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Tech careers are earned on the job - Apple, IBM, and Google's degree requirement change was long overdue

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 6, 2018
News that several tech giants have relaxed their college degree requirements sparked a longstanding online debate: what constitutes an exceptional tech professional? I also bring in Zoho, a company with a different approach to hiring and training.

We all have our editorial axes to grind - or bones of contention, as I like to call them. One of mine is the breathless mythology of the tech skills crisis, which is almost always accompanied by short-sighted hiring practices that exclude plenty of qualified-but-marginalized job seekers.

These days, with the impact of "AI" and so-called "smart" recruiting assistants, we run the risk of compounding the problem.

Though I liked what I just heard from Anixter about their use of automation/AI in hiring via AllyO, I'm afraid Brian Sommer's epic deconstruction of tech-enabled recruiting practices is still the norm. Not only that, but algorithmic hiring threatens to make things worse, and exclude more qualified people - but Sommer is doing a definitive job of explaining that.

In the tech field, one of the most common ways employers limit themselves is with the compulsive imposition of a bachelor's degree as a brute force screening tool for applicants. That's why I felt a jolt of vindication upon the recent news that Google, Apple, IBM are among the large companies dropping college degree requirement for new hires.

The news didn't come via formal announcements from these companies. It comes from Glassdoor, which compiled a list of Fifteen more companies  that no longer require bachelor's degrees for new hires, for a range of white collar positions. This change in degree requirements is not limited to tech, but I'm going to restrict my analysis to tech-related careers.

I began with a self-congratulatory Twitter victory lap:

Zoho - "There’s a much larger pool of people who are being overlooked"

But soon, I was treated to something far more humbling. In the midst of putting together this semi-rant, I found myself at a Zoho-hosted dinner mixer for analysts, influencers, and Zoho employees. During his dinner remarks, Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu spoke eloquently about why Zoho doesn't require degrees when they hire.

Zoho takes it even further: they hire talented high school graduates and train them. Zoho University, founded in India, and soon to be coming to the U.S. via a new Zoho University campus in Austin, gives recruits the training to hit the ground running (Note: the Austin campus is NOT open yet - look for an announcement, including class details, in a few months). About fifteen percent of all Zoho's hires come through Zoho University.

As Vembu told us, this is nothing new for Zoho. They've been hiring with a talent-over-degrees attitude since they started 22 years ago. Another Zoho employee spoke passionately to me about how some of the best hires don't have college degrees. They learned a whatever-it-takes discipline while supporting their families early in life. A hunger to learn and grow beats a paper credential, he said to me.

For Vembu, learning on the job is NOT about putting junior people in situations where they are in over their heads (a notorious misstep by services firms that customers never appreciate). It's about putting well-trained young people in a position to have impact. From there, Zoho's customer needs drive skills growth. Vembu:

We don’t teach business; we do business. We can’t just teach technical skills, you have to do it, to provide deep value for users. You can’t copy the skills for email application development, to let’s say, an accounting application. Our talent feels personally invested in their area of expertise. If four years of college degree makes them an expert, then how much more valuable is someone who has learned and grown on the job for ten years?

In a 2017 interview, Vembu said the tech industry's talent pool is way too narrow:

The tech industry goes after a narrow pool of “proven” talent. If a person worked for Microsoft, Amazon or Google, [they are] considered highly capable. As a result, you have a system that competes over the same few candidates and they jump around a lot. This leads to the supposed shortage in tech talent. There’s a much larger pool of people who are being overlooked by traditional recruiting methods.

Tech talent shortages are exacerbated by a failure of hiring imagination. College degree requirements are a big reason why talent gets locked out. Vembu:

Many underprivileged students in India, for example, don’t have college degrees and are just as capable as more “proven” talent.

Yep, and you don't have to go to India to see this play out. I had plenty of friends in Oklahoma that got locked out, bogged down in obligations and stymied by degree requirements of questionable relevance.

From Twitter beefs to the ideal tech profile

Twitter reactions pushed into the skills a well-rounded/modern tech pro really needs. Naomi Bloom, who knows a thing or two about HR, chimed in:

That led us to foundational skills: is a bachelor's degree the best way to measure that?

Virtually all of today's formal curriculums are going to miss something: a liberal arts degree won't expose you to enough coding and tech. A tech program might be lighter on ethics, critical thinking or communication skills. A big question is: what skills require immersion - and which can you learn as you go?

Bloom also raised the question of tech training and certifications beyond degrees. Depending on the rigor of the certification, I'm much more bullish on that:

Tom White summed up the core of a great tech career:

Which brings us to my ideal tech skill set:

In fairness, you can't really reduce all tech professionals to the same skills. I probably should have added something about process/industry knowledge in there, and maybe design/agile.

Twitter blew this up again today, this time sparked by Clay Christensen's prediction that 1/2 half of today's universities are going to go away, disrupted by online education. I'm not sure it's that simple, but a shake-up of higher education is welcome. That's a topic for another day.

For now, I'm glad to see stringent degree requirements are loosening for (some) tech roles. That won't totally cure what ails us, as you'll see from Brian Sommer's upcoming installments in his recruiting opus.

Updated Sept 7, 7am ET with a few tweaks for reading clarity and additional resource links.

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