Is a college education necessary to become a great web developer?

These days, many people are thinking about getting into web development. The job prospect for web developers is better than that of almost any other profession, with expected growth rates of over 20% over the next 5 years.

Salaries are equally attractive: the median hourly wage for web developers in the US is almost $35/hr, which equals to over $72,000 a year. And many developers exceed this salary by far. With those numbers in mind, most experts agree that a good web developer will have no problem finding well-paid work in the near future. What’s more, web development offers great opportunities of working from home (or a local café) by becoming a freelancer. A recent survey revealed that over 7% of developers are freelancing, and this number is likely to go up.

So with all of the benefits, becoming a web developer is clearly a very attractive prospect. But the $72,000 question is, what are the requirements to becoming a developer? Do you need a bachelor’s degree, or a Ph.D. even? Or can you teach yourself, learning everything you need online? We took a look at the state of the industry and asked CTOs of different companies about how they wound up in their positions.

Let’s go!

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Do you need a university degree to become a web developer?

The short answer is no. These days, having a degree in computer science is not a requirement to find a job in web development. There are many ways to teach yourself online or offline (more on those below) to acquire the knowledge needed for starting out as a developer. According to last year’s study by Stack Overflow, almost 70% of all developers are at least partly self-taught, with 13% of respondents saying they are exclusively self-taught. Less than half have a degree in computer science or a related field, and only 2% have a Ph.D.

It’s clear then that a university degree is in no way essential to finding a job in web development. But the opinion many developers share is that it can’t hurt either. Studying at a university usually offers a better-structured and smoother learning experience than trying to learn everything yourself.

As Christian Rebernik, CTO of German mobile banking app Number26 puts it:

“Pursuing an academic path gives you some in-depth understanding. The university is a great place to learn, but it’s not required any longer.”

Other industry professionals agree that while not necessary, a university education can definitely be valuable.

Thomas Schranz, CEO at Blossom, studied computer science but eventually dropped out of school because he felt that applying the knowledge and working on projects suited him better than approaching things from a theoretical side only:

“I think the main reason was that the things we worked on in the agency seemed to be more interesting for me. However, the formal education and the computer science background still helps me today building the products that I’m building now.”

Susanne Kaiser, CTO of German startup Just Software, shares some insights from talking to developers in the US:

“Last year I’ve been to Silicon Valley for a few months, where I have met a lot of people graduating from coding boot camps, that focus on providing the most relevant technical skillset to become a software developer within 3 to 6 months. After graduating they started their jobs as junior developers. This concept seems to be quite successful. In general, I would recommend getting as much practical experience as possible. You don’t need to have an university degree to become a software developer.”

How can you teach yourself to become a web developer?

As Susanne stated in her interview, a popular way to learn how to code in the US these days is attending a boot camp. A coding boot camp tries to compress the essential parts of programming into an intensive course that will teach participants enough to start out in junior developer positions.

As opposed to a standard 4-year university education, boot camps usually only last a few months or even weeks. Through high-impact learning, students at boot camps learn roughly 10% of what they would learn while studying at the university. That might sound like a low number, but the information only contains the most relevant skills to be able to start writing code as fast as possible. Coding bootcamps are definitely a great way to get into the business since they don’t require a huge commitment in terms of time and money. And they seem to be popular with employers too, with over 65% of graduates finding work within the first 6 months.

Besides attending a boot camp in person, there are countless online courses that teach people how to code. One example is Code Academy, an online education site that teaches anything from HTML to Python and Ruby on Rails. With over 25 million students from around the world, they are one of the biggest online coding schools today.

Other examples are learning platforms like Udemy and Khan Academy. They offer courses on pretty much any skill a web developer needs to start out in a junior position, with many courses being completely free and others starting at around $10. While lacking the structure of a formal education or a coding boot camp, platforms like these can be great resources for learning the basics of coding. And for some people, they might even be the only resource needed to landing that first job.

Besides boot camps and learning online, there is also still the old-school method: sitting down with a stack of books and learning the fundamentals of coding through literature. For obvious reasons this method is becoming less and less popular, but there are still countless great books available for learning how to code.

Wrapping it up

In contrast to most other high-paid jobs, going through a university education is definitely not essential for becoming a web developer. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad idea though. Especially if you live in a country that offers cheap or even free education for students, it’s definitely a good idea to start your career by studying computer science.

For anyone not wanting to go the university route, coding boot camps offer a great way to get into the industry quickly. They are pretty intense though and not exactly cheap either, so taking things a bit slower and learning through online or offline courses or even books can be a great alternative too.

No matter which way you choose to become a developer, one thing is certain: it is a challenging job that can be very tough at times. But it’s also a rewarding one with almost unparalleled opportunities over the next few years (and probably much longer).

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