Why so many good developers don’t have a degree


7 minuten


A very large part of the developers in IT consists of lateral entrants who have never had an official IT training. They have a previous education in a completely different direction or are even early school dropouts.

For example, Harvard dropout Bill Gates preferred to work on the late MS-DOS rather than finish college. In doing so, he has changed the digital landscape forever. Could someone at Harvard have taught him this? Probably not.

Known drop-outs

Another Harvard dropout felt it was important to have a record of all the single girls in his neighborhood, so he developed a digital “yearbook” where people could register and indicate their relationship status. With Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg developed not the first, but – anno 2021 – the largest social media platform that has transformed digital communication and news delivery around the world.

The woman we consider the very first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace (the only legitimate daughter of the English poet Lord Byron), was not a dropout because she never even received formal education. She developed only through homeschooling and self-study. She recognized the potential of the “thinking machine” in 1833 and in doing so laid the foundation for every programming language. The programming language “Ada” is therefore named after her.

People like Jan Koum of WhatsApp and Steve Jobs of Apple have also successfully innovated the tech sector, despite their interrupted education.

What all these people have in common is that each of them is or was an inventor, an analyst or even a visionary: someone who dares to think outside of the treaden paths, to challenge existing structures and develop new ones.

Incidentally, all of these dropouts worked together from the beginning in large or small teams composed of people with similar interests but complementary competencies. This certainly contributed to their success.

ICT diplomas: a few figures

In a CBS publication from late 2020, we read that 452,000 people were employed in the ICT sector in the Netherlands in 2019. Unfortunately, what we cannot see in this report is what the background of these people is. Are they computer science graduates, did they just happen to stumble into the profession, or are they lateral entrants?

To gain insight into this data, we look at the developer community StackOverflow. Their article begins by mentioning the staggeringly high student debt levels in Silicon Valley. This is also a non-negligible factor in the Netherlands. Adding to the problem is finding an affordable room in the college towns.

The article refers a little further on to a 2016 survey of 56,033 coders in 173 different countries. A question about the respondents’ backgrounds gets 40,183 answers from working developers. Thus, the responses of students and unemployed developers have been filtered out. This survey shows that 56% of the respondents do not have a degree in a computer science or ICT related field. A large majority (69%) learned coding partly through self-study. In fact, a percentage of 13% are entirely self-taught.

It depends on the employer and the position how important a piece of paper is. With young companies, they are more likely to select on portfolio. An applicant who can show some nice projects is then preferred to someone who can only show his diploma – but nothing else.

Finally, an analysis by the UWV shows us that the demand for developers is increasing by about 20% every three years, while the demand for consultants is decreasing. Although this is a report from 2018, it shows a clear trend that is most likely to continue as self-directed teams can now manage their own projects agile, making positions such as manager and ICT consultant increasingly fade into the background.

How interesting is an official ICT education for a talented developer?

Developments in ICT are moving at lightning speed. What you learn today may be outdated tomorrow. That’s why in ICT you have to keep learning throughout your life. Children today start doing this very early: at preschool age they are already exposed to games, tablets and cell phones.

Playfully, they learn the fundamentals of programming. The brightest preschoolers are already making their own games by then. When they are older, they create a database for their teacher or a scorecard to analyze and review meals at home. When they have to choose a study, they wonder what the added value of an ICT education is for them.

  • Isn’t the teaching material outdated?
  • Haven’t the best teachers left for business long ago?
  • Isn’t it too boring because they already know so much?

Why does someone not finish his or her studies?

1. One reason these young people drop out of an IT course is because they feel inhibited by teachers who sometimes know and can do less than they do. This is because the often overburdened ICT teachers must also continually retrain themselves to avoid falling behind. Is that actually doable in addition to supervising the students and preparing the lessons? Hopefully, these teachers will receive the proper support from their schools in this regard.

2. Another reason may be that employers – in times of scarcity – are waiting at the gate to offer them jobs even before they graduate. For example, this happened regularly during the Y2K scarcity.

3. Last but not least, there are the developers who have no degree because they simply never started an IT education. Working as language teachers, accountants or tax advisors, they (re)discover their love of coding at some point and then make a career switch.

The organization ‘Platform talent for technology’ confirms this movement: in a report on the current ICT Developments (pg.12), for example, we read that only 5% of students (including lateral entrants) for a University degree in IT in 2018 had a completed Bachelors education, and usually in a completely different direction than ICT or related studies.

What makes someone a good developer?

A formal IT education looks great on a resume, but for a developer, experience, the right competencies and focused mentoring are more important. A bachelor’s degree from 10 years ago only says something about a person’s level of thinking, but not about what he or she can do today.

The right competencies

In the 21st century, a lot is asked of a developer because they must have both soft and hard skills. Character traits and (partly learned) competencies are then the best indicators of success. We then look at, among other things:

1. Passion. Standing still is going backwards in IT. There is always something to learn, even in leisure time. Many passionate developers are still working on their own or open source projects after work. Getting into IT because “there’s always enough work” is not the right approach.

2. Curiosity. ‘Wanting to know everything’ is an excellent trait for a software developer, especially since there is an endless amount to discover.

3. Analytical ability. This is the ability to create order out of chaos. This competency is important when analyzing business processes, as well as when ranking, visualizing and analyzing data.

4. Creativity. Creativity is a broad term. It is creative to create a new program, but also to be able to think outside the known paths and possibilities. Only with creativity do you come up with solutions that didn’t exist before.

5. Social skills. No one can know everything. Therefore, it is important to be able to work together and to be willing to learn from each other. A good atmosphere in a team also increases productivity.

6. Communication skills. What do users expect from an app and what does the customer really want? For this you need to be able to listen well and ask the right questions. Communication problems have meant that off-shoring is much less popular now than it was a decade ago. The Indian developers then delivered a fine product, which unfortunately did something completely different from what was intended.

Experience and certification

It is important that developers have the right, up-to-date IT knowledge, but also that they can apply it in the right way. The latter is something you really only learn on the job. According to Stack Overflow’s research, “training on the job” is the second most important way (after self-study) to learn, and this is exactly how Young_Coders’ Challengerships are set up. We select our talents on competencies and ambition and put them to work immediately in carefully composed teams, so that they learn and gain experience at the same time. Certification is also a possibility after a few months.

Diverse and innovative teams

Because our challengers come from a variety of backgrounds, we are able to assemble teams that are as complementary as possible for our clients. A team member that studied marketing looks at a problem very differently than his teammates from healthcare or education. As a result, our teams have much more connection to society and community than teams composed exclusively of academics, for example. One-sided teams remain in their own bubble and, as a result, overlook opportunities or challenges.


Competencies and continued learning are more important to a developer than a background in IT. It is also easier to put together a diverse team with people from different backgrounds. This is important to view and solve challenges from different perspectives. Each company has a different team, which we put together from a pool of challengers. Check out Young_Coders how we do this or read the experiences of our talents.

You can frame an ICT degree on the wall, but only with innovative teams can you innovate.



Koen is a marketer and communication specialist. He writes about, among other things, Design Thinking, the IT labor market and innovation.