I first learned about it in the fall of 95 and picked up the book, "Hooked on Java" by Van Hoff, et al, who worked for Sun, in early 1996. It also included a CD with Java VM, et al. The local community college had started classes on Java that summer. I took the Java classes, plus read the very few books and did the exercises.
I remember back in 1997 I was interviewing for Java positions (very, very few around at that time, as it was still too new). I had experience with C, C++, Smalltalk plus a dozen other languages and over 30 years programming experience. It was amazing at the reasons they refused to consider me - the very few interviews that I had generally came back with the same response - "We are looking for someone with 5 solid years of Java programming - sorry!". Of course, being in my early 50s, had nothing to do with it - RIGHTTTT!!! I did mention to a couple of the interviewers finding someone with that much Java experience might be hard to come by. I was bluntly told that they had already interviewed quite a few with that much experience (I was tempted to ask if it was Gosling and his co-workers).
I suspect someone without a degree who has some Java experience may get a job, if they are willing to work for considerably less than what some overseas programmer is getting paid.
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