, echoing Timofeeva’s thoughts about the importance of passionate individuals.

Wealls also reminded the panel that platforms such as AI and IoT are developing at a rapid speed and offer smart tools and solutions, enlarging the technological ecosystem. He warned viewers to be cognisant of these tools, and for those with a less specialist background to utilise them.

Guldo also did not hold a degree, and admitted this was challenging. He believed that despite having a career in construction until he was 31 years old, he always had a “tech mindset.” He began his career in tech as a sales assistant then started visiting clients to look at their systems, accruing specialist skills along the way.

Guldo described himself as a "lifelong learner", and recommended that everyone in tech should consider themselves as such, to keep developing. This aligns with the thinking of the fifth and final panellist, Hopkinson-Spark, who also does not possess a degree but said that tech skills go out of date very quickly.

Chief of staff at 101 Ways, a product and tech consultancy, Hopkinson-Spark was adamant that she has never hired anybody on the basis of a degree, but on their experience. She would not hire a recent graduate, preferring someone with some experience in the sector.

However, both Guldo and Hopkinson-Spark did not dismiss degrees entirely. They acknowledged the benefits; Guldo suggested that more senior positions, such as CIO, could be better suited to a graduate. He also argued that this needs to be inclusive to all degree types, as variety will inevitably produce a wider range of mindsets.

Also important is the recognition that degrees do not need to be obtained immediately upon leaving school. Hopkinson-Spark reminded the panel of mature students, noting that realistically, somebody won’t progress to a C-level position until about 20 years into their career. Having studied a degree two decades earlier is unlikely to aid you in the modern era of tech skills which would have progressed significantly.

In summary, the panel leaned towards the conclusion that a tech degree is not a necessity. Host, Khagram told viewers that 75% of reporters estimated tech skills to have a lifespan of up to four years, therefore many job roles for the 2030s - and therefore the degree courses for them - do not currently exist. With this thinking, it is understandable that degrees are becoming less sought after in the tech sector.Whilst most recognised the value in having one, niche degrees in evolving fields, like tech, have the potential to become outdated rapidly. They were also of the opinion that most tech skills could be taught outside of a formal academic institution, thus encouraging their viewers, both young and old, to get involved in tech regardless of their background.

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