When Intel introduced the 8008 microprocessor in 1972 I was working my way through college as an electronics technician, but for fun had learned to program in a number of languages, including Univac 1108 assembly. The company was desperate for anyone with assembly language skills of any sort, so made me an engineer to help get a new microprocessor-based system done.
That was a perfect case of being in the right place at the right time.
Such serendipity is rare, though. Most of us get the "engineer" moniker only after a long slog through the university. Today, few companies are interested in any engineer-applicant who doesn't have at least a BS degree in a relevant technical area like computer science or electrical engineering. That's at least a four-year endeavor.
Armed with the degree, one is competent to, well, learn. It's amazing how many of us quickly forget most of what we learned in college. How many EEs can still manipulate Maxwell's equations with aplomb? Or solve a differential equation?
Ironically, we may remember the fruits of the liberal arts classes best of all! I can still remember Kafka's and Descartes' work, but had to relearn calculus to help my son in his senior high school year.
I get an awful lot of email from folks who want to break into the embedded field. So much so that I wrote an always-evolving paper about it. But lately some of the emails have changed. People are asking how they can become a developer without getting a degree, or with a completely unrelated degree (accounting, literature, etc). Frankly, I don't think that's possible anymore except in the most unusual circumstances.
Every job offering lists a degree requirement. Acronym scanners gleefully deployed by HR delete any resume that doesn't exactly match minimum requirements. That's an absurd way to evaluate individuals, but is a somewhat understandable reaction to the deluge of low-quality resumes that flood out of sites like monster.com.
Some people tell me they're willing to work as an intern or apprentice to hone their skills or to prove their degree-less skills to an employer. Such opportunities are rare (other than programs for college students). And once you're working cheap any incentive to boost your pay disappears.
Some engineers argue that a degree is a meaningless bit of paper that's just an entrance ticket to the profession. I disagree; most of my education has been valuable in one way or another, from those hated three years of high school Latin to circuit theory. Yes, a lot has been useless. I still have no idea what abstract algebra was all about, and the nuns failed miserably trying to beat proper penmanship into me. But I do use some of the math and more of the engineering learned in college.
There are alternative ways to get that knowledge, and I think that culling resumes by degree does a terrible disservice to people with alternative educations. But I can't imagine how to make the system fairer.
What do you think? Are there alternative paths to engineering that don't require a degree?
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.ganssle.com.
Ya, I agree with you but in addition now a days even a person holding an Engineer degree needs some additional Certificates if they want make out in software ex: Cisco Certification, MCSE,etc.So, getting a degree is not sufficient but also some other certifications say small diplomas are also necessary
- Vijaykumar Thota
While I was in the college to earn my degree in engineering, a professor said something that I never forgot and changed my way in thinking about the college time. What he said was "If you ever thought that the engineering college is gonna make you an engineer then you are wrong. The engineering college will only give you the way to think as an engineer. Being an engineer is done after the college." This quote gave me a new way to think of the study and what is excpected from me after I graduate. So if an employer wants someone with an engineering degree then what is required is a person that most probably will think like an engineer will think.
- shereef ibrahim
I hope it is impossible for the degreeless to get into this field. I worked hard for my degree with many years of studying and 50 thousand dollars in school loans. I dont want some one just coming in with an interest in the field and getting a well paying job.
- Anthony Garza
I do not recommend getting an engineering job without a 4 year degree. As stated in Jack's article there are exceptions, and I am one of them (I'm working for a Fortune 500 company). It has been a very painful career progression and took nearly 10 years. But I started as a technician and had to work full time. I wanted to go the degree route while I worked, but because our local universities would not give me any credits from my AS degree I choose to keep on plugging away. Boy do I wish there was a Devry University close by! Maybe the answer is to get the Universities to stop being so elite and work with the folks who have been in the trenches for years. I could have had my degrees years ago. I take exceptions to the folks out there who say "I hope it is impossible for the degreeless to get into this field". Throughout my career I have had exceptional performance reviews and can keep up with the degree folks. It seems like these elites think like we took a short cut. NOTHING could be further from the truth!
- Rick Policy
I can tell you this. That scrap of paper we call a degree is important. However, I believe that it is not what you learn ... but that you have earned it. There is enormous resistance by degreed people to hire non-degree people. This is because of that old 'paid the dues' argument.
I can also tell you this. In the many years as a professional embedded consultant, the one thing that I have used the most is: How to master any subject in 10 weeks or less. I believe this has much to do with that 'cram' curriculum that was offered at UC Berkeley than anything else.
Just about everything else ... I forgot!
- Ken Wada
What's on your mind?
What I think many degree-less folks miss is that the degree isn't the end point, it's the *starting* point. The "piece of paper" only demonstrates that a proper foundation has been laid, from which a skilled engineer *may* emerge. Sure, there are degreed people who make less-than-stellar engineers. The question is, how many people can forego the fundamentals taught in a degree program and still become well-rounded professionals? That number is surely low (I have yet to meet one).
- John Hopson
Depends on what kind of engineering you want your non-degreed person doing. Do you want a non-degree in optics, modeling, simulation, circuit synthesis, or image processing, where the math is intensive? I think not. Or do you want a non-degree in something else less math intensive. Some people might not have had the time or money for whatever reason to get a degree. If a person has the aptitude and skill set to fill a less math intensive area of engineering then it might be okay. But me personally, I tend to agree that a person holding a degree should be considered over those without the degree. e.
- Steve King
"What do you think? Are there alternative paths to engineering that don't require a degree?" -Jack
As for learning and studying engineering per se, I think engineering can be learned without the blessing of an institution nor degree. Yes it is very difficult but THERE IS. Books books and loads of books. But more importantly the passion for learning has to go along with it. As for landing a job, that is the harder part. With that said, I maintain that there is an alternative path for engineering aside from the usual degree-grabbing technique.
As for the job, hiring on a degree-basis is a law-of-averages application. And since there are so many degree holders, they often get picked rather than those without. Were there none, I bet you all the jobs will go to the hobbyists without degrees.
I too took an engineering course but have found many of my colleagues did not even want to be engineers. No passion, no drive, therefore no fruit. On the other hand hobbyists cannot be hobbyists without that passion. For crying out loud, engineering too is an empirical form of "hobbyisting" (for lack of better term.). Though a degree holder, I am quite sad that some people can easily bar the gates of embedded engineering for non-degree holders. Such subtle form of descrimination puts this "defy-the-limits" industry backwards.
As for non-degreed hobbyists, I hope they try to institutionalize their learnings by getting a degree or diploma. This piece of paper in my opinion, is primarily just for landing THE JOB. But as far as cut-throat engineering is concerned, design and develop kinda stuff, I still give it to any hobbyist. Be he an engineer with a degree or one without.
- Gauvin Repuspolo
Degree Certificate is Just to Show Off.. Imagination thrills and Imagination is more Important than Knowledge.
- AJ N
Jack, to repeat my response to the earlier article "Who needs a degree?" (July, 2005).
This debate has a fairly obvious conclusion, and pertains to all human endeavours. People educated in the theory of a subject but lacking in practical experience have a weakness, as do people with practical experience but no formal education in the subject (people often copy bad practices as well as good). It is a well established principle that education combined with sound practical experience is the answer. Why should engineering be any different?
N.B. My advice to anyone having a degree in English, but working in an engineering environment, is to use their skills to read some good books on engineering.
- Martin Allen
A degree, while important in engineering isn't everything. I think of Mikhail Kalashnikov, arguably the greatest firearm designer in history. He had no degree, but used intense interest in his problem and confidence in himself to will his design to success.
Even though I am degreed, I am inspired by people like him. I use it to remind myself that a degree is no guarantee of success or engineering greatness. It can help of course, but I always remember that the same traits that MK had (tenacity, focus, self confidence in the face of doubters, and unwavering desire for the optimal solution), must be cultivated continuously to produce greatness.
- B Dow
I would agree that if an entry level programmer does not have a degree it would be tough for an HR person to separate horses n pigs. Looking at the papers.
But, aren't entrance exams just for that ?
The HR could consider a subject GRE score or any such standard score which demands a well-rounded study of the subject ( depending on the different electives required ). In India we have the GATE exam or the NCST 's G-level exam. These could be very dependable scales to measure the knowledge of non-degree applicants.
This will also push the candidate to go that extra mile and get the background study done, which these exams need to score something respectable.
I too have a similar background Rick Policy, and even my experience has been somewhat similar , getting a degree is the shortcut and not the otherway round :-D.
But knowledge and degree are different things. If someone wants to be an embedded engineer, he could concentrate on reading up, computer architecture, microcontrollers, microprocessor architecture, circuit theory , and programming. The next step is to buy an eval board and learn the different aspects of board-bringup, BSPs, understanding the hardware issues involved in bringing one up to life. Dreaming a lot and trying to find a solution to every question in your mind.
Because, when you study for yourself, no one can judge you. A failed interview will only mean more questions in your mind, to be answered, more books to be read, more discussions with the knowledgable ones.
I myself have gained a lot of help from
Jack's paper , "how to become an embedded geek". and papers on coding standards and discipline.
Besides this, books like :
"Designing Embedded Hardware" -John Catsoulis
"Programming Embedded Systems" - Micheal Barr
(ofcourse the Arcom board was obnoxiously priced and so i couldnt buy it then !!). But helped me gain a lot of passion and enthusiasm for the subject and helped start a beautiful journey in embeddedland!!.
- Sachin Panemangalore
Re. Rick Policy's reply:
Rick, I've walked in your shoes, but I have to disagree with you.
My parent's had no money to send me to college (not that I knew what I wanted to do at that point, anyhow) so I enlisted in the Marine Corps for four years to help sort things out. After my tour of duty was up, as it was the beginning of the Reagan years and there was no true GI Bill nor unemployment insurance available for veterans, I immediately went to work as a technician and enrolled myself in an AS program at my local junior college.
About halfway through that program I decided that what I really wanted was a career in engineering. As I was already established in life, looking to buy a house, etc, taking out massive student loans to live the life of a full-time student was NOT an option. Thus began MY ten-year slog through the university system, commuting back and forth from work to classes to work again until that day I finally EARNED that coveted bachelor's degree.
I do get annoyed sometimes when I come across people who just "fell into" engineering work. While I have worked with a few very talented folks who didn't possess technical degrees, fundamentals are fundamentals, and I am secure in the knowledge that if I come across some task which I am unfamiliar with, I have the background to properly research it, something the non-degreed folks may not have.
- Debi Cole
I must also speak for those lacking degrees. I wish I had one, it would have saved me much grief and earned me much more money. However, I achieved Engineering Manager by 35 so I'm not average either way.
I love physics, that's the key.
"Learn how to learn and then study every day!"
- Robert O'Brien
Maybe I'm the exception, but if I count the "best" developers (hardware and software) I work(ed) with, I get a 3:1 ratio in favor of the non-degreed (I have a BSCS for reference... :-).
I've been fortunate to work in 'emerging' technologies for the last ~15+ years (video games, the first MP3 players, consumer electronics, "home" computers,etc.) so maybe the gifted non-degreed engineers tend to congregate in the more (IMHO) bleeding edge product niches where thinking on your feet and getting the job done in creative ways is more important that what grade they got in Advanced Datastructures. ;-)
Back when I was running a firmware/software development department I too ran ads looking for "BSEE, BSCS, or equivalent required", but my most innovative and highly valued engineers were usually internally referred/hand-picked "friend of a friend" that more often than not were without any college letters on their resume.
When I talk to my associates at more traditional businesses (HP, Apple, Intel, etc.) you'd be hard pressed to get an interview, much less get hired without a degree. I don't know that that really does the company any favors, but it's a "safe" way to meet the minimum requirements. You know at least in a "bare minimum" sort of way what kind of experience someone has that's come out of a four-year engineering school.
(The problem with that approach being it will filter out the occasional hyper-productive, self taught, degreeless wunderkind. Give me one great coder over three average ones anyday. :-)
- Clay Cowgill
I view anyone with a degree as suspect, the more advanced the degree the more worthless the Engineer. BS may be okay, MS should be viewed suspiciously, PHD is completely worthless, and PE isn't fit to empty the waste cans.
This theory is born out because who with any intelligence or motivation would spend that much time in school, racking up huge loans, for a job that pays between $70K to $120K, and will at the first chance be sent to a country where the "degreed" engineers, are first taught how to answer a phone, and work for pennies on the dollar.
Nope, I look for the hobbyist, people who are motivated by that horrible affliction "curiosity". Schools are not providing a foundation for these kids they come out idiots who think they know something, but the guy who plays around with his own projects, is the one I want to hire! You can keep the worthless degree.
- Chris Gates
If anyone has read Steve Wozniak's recent autobiography this is a perfect example of a non-degreed engineer creating the most innovative company still around today. Obviously times are different now, but companies need to start recognizing the talent and rewarding it instead of looking at strictly what college or degree someone holds. Just think how different things would be today if Wozniak had stayed at HP and become trapped within the corporate environment. No Apple, no Mac, no iPod. Just stop and think what the world would be like if we all had to become mindless slaves to Bill Gate's mediocre vision.
- Phil McDermott
The old joke is appropriate here:
"What do they call the guy who graduates last in his class at medical school?"
I have worked with plenty of developers (and have members on my staff) who have no degree in engineering. If they *do* have a degree in engineering, most have little background in computer science. They just learned C because there were jobs in programming.
But try to take on the hard problems. Do you want to hand-hold through writing a parser? How 'bout explaining fundamental data structures for the Nth time. Speaking of N, how about trying to explain big-O notation.
You don't want a doctor who doesn't have experience in the fundamentals of his craft. Yet in my 20 years as a paid software engineer, I've never seen a team staffed entirely with well-trained & capable people because they're very hard to find and very expensive.
- Paul Kurmas
At one point in my career, I would have thought a degree wasn't needed if you had the determination to study like a maniac. I remember ever so clearly saying to an MSEE I was working with while a technician "I can design anything I want with my AASEET, that's all I need".
As the years have gone by, I now realize that the more you know, the more you know what you don't know!
Because of this truth, after 17 years with an associates degree, I'm going back to school - AS A FRESHMAN - and get the BSEE, and then a year or two for the MSEE.
It's nice to know what the next 15 years of your life will contain, and sleep surely isn't one of them.....
- Ed Starkey
A properly taught engineering course and curriculum build knowledge brick by brick, without any gaps or omissions of subtleties that can trip you up later. While there is no substitute for practical experience, that alone usually leads to those gaps. Of course, not all courses and curricula meet this ideal, but they are more likely to do so then an education based sloely on experience where you are likely not to know what you haven't experienced. Education and experience build on one another; the combination almost always beats one alone.
- Francis Grosz
I worked at an automotive electronics supplier in the mid-90s. They looked at the trend of increasing functionality in cars, the number for sw engineers they had, and how hard it was to find a sw engineer before the Internet bubble burst. They realized they wouldn't be able to hire enough engineers. So they worked with SMU, Purdue and a local technical college to create an embedded training program. It consisted of assembly, C, automotive systems training and systems/software engineering. You got your full salary while going to school for 6 months. It wasn't that much of a leap for me w/ my BSEE, but there were others throughout the four (?) cycles they did who were MEs and accountants! In fact, one of the best sw engineers I've worked with so far was originally an ME. (Hi, Judy!)
I have to admit, that was some forward thinking on the part of my employer.
- Ed Hoog
I think if you are not willing to get a degree it shows you are a rogue cowboy type that will not fit in the common engineering environment. You could start your own company and possibly do very well but being an engineer will most likely not be a good fit for you. I fit this description. Went from technician to engineer - making less all through it all. I know more about more things but less about process/standard methods. And those parts are what I hate about engineering. So take business and marketing classes and get a degree in that while learning electronics on your own.
- Barry Klein
Lets compare degrees with those from India. Potential engineers can pay $75 per year for schooling there. Some of these guys are best engineers I have met. Some engineers from top colleges are shockingly bad.
Personally, I have had the title of engineer for the last 12 years although my degree was from SoHK (School of Hard Knocks). As a technician for the previous decade, I had watched others and learned what NOT to do. I was very heavily involved in electronics from an early age. I did start the EE program at the local university but ran out of money.
The company I work for is changing and my new boss values the degree more than results. I have proved time and again that his degreed pets are lacking some basic design skills (he has me checking their work) but since I have no degree, he's planning a demotion to 'technical associate'. In the mean time I've already stated a new job.
People who want to jump into engineering sooner or later will wish they had a degree. For one thing, it greatly increases your salary. Here I am at close to 50 years old and considering going back to college at night.
- Happy Camper
Some of the best inventive people have had little or no schooling, but they managed to do their work effectively. Although his era was different, if you had the chance to hire Tom Edison today, would you dump his resume simply because he didn't go to college?
I think that it is more difficult today to get into engineering without the degree, but the degree is no indicator of competence at work. I've known degreed people who were barely capable of ordering lunch, and HS graduates who I would trust with the most complex tasks around. You really don't know until you hire someone and watch him work a while. I think that a person with drive, ambition and an ability to learn is more important than how many letters he (or she) can append to a name.
- Tom Mazowiesky
Many fields are unfriendly to those who are self-taught. For example, teaching. Who would trust their kids to a teacher who didn't invest enough time and resources to become a college graduate?
Classical music is another field where self-taught is not well regarded. Union rules call for blind auditions where each person seeking a post in a major orchestra plays behind a screen so that the only criteria is how well they play that day. However, a musician is not invited to audition for a major orchestra without a university or concervatory degree or a notable teacher's recommendation (and probably both).
Jazz is a little less formal. Traditionally, musicians show up at the jam session and show their stuff. Some pretty famous jazz greats had great formal training (Thelonius Monk went to Julliard), while others like Miles Davis may have started a formal program, and then exited to make their way building on other influences or their own talent. Many musicians are proud to say they don't read music, but without that training, I guess they can't write music either. Jelly-Roll Morton didn't invent Jazz, but is considered to be the first to write it down and his formal training gave him one more tool to cement his legacy.
Think also of the fictional job of Jedi Knight (my kids do and seem never to stop talking about them). It seems like a pretty complicated job with a lot of practice and repetition and a lot of demonstration and coaching from a more experienced hand. Embedded software development is equally complicated, although the apprentice model is seldom used.
Although there are many disfunctional losers among college professors, many can actually be great mentors and role models. Students who go four years without being close to at least one teacher need to consider that in the context of their career plans. Without finding a master in the realtively easy-going collegial setting, how can you get a cash-incentived manager to promote your pay and position?
An engineer with a degree has a lot of things we consider important when we buy branded products. Someone has done the quality control (at least if the degree is from an accredited and/or well reputed school). When I graduated, campus career services had us give a copy of our transcript to potential employers so they knew the ingredients. Even without the transcript, employers can find out what the degree requires. There is a measure of quantity of training (BS, MS, PhD), and a date to show how fresh. In some cases, a student might come with recommendations from a professor which may carry real weight. I had a professor who was department chair and an IEEE fellow, had seen thousands of students, why wouldn't I interview anyone he sent me?
A few years ago, feeling the conformity pressure from working for a fairly large company, I asked one of the more senior engineers I knew if he thought Thomas Edison could ever get or keep a job with our company. Of course the answer was no. Edison couldn't do anything without a startup then or now. But the conformity is a part of engineering. We follow standards both for products and processes (CMM/ISO 9000) for which academic training are probably pretty good preparation. We work with fairly large extended teams, so the years of class room instruction and exams where vocabulary and basic techniques are drilled and integrated into more complex methods can also be valuable.
If you dropped out of school because you couldn't stand arbitrary or stupid demands from professors, guess what? You will find very similar problems in almost every company. If you put up and delivered the goods to excell in college, you must be at least a little bit hardened to the bureacracy and having a lot of bosses telling you what to do and checking your work.
As an employer, bringing on a worker is a big commitment that I want to see reciprocated. If you stuck to it for four years on any degree, it boost my confidence that maybe you will stick to the job long enough for my company to start making money on you.
If you keep getting degree after degree (MS, then PhD), I know you are pretty energetic, value your future, and are building toward your potential. You are definitely among the elite 1% if you have a PhD, so expect to be placed higher in the organization and assigned the problems that need deeper understanding. Some of my closest friends have PhDs and mostly they are the last ones fired, move easily between jobs, have good or great compensation, and on average, get more recognition and more interesting work than the rest of us.
If you are working as an engineer without a degree, beware. Younger software engineers with formal training will want you to know as much new stuff as they know before you can tell them what to do (i.e. as a manager, project lead, or even just a peer). They may speak a different language, although you can learn a lot it from Embedded Systems Design magazine. These guys rise fast and you should be prepared for the consequences of their becoming your boss which may include getting side-lined on less desireable projects or shifted out of development or even the team or company. Not always fair, but frequently real.
If, in the shifting fortunes of our industry you find yourself cold calling on companies asking for a new job, it will be a tough row to hoe. Unless it is physically impossible, get yourself back to school on a track that will give you a degree. If you can hold your own at work in development job, you will find that your work ethic and intelligence will allow you to easily complete with the average young college student.
Also, consider this. A few years ago when I had a check up with a Physician's assistant and described stress and anxiety about my job, she advised I go back for an advanced degree. She said that even if it didn't help me keep my current job, it would help impress potential employers of my energy and drive. I think it is a big benefit if you start the degree well before you looking for the job.
In the words of financial commentator and popular culture icon Ben Stein, "investments in human capital come first". You may be building a great 401K, might own vacation or rental property, but those investments can seldom beat the cost in time and tuition for a degree that helps you keep or advance your career. A college degree is so worth it that you should beg, borrow, or steal to get one or to help someone you care about get one.
- John Wilson
Re. Debi Cole :
Debi, I very much appreciate your tenacity and perseverance towards getting the degree. Well, I have a question on your comment:
"I am secure in the knowledge that if I come across some task which I am unfamiliar with, I have the background to properly research it, something the non-degreed folks may not have."
I agree, the probability of someone who does not have a Bachelor's degree not having the same visibility is higher than you. Now lets apply induction here.
Had you not given your final exam and not got the bachelor's degree, would it mean you do have the background to solve the issue ? In other words, the degree in the receipt of the transaction of knowledge but may not be proof.
The student may want to get the degree earlier and may select electives which are more muggable or may not require mathematical background. There are shortcuts everywhere. There are people who take these shortcuts and hence I could put it this way.
"Having worked my way up in the
industry and being challenged at every
nook and corner has forced me to build
a strong tehcnological background,
which people having degrees May not
Again...its a "May" - sounds ridiculous doesnt it!!
The reason for your Annoyance may be because of a pressumption that
the person who "just fell" would have had a jolly easy time, while
someone else was slogging their way through to get a degree.
- Sachin Panemangalore
Desire and intelligence can be enough, but they make for a slowly advancing career. I know an excellent software engineer that has only an Animal Husbandry degree (he used to be a professional rodeo rider), but it took him about a decade to get where a college grad might in a few years.
- Chris Pilla
I started out in the Air Force in 1975 as a Navigations systems technician while also completing a 2 year CIE course. I attended 4 years of engineering college but got hired as an Engineer before I could complete my last few classes. I had been eating egg sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 3 years to stay in school. I never got to go back and finish because my career took off like a rocket to Mars.
I was born to be an Engineer. I was fixing vacuum tube TV's and radios when I was 11.
I have gone back to school 4 times in the last 25 years. Each time it requires more years to finish what could have been finished in 6 month. Now days, 3 semesters of Chemistry and Physics are not required. Static's and Dynamics are not required. The higher math is not required.
The last time I submitted my 154 hours of college classes to a university, 56 hours were accepted. Colleges just want to suck the life and money out anyone that wants to finish a degree at their school.
It is possible to get into Engineering without a degree. You just have to have the talent and love the work. You have to be willing to work twice as hard for a lot less pay. Learn what you need and then start your own business. With your own business, you are in control and your success depends on your dedication to the field.
I have had my own consulting business for 21 years now. I have patents and have spent 25 years working at the bleeding edge of technology. I will take on anything and have never failed to finish above and beyond expectations. I have been at the top, and choose to go back to what I love to do, invent something new.
But I still run into discrimination because I don't have the BSEE. I have a wall full of diplomas from schools here and there, but they don't count in the eyes of the degreed Engineers. I even get the "You can't do hardware and software!" crap. I get that from the Engineers that spent 20 years in the same safe job and never tried to do anything new.
You can achieve anything you want if it is what you love to do. Just be prepared to face the discrimination when times are hard. I have stood in the unemployment line with tens of thousands of engineers that have degrees all the way up to PhD's. There are always those corporate bulk layoffs to control Engineering salaries and you will suffer 10 times more than a degreed Engineer because you will be the last to find a job.
- Bill M