A degree earned and a degree used are two different things.
Greg Neustaetter graduated from Wesleyan University in the 90s with a bachelor's in economics, and hasn't really touched it since. He's currently the senior product manager for enterprise cloud file sharing company Egnyte, and anyone looking to break into IT without a formal computer science background would be happy to hear his story.
An internship at a company in San Jose, California led to him learning to build demo websites for the sales team. They hired him when he graduated, and after a product manager suddenly left he found himself temporarily taking on a job that he admits, he probably wasn't qualified for.
"If I had come in and interviewed for that position off the street, no way I would have been hired, but to fill a gap, I stepped into that role and suddenly had to be working with engineers who had been working for, in some cases, decades," he said.
It wasn't the easiest way to start a career, but the main point was that he started it, and he's still in it over 10 years later.
"I can walk the walk and talk the talk, and can contribute as an engineer without having had any of the traditional experience that you think of when you think of a programmer or a developer," he said.
Getting into IT without a degree isn't necessarily common or uncommon. It's a thing that happens, the way that life happens. There are any of number of reasons why someone might not wind up with a degree- they might not have the money for university, they might not do well in an academic environment, they might have transitioned from another job or field.
"A lot of it boils down to how you like to learn, what your preferences are, what your resources are," said John Reed, executive senior director of staffing agency Robert Half.
Success with a non-traditional route can also depend in part on external factors, as it did for Neustaetter who got hired during what he called the "high-flying dot com days." A similar set of circumstances may be playing out now.
Toward the end of an undergraduate degree in psychology from Eckerd College, Wes Byrne decided to take a few coding classes. He realized it was something he might actually want to pursue. He also realized he needed a job. Fast.
That summer, he came up with an idea for a iOS mobile app, and taught himself how to build it. After that, he started sending out resumes.
"I didn't really hear anything back because everything was 'computer science degree, and at least 3-5 years experience,'" he said. "I sat there for a little while and said, 'Crap I might need to go back to school.'"
That was until he saw a job posting for a startup in Tampa, Florida called Type 2 Designs. As the company was just under a year old, Byrne had an easier time of making a case for why they should hire him. They invited him in, he showed them what he had built, and they were impressed.
"I think they needed to get someone in here," he said. Now Byrne is a senior developer working primarily with mobile apps.
Demand for talent is a big advantage job seekers right now, said one Silicon Valley CTO.
"When the economy's really good, not having a degree is not such a big issue," he said.
And Byrne thought it made sense. "Actually being able to do it meant more to them than having a piece of paper that said I should be able to do it," he said.
Barbara Ericson, director of computing outreach at Georgia Tech's College of Computing, put it in terms of numbers: "By 2020 they expect to have 1.4 million jobs ... without people to fill about 400,000 of those," she said.
That means that companies are trying to snap up potential employees, and naturally, one of the first places they go is the career services departments of university campuses.
"Employers that we talk to... are grabbing up every computer science graduate that they can find because there's that much value in that," he said.
There's a whole list of traits hiring managers and recruiters could be looking for in a candidate- professional experience, tools used, if they do testing, documentation, or analysis, Reed said.
Early on in a technology professional's career, having a computer science degree can be a shorthand for hiring managers to understand the foundation of a potential candidate.
"They know you've got a stronger foundation that's built on strong, proven concepts, and it's all done under an expert's watchful eye with oversight from people who are monitoring your progress and development, so it carries a lot of weight," Reed said. It can provide some security that the candidate not only knows how to code, but knows how to code cleanly, and properly.
"You can teach yourself something, but that doesn't mean that the way you taught yourself is the best way to do it," Reed said. He also said when going after a first job, the degree can carry more weight for a candidate until he or she has racked up more experience.
The Silicon Valley CTO also pointed out that many larger companies with HR departments use computer science degrees as initial criteria for weeding out candidates.
"Google's the best example. If you don't have a computer science degree from a top school, you're not going to get an entry level engineering interview with them," he said.
Even after a candidate has officially come in from the cold, there are other potential obstacles, like pay. At Georgia Tech, for example, students with computer science degrees have the highest starting salaries on campus. When comparing the lowest starting salaries across disciplines on campus, the computer science majors come out on top again, Ericson said.
And even as a technology professional gains experience, it may be more challenging to move up. Without any kind of college degree, an upper level management position will most likely be out of reach.
Then again- there's an exception to every rule.
Robert Armstrong is the co-founder and CEO of Appstem, a mobile design and development firm in San Francisco. Some of their top developers don't have computer science degrees, including their other co-founder/tech advisor (who has an electrical engineering degree) and their CTO (a neuroscience degree).
If anything, Armstrong said Appstem is drawn to technology professionals who have not gone the traditional route.
"It shows that they have initiative, they're smart, and can pick things up on their own. They can work through problems and teach themselves," he said. "Being a boutique development company, we need smart people who are flexible, versatile, and are successful with minimal supervision. And most importantly they love what they're doing. I'd take these qualities over a CS degree any day."
Taking this sentiment to an extreme, is Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal. The Thiel Foundation offers 20 young people $100,000 each to skip college and focus on their work for two years.
"Indeed, learning should be done throughout life, and technology creates more ways to learn every year. Before long, spending four years in a lecture hall with a hangover will be revealed as an antiquated debt-fueled luxury good," he wrote in the New York Times.
A tough (but not impossible) route
When Neustaetter first stepped into his product manager role, he realized how quickly he had to absorb everything he could in order to function.
"There were big gaps of knowledge in terms of things that I would have had if I had gone through- or I assume I would have had- if I went through a computer science background," he said.
One of the ways he chose to get up to speed was to create a project for himself.
He'd been doing a lot of photography at the time, and he had a website for his photos. He decided to make something that would let someone click on a photo and send an e-card to another person. After posting his work to a website, the feature was downloaded about 10,000 times.
Other options for catching up are massively open online courses (MOOCs) like Coursera and Code Academy. While our SIlicon Valley CTO said he sees more value in MOOCs as a means to prove to an employer outside commitment and future self improvement, it shouldn't necessarily totally take the place of a traditional program.
Proving your skills is an important part of making a non traditional route work.
Reed looks for people with analytical minds who display passion. Degree or no, outside projects are must haves. Our CTO said someone without them would raise an immediate red flag.
"If you're going to start a new career, or you're going to move into a career where you've got no formal training, you're going to have to study a lot, you're going to have to read a lot, you're going to have to have mentorship," Reed said. "You've got to really have that desire, that want and that thirst."
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.