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How have many without a college education broken into the industry?

srleyva profile image Stephen Leyva (He/Him) github logo ・1 min read

I was watching an Engineering AMA panel (shout out to a great learning resource for newcomers called MASTERMND for hosting it) and one of the questions asked was how many without formal education have broken into the tech industry? As someone with a non-traditional background, it was really awesome and encouraging (especially for ones trying to break in to the industry) to see so many who didn't go the formal education route. I am very curious as to what other stories are out there, so I leave it with the wider Dev audience: What's your story?

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Back when I was at school, I did 1 year in 6th form here in the UK.. for a B-Tec course in IT. When I say that it was useless, it was less than that.

I got my first computer (Sinclair Spectrum 48k (with rubber keys!)) back when I was 8 and started "programming" (BASIC) not long after that, by copying code from magazines.. this then extended further when I had my first Commodore Amiga 500+ where I learned some more, various BASICs/AMOS, touched on some C and a small amount of 680x0 ASM (long since forgotten now!).

From there, my parents had a 286 PC where I learned some more bits and about this time, I was at the end of my school years.. but my B-TEC course involved using a BBC Micro emulator running on a 186 PC.. I "learned" how to program a wage slip generator, in BASIC, that I'd far exceeded knowledge of by teaching myself over the many previous years. We touched on "internet development" with the classes shared 2800baud modem.. and my first "web pages" (term used very loosely back in 1990 I'm guessing) were 2 or 3 pages on the old Prestel system (remember teletext? Yeah, that!).

2 of the topics in the B-TEC course were "keyboarding" (aka: touch typing) and electronics. I had zero interest in either (even now, I can't touch type, but can do 60wpm) and I wasn't really interested in the hardware side of computers.... I failed my course.

So I left school at 16 and a half with nothing in the realms of IT and took up my other passion of cars, and became a motor mechanic. I still had a large passion for IT, so that remained a serious hobby for me.

After various mechanical jobs over the years, I decided I'd had enough and wanted to swap roles.. so I kept mechanics as a hobby (still do to this day with a couple of classic projects in the garage) and concentrated more on coding.

I took some time away from everything to try and start working as a freelancer. This worked to varying degrees.. made enough to tick over, but was never going to be enough to support a family or anything.. but what it did do, was give me the freedom to experiment and learn.

I started running Sambar server on my Win2k box (at the time), then Apache... then I ditched windows completely and started running FreeBSD for a server (an old 386 desktop sitting at the end of my desk.. which only got scrapped in 2013 after I decided to change the way I did my networking and no longer needed that as my gateway and firewall server) and also for a desktop OS using WindowMaker for my GUI.

This taught me a lot as I experimented with many things in the FreeBSD world (lots of headaches, lots of success, lots of failures). I compiled most applications from source instead of using packages nad at the time, discovered Perl.

I learned to write Perl code for various things... CGI for the web, server scripts and graphical applications. I wrote a guestbook as part of my web development journey as these were all the rage back then.

I then discovered (what is now, classic) ASP. I found Chilisoft ASP which could run under Apache on *nix, although not massively successfully due to ASP requiring the likes of drive letters to access the filesystem properly, not something that was present on my FreeBSD server. Still, I managed to kind of port the guestbook from Perl to ASP.

Not long after that, I went looking for something else as it just wasn't working and discovered PHP (4.0.1 I think). Ported the guestbook.. which worked very well (we'll ignore the absolute lack of security that we naturally implement today) which stored all comments in a flat file structure. Then I found MySQL and wrote a forum for my second "real" project.. looked very much like VBulletin 2 at the time (I still have this code and after a couple of tweaks.. mainly the (horrendous) mysql_* calls, it actually runs on PHP 7.x.. though not publicly due to security issues).

At this point, I never looked back and decided that I wanted to be a PHP dev and continued that path.

I still develop primarily with PHP (also know frontend tech, some Python, Go, C++, C# too), though now as an employed person and have done various things from basics to bespoke CMS/booking funnels, various SOAP/REST integrations and now onto more modern things too. I've also still got a lot of passion for the server side of things too, and really enjoy learning more and more about DevOps.. and also security (back in my teens, I learned to write stupid (mostly ms office macro viruses.. never spread, however =) ).. but have long since turned those tables and enjoy keeping up with security-related things).

Now, I've managed to work up to being a senior devops engineer/team lead, making a good living to support myself and my family.

When I was leaving school... everyone wanted paperwork... I had none, all I wanted was someone to say "here's the problem, can you sort it, if you can, welcome aboard".. but that seems to be nowhere near the case these days and the path I took IMO, is almost more beneficial because you can show what you already know, with "real world" experience. It also shows to employers (if that's your preferred route) that not only can you do x, y and z, but you had the drive, the passion, to want to learn what you know. You can pretty much teach anyone technology, but you can't teach enthusiasm =)


This answer shows a lot of passion about your field! Thanks for the detailed answer! This what I find to be so amazing about the industry.


I think it's both easier and harder these days..

Easier; With so much content/resources on the web these days either for free, or for a nominal fee, it's easy to get the learning content that you need to get going (no more going to the local library and hoping they have what you want, or the odd site here and there that has some brief/basic (often not the best) info on something).

However, in some respects, with soooo many different things to choose from now (especially with the state of the javascript ecosystem), it could possibly be more difficult as picking something initially is a potential minefield and then hoping that it has the longevity worth the investment in learning.

Naturally, there are some things that are still around (I still write some Perl scripts as personally I prefer the flexibility of doing these over (for me) cobbling together bash scripts for some things).. but there's others that have been around for a long time and going very strongly (thinking at least, Python in this respect).

One other plus as I type, is that many high-level languages these days are very similar syntactically.. and often believe even more so now, that once you know how to program (think logically), then languages are just semantics as it doesn't take too long to pick another one up.. assuming you have some interest in doing so.


I have a bachelor degree in economics. Work opportunities in my region were terrible and decided to switch to IT. I found my way in the industry by self-learning Python, machine learning and cloud computing to create a SaaS application, which I sold subscriptions for about two years. I entered an agreement with a competitor to incorporate this app in their suite of services and started working as a developer contractor. More recently I joined a startup as developer advocate.

I think for ~90% of dev work demand, companies are more interested in whether you can get things done more than an academic title. The best route here is to show what you've already done, obviously. Or to do it just for the sake of building a portfolio. Paying dozens of thousands of dollars for a university degree won't help.

Honestly, not all but many graduate certificates nowadays don't really say much about your capabilities. University campuses are increasingly geared towards subjectivity and ideology rather than reason, science and practicality.


This story shows a lot of grind! Building your own SaaS application by teaching yourself python and infrastructure is awesome! Thanks for telling your story


I am a frontend developer without a degree of any kind in Singapore. You could say I stumble upon the tech industry (happily so). When I first graduate with my diploma (in Singapore, this is the level post-secondary and pre-degree).

Started as a show presenter in the zoo, went into fitness, started my own event startup. Through my startup, I did some web freelance job and volunteer for non-profit. Slowly I manage to get a good enough portfolio. First started working full-time in a blockchain company ran by one of my client's husband. And slowly, through continuous learning, personal branding and giving talks, I manage to transit to a front end developer role in my current company.

I wrote an article about my transition on medium: Against all odds: How I rebrand myself from a zoo show presenter to a fitness instructor to a technologist


I have a friend trying to make a career change breaking into the development industry. I gave them your story and they said it’s quite inspiring! Thanks for taking the time to answer!


I've studied Electronics Engineering, but midway through, I've decided to focus on my programming career, learning stuff and doing freelance gigs. Now I'm almost done with my study but have already completed my first year as a senior developer and worked on several projects. I don't have a diploma and my resume still have a dash for the end date of my studies, but the work sections are almost 1 page

Classic DEV Post from Jul 30 '19

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Views are my own. I enjoy reading about problems in the big data space. Additionally, anything with a view to operations and system architecture.