Who Needs a Degree? - Embedded.com

Who Needs a Degree?

Some engineers are plodders. They just don't get it. Sure, they can crank some C or design a bit of logic but their creations are leaden, devoid of style, crude, slow and just not elegant .

Then you have the superstars, those few who establish a mind-meld with the code or electronics. Have you ever worked with one? When the system doesn't work and mysterious bugs baffle all of our efforts, up comes the guru who sniffs, licks his finger and touches a node, and immediately discovers the problem. We feel like idiots; he struts off in glory.

Who are these guys, anyway? An astonishing number of 'em have “unusual” academic credentials. Take my friend Don. He went off to college at age 18, for the first time leaving his West Virginia home behind. A scholarship program lined his pockets with cash, enough to pay for tuition, room, and board for a full year. Cash – not a safer University credit of some sort for tuition and living expenses.

A semester later he was out, expelled for non-payment of all fees and total academic failure, with an Animal House GPA of exactly 0.0. The cash turned into parties, the parties interfered with attending class. His one chance at a sheepskin collapsed, doomed by the teenage immaturity that all of us simply must muddle through.

Today he's a successful engineer. He managed to apprentice himself to a startup, and to parley that job into others where his skills showed through, and where enlightened bosses valued his design flair despite the handicap of no degree.

Another acquaintance breezed through MIT on a full scholarship. Graduating with a feeling that his prestigious scholarship made him oh-so-very special, he went to work in the aerospace industry. To his shock and horror, his company put him on the production line for six months to rivet airplanes together. This outfit put all new engineers in production to teach them the difference between theory and practicality. He came out of the experience with a new appreciation for what works and for the problems associated with manufacturing.

What an enlightened way to introduce new graduates to the harsh realities of the physical world!

Experience is a critical part of the engineering education, one that's pretty much impossible to impart in the environment of a university. You really don't know much about programming till you've completely hosed a 10,000 line project, and you know little about hardware till you've designed, built, and somehow troubleshot a complex board. We're still much like the blacksmith of old, who started his career as an apprentice, and who ends it working with apprentices, training them over the truth of a hot fire. Book learning is very important, but in the end we're paid for what we can do .

In my career I've worked with lots of engineers, most with sheepskins, but many without. Both groups have had winners and losers. The non-degreed folks, though, generally come up a very different path, earning their “engineering” title only after years as a technician. This career path has a tremendous amount of value, as it's tempered in the forge of more hands-on experience than most of their BSEE-laden bosses.

Technicians are masters of making things. They are expert at solderering – a skill far too few engineers ever master. A good tech can burn a PAL, assemble a board, and use a milling machine. The best — those bound for an engineering career — are wonderfully adept troubleshooters, masters of the 'scope. Since technicians spend their lives daily working intimately with circuits, some develop an uncanny understanding of electronic behavior.

In college we learn theory at the expense of practical things. Yet I recently surveyed several graduate engineers and found none could integrate a simple function. None remembered much about the transfer function of a transistor. What happened to all of that hard-learned theory?

Over the years I've hired many engineers with and without their BS degree, and have had some wonderful experiences with very smart, very hard working people who became engineers by the force of their will. Oddly, some of the best firmware folks I've worked with have degrees, but in English! Perhaps clear expression of ideas is universal, whether the language is English or C.

We're in a very young field, where a bit of the anarchy of the Wild West still reigns. More so than in other professions we're judged on our ability and our performance. If you can crank working designs out at warp speed, then who cares what your scholastic record shows?

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. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at His website is .

Reader Feedback:

I enjoyed your article. I dropped out of university 5 years ago for asoftware engineering job. Since then I have worked on some high-profileprojects, and I have 13 staff (most with degrees) under my management.

I believe I made it as far as I have because of three things: creativity,communication skills, and pure determination to succeed.

The quality of my employees has little to do with their degree. It haseverything to do with creativity, common sense thinking, and drive. When Iinterview people, I don't hire the ones who put too much faith in a pieceof paper.

Rod Dueck

JACK REPLIES: As a college drop-out myself, I'd agree. Also, not having that paper means you HAVE to work harder!


All I can say is “It takes two to tango”… If you become part of ateam that is all “scholastic, MIT” type, you're bound to fail. If youbecome part of a team that is all “did-my-schooling-in-the-Army” type,you're also bound to fail. It's just like most other things in life…

A good mix is the only way it will really work out well. Plus, asidefrom the mix of personalities, somebody has to manage them so that theymingle and take advantage of each other's abilities. This is probablythe hardest thing to do!

Too many folks have chips on their shoulders…

The “scholastic, MIT” folks generally think they know everything andthe “did-my-schooling-in-the-Army” folks generally feel like theyhave more “expereince” than anyone else. If a mangager can knock thechip off of these folks' shoulders and then put them all in the samelab together, I guarantee you'll see a successful project!!!


This is inspiring for those who feel inferior to Engineers.

Let me tell you world's richest man – Bill Gates – never graduated, so isthe case with Edison, Tesla…

The syllabus for degree level is far superior than a diploma syllabus.THOUGHT is the powerfull tool in any science and is more refined andsubtle in case of an Engineer than of a technician.

raja sekhar

I worked for 20 years as a technician. I could never make the transistionto engineer until I returned to school and got the sheepskin. I've foundthat the employers in my geographic are are more impressed by credentialsthan actual skill and experience.

Steve Brune
Professional Staff
Compuware Co.

Dear Jack,

I have seen many technicians who have come up in life through sheer hardwork. They can outshine a degree holder with their knowledge. But they allfeel that a degree is what gives their experience solid ground to standon. In competitive industries, the first filter is that piece of paperwhich tells the emloyer that you are eligible for consideration. It's onlyafterwards that your experience is seen as valid. Even if you showexceptional skill at soldering or troubleshooting, you do need grooming inthe theoretical aspects of design, which I feel is what, marks a formalengineer from a practical one. If all engineers tended to being practical,there wouldn't be creativity in the technological world. The four yearcourse in engineering, apart from teaching us to solve equations and plotBode curves, also equips one with the perspective to view things in awider sense and most of all – imagine.

Chary BS
Sr. Tech Lead
Philips Software Center

Jack Replies: I totally agree that in today's world the magic piece of paper is critical,at the very least to make it past the hiring/screening process.

The larger issue you raise – that of gaining a wider perspective – isimportant. I wish the engineering schools required more of a liberal artseducation. Writing skills are important, and only come through practice.Ethics, too is important. We're the people designing things with hugeimpacts on people. Do we tolerate shortcuts?

Would you allow a heart surgeon who never went to medical school tooperate on you? Even if he had done it a 100 times before?Would you fly in an airplane that was designed by assembly line workers,who have been putting in rivets for the past ten years?The answer is, as I suspect, no way!

Well, there is more to building a microwave oven than just knowing how tosolder wires. The engineer is equipped, through college, with that “more”I just mentioned; whereas the tecnician solders the wires. They bothcompliment each other.

College education needs to be re-evaluated and re-assesed though. Timeshave changed, but old fashioned schooling ideas have not. In my years ofelectrical engineering, the only programming course I had to take taughtus bubble sort.

Salah Mahmoud
Electronics Engineer

The Amount of formal educationREQUIRED in a field is usuallyrelated to the liability associatedwith a job function. A degree isjust one simple measure of competancy.

Doctors, Lawyers and Civil Engineersare usually more directly associatedwith the health, safety, and well-beingof the public than electrical engineers,with certain exceptions.

I'm in favor of self-regulation aslong as it is possible – let the free marketand employment at will decide who is to becalled an engineer or who is not.

Robert Campbell
Senior Design Engineer
Rockwell Collins

The degree is irrelevant to having design/architecture and flair with alanguage or architecture. The knowledge imparted by the degree is usefulbut it does not match the skills that are required of a wizard/gurutype. Personaly I don't care what the qualifications of a engineer I onlyask that they can do the job well.

Simon Banks
Staff Software Engineer
Lucent Tech.

I agree on your “last line” concept ………..If you can crank working designs out at warp speed, then who cares whatyour scholastic record shows?

But,If you believe that a guy without a Tech Degree can “crank workingdesigns out at warp speed”,a guy with a Tech Degree can obviously do it @double-the-warp speed.

Of course,I do not mention those Tech guys whom you say :…….Noneremembered much about the transfer function of a transistor..!!!!

Dharmendra Lingaiah
Software Engineer ( DSP )
Cranes Software International Limited

Hi Jack,
Just came across your article “Who needs a degree?” and decided to put inmy two cents. I worked as a RF test technician while going to schoolpart-time for my BSEE. Most of my experience has been in thetest/production/manufacturing area. All the engineers I've met have atleast their B.S. or equivalent degree. Those without that piece of paperare usually called an associate engineer and find it difficult to moveinto management or senior level at the same company or into theengineering department at another company. During my career inengineering, I only met one person that was able to move into a mid-levelmanagement. He was a very persuasive person but admitted that it wouldhave been much easier, it he had gotten that degree.

Judy M. Jiru
Software Engineer
JMAR Research

Hi Jack,

I think that there is also a spectrum of types in the engineering world. Itseems that you are juggling mythologywhen you hold up two opposing archetypesas you do here.

I appreciate that you must use a broadbrush, and I thank you for raising thepoint at all. The difficult questionsstill hold.

How can one make the most of one's back-ground while still bringing home the bacon?The academic-types interested in working fora living must perform and the techniciansmust learn.

Some of the academic types arefrustrated technicians — cash-poor educationalenvironments do that to people — that wantnothing better than to get behind a digitaloscillator and a logic analyzer. Some of thetechnician types would appreciate a lesson ortwo in advanced design theory along with thechance to be humiliated (if mildly) along withother novitiates in pursuit of knowledge.

Luck was mentioned. It seems to me that weneed not be such a product of luck, and as longas we approach it this way, we doom ourselves totechnological irrelevance. When we get beyond luckis when we find that we can become really creative.


Embedded Software Engineer(DSP)

Knowledge, aptitude and committment are more importantthan a degree.

Amit Prakash
Software Engineer(DSP)
SASKEN Communication Tech. Ltd.,Bangalore(India)

I relate very much to Jack's friend Don, although my parties were probably never quite that extreme. 🙂 Indeed, had I been perhaps a few years older at the time,I might have had the wisdom to stick with the agonisingly tedious and inscrutible mathematics that was my academic downfall.

Well, that, and the fact that I was working part-time in an electronics/embedded engineering design company, seeing real-world engineers making real-worldembedded products who'd forgotten how to integrate an equation (at least without reaching for the text books and looking a bit glassy-eyed for a while).

I started at the bottom with a soldering iron, a large bath of ferric chloride, and passion. And then a 'scope, then CAD, then an assembler and in-circuit emulator.Eventually, real world experience became my “qualification”.

I accept without reservation that many fields within engineering (electronics, software or other) require grounding in theory – theory often best learned inacademia. But not all industry segments do. And that's where I 'live'.

It's been my good fortune to have stumbled across employers able and willing to recognise my ability and performance, and judge that it was more thansufficient to their needs. I now sell that experience to my own clients.

I recently caught up with a former 'subordinate' technician I hired about 6 years ago, and was both flattered and saddened when he mentioned that, despiteseveral years in a technical college studying electronics/computers/etc, he still didn't have the foggiest ideas about how to actually go about doing some of thethings I was doing back then (ie. rudimentary embedded systems design).

Perhaps it's just a matter of horses for courses? 12 years past my failed first-year calculus exam, I'm probably at the same place that many of my universitypeers are at – we just took different paths to get here.

Anthony May
Self-employed embedded systems designer

Thanks Jack,
Having raised eyebrows when asked about my pedigree by my associates it's nice to know there are others that recognize a non-standard method ofeducation/experience has some value. I spent 8 years in the Air Force as a Radar Technician. During that time(and after), I was given the opportunity to workwith engineers who helped me develop and sharpen my skills at hardware design and software development. Over the past 16 years I have managed to accrue 3associate degrees and I am inching closer to a B.S. degree in Computer Science. I feel compelled to get this degree for one reason: It's tough to seek newopportunities without a check mark in the B.S. box.

Rob Mayer

Embedded Systems Engineer

The article is very fact focusing and i think we must change our academic studies to more practicalised one,then only we can fill up the gap between collage and company.

prashantherp customiser
wipro fluid power

There's a common theme here with a number of your recent articles – what makes a good engineer, as opposed to a plodder. I believe the answer is that design(whether engineering or programming) is a creative art, and you're either born with the ability or not. You can teach technique, but the gift itself can't be taught -you may be able to teach monkeys to type, but you won't get any simian Shakespeares. This isn't what academics want to hear, of course, hence the endlesssearch for the technical philosopher's stone that can turn leaden students into golden graduates. Anyone remember Wirth and Modula 2?

The problem is that we all want to hire these really good engineers, but how does one identify them? A degree is the first step. A BS doesn't make an engineer,but most of the gifted will have one. Those that don't, I'd probably pass anyway – I suspect they haven't got the patience and wouldn't fit in.

Incidentally, in spite of my degree I can burn a PAL, assemble a board, use a milling machine, and solder well enough to prototype with surface mount parts.Only once in my 25 year career have I ever needed to integrate a function, and I left the transfer functions of a transistor in a bar the night after my final exam.However irrelevant my education, though, if I didn't have that piece of paper on the wall I wouldn't be anywhere today.

P. Hand
Lead Engineer

As a 25-year non-degreed software engineer/programmer in a geographic area not rich in technology, the degree is 'king', so I've have had more doors closed tome than open. My main question is: would an area such as a Silicon Valley be less prejudiced to experience over education ?

Vernon Davis
Software Engineer
Advanced Energy Industries, Inc.

JACK REPLIES: I suspect it all comes down to supply and demand. If there's a shortage of people, companies will have to be more accepting of unusualcareer paths.

Hi Jack,
I have been a fan of yours since I read “The Art of Programming Embedded Systems” a couple years ago.I am one of those guys that you mention as a technician that through sheer force of will is now an embedded systems architect, doing both hardware andsoftware design.But this transition took nearly 7 years of on-the-job work in the industry and almost the equivalent in at-home design work, doing my own projects after work.Most of the BSEE's and a few of the MSEE's that I have worked with are really just relying on their sheepskins and MS Office skills to get by.But in hindsight, I would rather have gone to college for four years and then worked for four years on the job than to have worked as hard as I did for 12 yearsto get to the same place. I would have saved four years and made more money!


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