Tech Employees Question Credentials, Prerequisites and Privilege With...

Higher Education

Tech Employees Question Credentials, Prerequisites and Privilege With #UnqualifiedForTech

By Sydney Johnson     Sep 20, 2017

Tech Employees Question Credentials, Prerequisites and Privilege With #UnqualifiedForTech

Jake Behrens is an evangelist and engineer at Apple. Jon Parrott works as a developer programs engineer at Google. David Demaree is a product manager for Typekit Adobe.

They all work in the the tech industry, and what also unites these three is their unconventional path to their current jobs. None of them have formal training in coding or computer science: Behrens holds a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and advertising; Parrott says he barely graduated high school; and Demaree shares that he went to art school.

The three are among hundreds who took to Twitter this weekend using the hashtag #UnqualifiedForTech, showing that not all tech jobs require relevant credentials, and that great talent often comes from diverse and multi-disciplinary backgrounds.

But the conversation also revealed an unanticipated—and discomforting—trend: many who land jobs without a CS degree (or at least feel comfortable tweeting about it) are white.

The conversation was started by Alice Goldfuss, a site reliability engineer at GitHub with a degree in film. “I was tired of reading about how unqualified the Equifax [Chief Information Security Officer] was due to her music degree,” Goldfuss wrote in an email to EdSurge on why she created the hashtag. “Yes, there was gross misconduct and incompetence at Equifax, but that has nothing to do with her degree… I wanted to stand up for those who have an unconventional path into tech.”

On Sunday, the self-taught programmer tweeted the following:

At first the conversation stirred responses from folks like Behrens or Parrot, many who felt empowered to share their non-technical backgrounds.

But it quickly opened up new questions about how privilege intersects with who benefits the most from certain degrees, alternative education providers, or even no formal higher education at all. “I think #UnqualifiedForTech speaks a lot to imposter syndrome and sexism/racism in tech,” Goldfuss shared. “Having a film degree means I never feel qualified to be in a technical role and being a woman means there’s many systemic biases that reaffirm my doubt.”

Other contributors in the thread pointed out that many of those who managed to land a tech job without the expected qualifications were men, white and still held some level of higher education under their belt.

“It’s far easier for a white man to get hired without proper credentials than a white woman, due to the ratio of white men with power in tech. And it’s easier for a white woman to get hired than a [person of color], especially women of color,” Goldfuss elaborated in an email. “Breaking into tech without a CS degree isn’t easy, but having the right skin color and gender gives you a leg up.”

The tweet storm touched at a common debate in the higher-ed community—what degrees or credentials are necessary to land a job in today’s changing work landscape? Goldfuss began her own career working in web support for a marketing company, but began learning Python at night to work towards her next role. After later becoming a software engineer, she then added Linux to her repertoire, again studying by night.

Goldfuss later moved into ops roles site reliability engineering. To get there she says she learned from books, watching videos online, getting help from colleagues “and many late-night mistakes.”

What’s clear from the hashtag—and research—is that Goldfuss is far from alone in that endeavor. A 2016 study by Stack Overflow, an online community and job board for developers, shows 69 percent of developers are self-taught, and less than half have a BA or BS in computer science or a similar field.

Wendy Nather, principal security strategist at the account protection firm Duo Security, told The Washington Post this week that it's “extremely common” for companies like hers to hire workers coming from nontechnical backgrounds. The article reads: “What these people bring to the job is a way of thinking about problems — and then solving them — that draws on the best of other disciplines.”


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