Should You Hire Self-Taught Programmers?

By Caroline Roberson on June 9, 2022

If you need to hire a new programmer, software engineer, or computer scientist, it may be time to rethink your Ivy League degree requirement. Despite soaring unemployment in many job categories, unemployment rates for tech jobs have actually dropped (to 2.5%) since the pandemic started.

With college costs skyrocketing and most classes going virtual, more coding enthusiasts are likely to take their education into their own hands. And they have lots of options to choose from.

Kahn Academy, Code Academy,, and dozens of other virtual learning sites and bootcamps offer free or cheap ways to learn how to code, giving a generation of kids a fast- track to coding careers while they remain socially distanced.

And chances are when they complete their self-led education, employers will be fighting to hire them.

Five years ago, that would have been a ludicrous statement to make. Companies have historically included a four-year degree from a top university as a minimum requirement for hiring tech experts. That left many brilliant self-taught programmers struggling to find work, regardless of their impressive talents.

This talent shortage isn’t just affecting tech companies. Technology and internet related positions are in hot demand across all industries, because customers expect every brand to deliver the same consumer-quality digital experiences that they get from Amazon, Netflix, and Apple.

But in the past two years, the tech industry has changed its point of view on the value of the self-taught whiz kid. In 2018, both Google and Apple announced that they no longer required four-year degrees from their hires. IBM, Oracle, Facebook, Pinterest, and other major software companies quickly followed suit.

“There’s a growing emphasis on skills over school as they compete for top talent,” Laura Lorenzetti, an editor at LinkedIn told MarketWatch about this trend “Companies are taking experience as seriously as a four-year college degree.”

That experience may be a better measure of their future success.

In an environment where continuous learning is a requirement of the job, self-taught programmers offer proof that they are passionate about their education. These hires didn’t just go through the motions of completing a four-year degree. Every hour they spent online, learning a new coding language, or solving programming challenges, was driven by their own ambition and desire to learn. That’s a valuable asset in a world where the latest coding skillset is obsolete in a few years.

Opening your recruiting process to these candidates also makes it easier to find and hire more diverse candidates with great skills.

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5 steps to hiring self-taught programmers

The trick for recruiters is figuring out how to draw these candidates into their pipeline, and to vet them fairly against candidates with four-year degrees. To do that, they have to change the entire vetting process. Here’s how:

  1. Update your automated resume scanner. Most scanning tools automatically dump resumes that don’t mention a degree from a specific university. If you don’t change these settings, you might miss out on amazing applicants who taught themselves to code.
  2. Focus on what they accomplished not where they learned their craft. When vetting tech experts, ask to see what they’ve done. Look for examples of code they’ve written, problems they’ve solved, and questions they’ve answered in discussions at coding sites like GitHub and StackOverflow. Relevant volunteer work or personal coding projects also offer insight into their abilities and passion.
  3. Assess their hard and soft skills. Invite applicants to complete a pre-employment assessment to understand their core traits and abilities, then ask them to complete specific coding challenges. This will give you a clear picture of whether they have both the technical and collaboration skills needed to thrive on your team.
  4. Ask real coding questions. In interviews, ask candidates how they would tackle a common coding problem and have an internal expert vet their response. Look for proof they have a strong understanding of the language, as well as good collaboration skills.
  5. Reach out to local bootcamps and code academies for recommendations. Just like professors in university programs, these instructors will be eager to connect you with their best candidates.

Once you stop assuming great programmers only come from top-notch universities you’ll immediately expand your talent pool and uncover great people with a lot of passion for their work.

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