Thursday, April 27, 2006

Tech: Is a degree worth the paper it's printed on?

Matt Moran at IT Toolbox started a nice little earner :) by arguing against degree qualifications. Did he really argue against going to university? Yes. If people acted on the basis of “your degree is nearly worthless”, nobody would be spending that money and taking time off their valuable productive capacity by skiving for three years.

There are some who argue that any degree is worthwhile, for a number of reasons: the knowledge learnt, to learn how to learn, for the discipline or the work ethic attained. Then others will argue that there’s nothing there that can’t be learnt on the job – and it’s paid.

There’s an element of truth to both perspectives, although I suggest that the greater formalisation and depth of knowledge purveyed at university are hard to beat.

But my focus here is on Information Technology degrees (how many of those graduates do you see behind the counter at MacDonalds?). There’s the argument that IT degrees provide a more structured, comprehensive body of IT knowledge than could be gained on the job over a far longer period. To counter that, there’s the argument that what’s learnt in an IT degree becomes largely redundant in five to ten years.

There’s an element of truth to both those perspectives. There’s times I feel there’s little in my degree that survives, either in the industry or in my brain. Yet there’s other times I think back to the databasing elements for some general principles; even some of the programming elements, despite the fact that my business is business intelligence (and databasing) and I try to avoid telling people I ever do coding.

I know for a dead fact that it was, and still is, easier to get into the industry with a degree. I would say, too, that your chances of progressing – in the early years at least – are better not only when applying for jobs, but also when applying a more structured body of knowledge to your work than could be simply absorbed on the job.

Matt Moran’s simple point is that degrees count for very little; that what counts is ambition and drive.

Hmm. I guess that makes a big whopping difference. If I had sufficient ambition and drive, I might already have run through half a dozen startups, rather than toiling away in a corporate environment.

Then again, all those startups might have been failures, if I didn’t have a) the business nous; b) the business training (aha!); c) the temperament. And my family would be suffering right now. (I think back to an ancestor of mine who, on available evidence, wasn’t particularly successful despite trying his hand at several things, and finally left his family (with promises), to die in the goldfields.

Ambition and drive certainly count for something. I’d argue, though, that that’s a temperament thing, tempered by one’s upbringing. People have it in varying degrees, to varying effect.

At the start of one’s career, an IT degree does make a difference. Later on, you stand or fall on your merits. Some go back to university to pick up what they missed, some don’t want to and some don’t need to. Those that don’t need to have probably got to a point of diminished returns for what they would now get out of it.

I could say to my kids “the one thing you must have is ambition and drive” – but that might not do the trick of itself. I could also say to them “ambition and drive are important for realising your goals – whatever they may be. Get some education. You will get a lot more from it than you think. And an industry-focused degree can put you ahead of the pack. But if you’re temperamentally unsuited just yet, or you reckon you can go it alone, wait a year or two and you’ll find out.”
To many, ambition and drive is the adjunct: it will – or won’t – come naturally. It won’t be taught at universities (but some learn it there anyway…)


Matt Moran said...

Actually, I did not say degrees don't matter but that the reason people with degrees earn more is that they are the type of view earning more and achievement as important. Meaning, the ambition and perhaps parents who help foster that, are more important than the degree itself.

That is why those same people - who get a degree - might very well start a company selling hot dogs and do very nicely (this is a true story). They don't use their degree at all but they are included in that degree'd number.

Their natural inclination towards acheivement moved them to get a degree and continues to move them forward towards advancement.

Matt Moran said...

I don't think my prior comment posted. or it has to be moderated... we'll see.

My original post was really meant to explain that the degree is a byproduct (typically) of someone whose parents or who personally views achievement as important.

The perception that achievement is important and that education is a means to advancement (because advancement is important and achievable) drives the degree and the achievement.

The degree is not what drives the achievement but vice-versa. Which is why the person who got the accounting degree and ended up starting a hot dog stand, expanding it to a catering business (true story) and who does not even use his accounting degree (hires an accountant) is still a degreed earner.

Was it the degree that did it for him or his predisposition to achieve. FYI: I know folks who are degreed who cannot open doors in their area of degree. But in speaking to many of them they are often passive - lacking the gumption and drive to force open a few doors. Their degree is playing no role in this case.

In any case, I'll stick by my original idea - that the drive and ambition is what tends to drive both the acquisition of the degree and achievement afterward.

S Simmonds said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your response. First off, I have to say that yes, this _is_ moderated, so comments won't necessarily appear immediately.
(some people use this to contact me directly, but I don't exclude any comments that are directly relevant.)

I'm happy to agree with the gist of what you're saying here.

However, I do know there are people who just turn up at university because school spat them out and that's what's expected next. (This happened to me, although I have gone back years later with additional motivation.) By contrast, there are others for whom university was never encouraged (actively or by example), yet would have done quite well for themselves because the aptitude was there.

Drive makes all the difference when it comes to realising (or formulating) goals. This is not just career drive, though. I can't disparage my kids if they opt for something that's not career-enhancing yet can improve them in other ways.

However - and here's my personal bias - I'm likely to suggest to them something more vocational at university than an arts degree. That's a good fall-back to avoid being stuck behind the counter. For want of ambition!