When he was 15, Shlomo Zippel got his first job programming. And that was pretty much the end of his academic career.
“I had an arrangement with the principal — as long as I showed up for tests and did well in them, he wouldn’t tell my parents that I wasn’t at school,” recalls Zippel. “Instead of getting on the school bus every morning I got on a normal bus that took me to the office I worked at.” Zippel, who lived in Israel at the time, was developing software used by all major banks in the country plus Reuters Israel.
At 17, the hourly rate Zippel was making for coding was higher than his parents’. “My dad is a surgeon,” Zippel says. “This might say more about how little doctors are paid in Israel though.”
The tech world is filled with famous dropouts. David Karp, for instance, ditched high school at 15 and never graduated. Instead, he created Tumblr, which he later sold to Yahoo for $1 billion. Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard University in his sophomore year, mirroring another famous Harvard dropout, Bill Gates. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel has also been a vocal critic of college, famously offering selected students $100,000 to drop out of college and instead focus on developing their ideas.
Michael Solomon, founder of 10X Management, which represents about 80 coders, notes that many of them don’t have degrees or didn’t major in computer science. “One of the biggest issues with post-secondary education in the technology industry is it’s ability to keep a curriculum current and at the cusp of technology,” says Erik Zuuring, a 10X programmer who dropped out of college. “Just in the web-sphere, trends and technology change on a monthly basis.”
“You can get a computer science degree and after four years you’re $100,000 in debt and you still don’t know everything you need to code,” says Jordyn Lee, a rep for SkilledUp, a self-styled curator of online and alternative education sources. Zippel says he’s also run across comp sci graduates who couldn’t code. “When I was 17 there was a new employee in the company, fresh out of a CS degree. I was shocked when he didn’t really know how to program. I remember that’s when I decided I probably wouldn’t go to school. What is the point?”
The four-year computer science degree has its defenders, too, of course. Don Burks, head instructor of Lighthouse Labs, a Vancouver-based programming boot camp, says the people who create the next version of Windows or OSX or the next Android phone likely studied computer science. “It’s fantastic if you’re going to become a computer scientist,” he says, referring to a comp sci degree. “But for someone who wants to build websites, SaaS products or work on startups, what they need at that point is a practical understanding.”
Beyond that, though, a deep understanding of computer science can help you become a better programmer, says Yuri Niyazov, a Ruby on Rails expert. “I happen to think that this new movement of ‘techies don’t need education’ is really dangerous,” he says. “Sure, in my professional experience, when I’ve been asked to build a ‘yet another Rails app that brings the contents of a database into a browser’ then someone who just read a book is probably just as good as I am. However when time comes to fix the database, or the browser, or any other number of tools involved in the process, the theoretical underpinnings of computer science became quite important.”
As Danny Sleator, professor of computer science and the coach of our programming teams at Carnegie Mellon, one of the nation’s top computer science schools, acknowledges, “there’s a lot of stuff [we] teach that you may not end up running in to…but you might.”
That may seem a faint promise to justify the $100,000-plus cost of a four-year degree. Not surprisingly, many of those with an affinity for coding are opting for alternatives to a traditional degree, like online courses and boot camps.
The former seem a viable alternative except for one thing: Their woeful completion rate. According to SkilledUp, only 5% of people who sign up for an online course finish it to completion. If you pay for a course, the figure doubles.
Boot camps have a much higher completion rate — 90%. Relatedly, they demand a much bigger commitment. Because they require your physical presence, you sometimes have to move to attend them. The cost also range as high as $36,000 though the average is a lot lower and some programs will even pay you to attend, if you’re accepted. An exhaustive list of the dozens of boot camp programs can be found here.
They don’t call them boot camps for nothing, though. Lighthouse, for instance, is an eight-week program of 10- to 12-hour days that will cost you $8,000. The placement rate is 100%, but you’re only going to make about $500 a week or about $25,000 a year for a three-month coop position. After that, salaries range from $45,000 to $80,000, Burks says. (CodeFellows, another boot camp program guarantees you a job making at least $60,000 after you graduate.)
Such programs are viewed as an entry point for junior positions where you can work your way up. Solomon’s 10X coders, who can make up to $300 or so per hour, usually have more than five years of full-time coding experience.
From there, you could, of course, found a startup and become fabulously wealthy or just make a decent living as a programmer. However, you’ll be facing off against graduates from top computer science schools who — regardless of their level of coding proficiency — may get job offers that you don’t. “The downside of going to school is that it takes more time and it’s also expensive,” says Sleator. On the other hand, “Our students get a lot of the real plum jobs. I don’t think it’s easy for someone coming out of a [boot camp] program to get a job at Google.”