Episode 27 – Jess Chadwick shows us how to succeed without a Computer Science degree

There are different ways to get into software developing just as there are many other paths that you can take once you’re there. Take management as an example. Infrastructure manager, Jess Chadwick talks to Arsalan not only about how he got his start in programming, but also how he progressed to his chosen career path. The thing to remember is that if you are interested in software developing, you don’t necessarily have to have a formal education to get your start. Listen in to episode 27 to find out all this and more.

Jess’s Bio:

Jess Chadwick is a software developer and technologist with over fifteen years of development experience ranging from embedded devices in start-ups to enterprise-scale solutions in Fortune 25s. He is an ASPInsider and a magazine and book author with O’Reilly publishing, as well as several courses on Lynda.com including Up and Running with ASP.NET 5. Jess is actively involved in the development community, regularly speaking at user groups and conferences as well as co-lead of the NJDOTNET Central New Jersey .NET user group.

Episode Highlights and Show Notes:

Arsalan: Today we have Jess Chadwick with us. Jess, how are you?

Jess: I’m doing alright and glad to be here.

Arsalan: I’m really happy that you’re here because you’re very experienced. You have done a lot of work and would like to learn about you and from you, but first I’d like to ask you to describe yourself.

Jess: I call myself a web developer and technologist. I know I’m flat out stealing that from Scott Hanselman because that’s how he describes himself. But, honestly, the first time I heard that from Hanselman, it described me. I’m a web developer by trade by day, but I’m also a technologist. I’m very much into using technology and it just so happens that web development is my current passion.  It’s how I’ve been making my living for the past almost 20 years now. I’m also pretty big into the community as well. I also consider myself a community leader and I like to give technical presentations. I like to give back to the community.

Arsalan: Do you code every day?

Jess: I do code every day. I work at a big enterprise. I’m not really aloud to say where exactly I work on a podcast, but you can look me up on LinkedIn. It’s on there. My title is manager, but I was hired to be a very hands-on technical manager. So I am coding every day. When I began with this organization, they were looking to move into the client side world and they wanted to do it right. When I came onboard they basically asked me if I wanted to be on the production team or the infrastructure team, building frameworks that the rest of the product teams use.

Jess: I chose the production team because I wanted to be on the front lines putting out code and dealing with real world problems. So, I spend a significant amount of time writing code daily that goes into production. Then, at night I come home and write some more code. But that’s more of those to-do apps. So I dip my toes in both. I use my nights to exercise the new technologies. I’m in a big enterprise and I don’t necessarily always get the chance to use the latest and greatest. So, I stay on top of things at night with the pet projects that I have.

Arsalan: I hear you and obviously you don’t have a family so that works out, right?

Jess: No, I put family first. When I was looking for a job the commute was the number one thing because then I could get home and see my family as often as possible. I have two young girls, ages two and half and almost six. So, they go to bed relatively early. My wife is a teacher. So, she goes to bed relatively early too. But, I am a night owl. So, I stay up until 2:00 and sometimes 3:00 in the morning. I can work pretty well on between 4 and 6 hours of sleep. It’s because I love this stuff that I can put in the extra time. I make it a priority to spend time with family and also take time out for myself as well.

Arsalan: I think you are my twin. I also have two girls. They are ages 5 and 1 and a half and my wife is a professor, so she’s also a teacher. Do you remember your first encounter with programming?

Jess: Vaguely. I remember coding all the time as a teenager. I can’t really pinpoint the first time that I really started coding, but I do remember that my dad was a developer when I was young. He began as a construction worker and a cabinet maker, but then picked up some books and got into developing. So, in addition to learning how to program, he also learned how to read. So, he learned by diving into books. So, all these books were just lying around. I saw a Basic book sitting around one day. I picked it up and started reading it. The next year I was coding the Choose Your Own Adventure games on Basic.

Arsalan: Did you use GW Basic, by chance?

Jess: Yes, GW Basic

Arsalan: That’s what I used to start. You are my twin.

Jess: Yes, definitely. I started out with games, just as all the kids start, I think. I don’t remember the first line of code I ever wrote and I also don’t remember the first experience specifically. But, I do remember this awesome feeling the very first time I finally got an application to run and the computer to do something. I was hooked from then on and it’s never stopped since then. I still get that feeling today almost 20 years later when I succeed at doing something.

Arsalan: That’s really good, I can definitely relate to that. I think that if you lose that spark and passion, then perhaps it’s time to stop coding, and there’s a need for managers too. Did you study computer programming or computer technology?

Jess: I did go to college for a little while. I went to Drexel University in Pennsylvania. It’s not ivy league or anything, but it’s a pretty good school in the region.  That’s why I went there and I knew I wanted to learn tech. I never considered myself really big into math and the truly deep analytical thinking, so I wanted to stay away from computer science. It was way too technical for me. So I chose information systems. It’s about dealing with and finding information. So, one of the classes I had was how to use Google. I also had computer classes, but they weren’t big into computer science, which is why I chose the major.

Jess: One of the reasons I went to Drexel is that they do coops. So, they get you in the workforce as early as possible. The summer after my second year I was in the workplace and I was a junior developer making junior developer money, which was $40,000 a year. So, I was think that I was making real money, so why continue on with college? I love learning and that’s really the only reason I continued going. What really got me was that I would start going to classes and realize that I had taught myself what I was learning then the previous year. It always seemed like I was one year ahead of what they were teaching until I eventually switched my major to finance.  I decided that since I was paying for the degree, I might as well get something out of it and learn something. I went for another year or two and then I just dropped out because I was already in the workforce and making money, and I loved what I was doing. So, I went through some college, but I didn’t actually finish. But, so far it hasn’t been a problem for me.

Arsalan: So, has anyone ever asked you in any of your interviews about your college education?

Jess: I’ve been asked about my background and education at pretty much every interview I’ve ever had. It’s a pretty standard question, at least on the application, even if it doesn’t come up at the interview. I always put down “some college” and the GPA. I don’t lie. I’m not trying to be subversive or anything. I’m just trying to say that I did go to college, I just didn’t finish. It’s only been a problem twice in the interviews that I’ve been on. Once, I didn’t even get to the phone interview phase. But, quite frankly, I don’t want to work for a company that values degrees over experience because by that time I was far more than a mid-level developer. I had a lot of experience and definitely qualified for the job, but the company just wrote me off because of the degree issue. The second time was actually the job that I’m in right now. Since it was an enterprise, there was a required background check for everyone and it just came up and then the conversation came up. I was told that it wasn’t an issue for the position that I’m in now, but it could become a problem later on as I move up the ranks.

Arsalan: I already know what you’re going to say, but I want people to know the pros and cons of getting a degree. There are so many people that I’ve worked with and I’ve worked under, who are my superiors and who don’t have computer science degrees. In some cases, they don’t have any degrees and in day to day work, it never comes up. I know that people can get jobs. There are certain companies who will filter you out, but other companies won’t. There’s also the perception that if you don’t have a degree that you will make less money than someone who does. I want to get your opinion on this.

Jess: I can’t really answer that because when I was in college doing the coop I entered the workforce as a junior developer and I was paid as a junior developer. I went directly into a junior role and was expected to do junior tasks. So, for me personally, compensation has never been an issue. I was always compensated based on my experience and skill level. Even in the role I am in now when the conversation came up about me not having graduated, it was still completely separate from the compensation discussion. From what I’ve seen, which is not much, it hasn’t affected others around me either.

Jess: I agree with you. A lot of the folks I’ve dealt with haven’t had degrees and many of them who have had degrees have had them in a field other than computer science. One of my managers a while ago had a degree in medieval history or ancient history, something like that. That was his degree because that’s what he was interested in. I’m not criticizing it. But how does your degree make you a better developer or even a better manager? It doesn’t. It was a degree and it was a check box that he could mark off to say that he went to college and graduated. That’s it.

Arsalan: Do you think that people without degrees have to come up with other ways of proving their credentials? The obvious answer is that if you can Opensource your projects and put them on GitHub or something then that is one avenue, but it is not available to everyone because the work is proprietary. Is there a way that people should compensate for something?

Jess: I don’t think so. It’s funny because I have this conversation with my wife all the time because she comes from a family who are very big on education. So, the conversation has come up a couple of times already in the family. They all respect me, but I think the fact that I don’t have a degree is held against me a little bit. I always say that it’s not the education. I love learning and knowledge. It’s just that I no longer saw the value in going to college and getting a degree. I wasn’t learning the things I wanted to learn and it wasn’t benefiting me personally or professionally. So, why bother? I found other avenues to learn things.

Jess: As far as advice for new developers coming in and wondering whether or not you should get a degree, I’m not going to answer that because that’s a personal decision and it involves a lot of variables and things. What I can say is that it hasn’t been a problem for me that I don’t have one. What I can say is as a hiring manager, as a team lead and a coach, what I look for coming in is intelligence and passion. I look for analytical thinking and I don’t care what your degree or background is. When I interview, I look at your resume and I pick out buzz words and I will ask you to tell me about that. I want to have a conversation to hear how analytical you are about problems.

Jess: Where I’m at right now, we’re big on Angular. We’re writing Angular applications. So, that involves a lot of JavaScript, HTML, and frontend knowledge. I’m also bringing on some junior developers. So, junior or senior doesn’t matter. When you come in the door, I don’t care if you know Angular. I care if you are familiar with JavaScript, but I care even more if you are really passionate about web development and if you’re intelligent enough to pick it up. I can gauge passion and intelligence pretty well in half an hour. What’s really important is when I ask a question during the interview and you don’t know the answer, what will your answer be? Do you make up the answer? I know the answer to the questions that I ask you

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