College Degrees: More and More, They're Just a Piece of Paper

Faking a computer science degree cost Scott Thompson his CEO job. But with one notable exception, most observers thought he was doing OK, under lousy circumstances.

Sure, the lying was wrong, but apart from that, would Thompson’s lack of a computer science degree have hurt his career? Does having the right degree - or any degree - really matter that much any more?

There’s plenty of evidence that in a world where a 9-year-old can write an iPhone app, degrees may be obsolete. After all, Bill Gates and Michael Dell did just fine without finishing college, and dropouts like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson have questioned the value of traditional education. Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel is offering standout youngsters $100,000 in angel investments to start companies instead of going to college.

To find out what a degree means today, we asked a Bay Area headhunter. She specializes in financial services, but also works with medical and high-tech clients. Under condition of anonymity, she revealed that while a degree helps, lacking one is usually not a deal-breaker, particularly if the prospect has solid experience.

Are You a “Front-Pager”?

“A computer science degree from 1987 isn’t worth much if they haven’t stayed current. I’d rather present a self-taught developer if he has a couple of shipped products under his belt.” She does admit that a degree can be a good tie-breaker, and a paper from a top-tier school shows an applicant “was at least smart enough to get in.” In the end, though, “Clients are interested in ability. If you have the chops and the experience, you’re getting hired – unless [the client] is looking for a front-pager.”

A “front-pager,” or high-profile executive, needs a different set of credentials to impress the public. “If you’re director-level or below, we can be flexible, but VPs and C-Levels need to build confidence with the board, the public and investors. They need a solid track record with no holes, and it helps to have a couple of relevant degrees. They need to be groomed and vetted.” Degrees set baseline expectations, and the lack of a degree would not put investors at ease.

In many cases, the shorter the list of accomplishments, the longer the list of degrees. Executive rosters seem to bear this out. Even maverick CEOs surround themselves with highly educated cabinets, particularly in technical and financial positions. Michael Dell may have dropped out of college, but his Enterprise Group CTO has a Master’s in Electrical Engineering. Avadis Tevanian, a former Apple CTO, has a doctorate in computer science. Microsoft’s CFO has an MBA.

Of course, a lot of these executives predate the current democratization trend. And many of today’s director-level execs will eventually work their way up through the ranks. Ten years from now, we’ll probably see more degree-less VPs who were hired under “or equivalent experience” clauses.

Social Performance Reviews

Degrees may become optional, but assessments will not. Internet Research Group’s Peter Christy sees a codified analysis of “demonstrated behaviors” as the answer. “The idea is to have someone tell you about important behaviors - how they dealt with problems previously that were thought of as important to the position in question. One can imagine a much more valuable "CV” in a modern form, in which the person made assertions about what they did of importance in a previous position and there was the opportunity for others to comment on the assertion (a more substantial form of Facebook, perhaps). Sort of like a social form of performance reviews - interesting but a little frightening… ."

So don’t spend the kid’s college money just yet. Making the initial cut to get to that interview will always require a standout resume, and a degree is still a good way to start building. And that’s particularly true for folks who want to do something other than coding apps.

Still, despite Thompson’s travails, there’s no question that the technology world is more open than ever to hiring star performers who never bothered to go to college.

It’s as good a reason as any to start requesting testimonials on LinkedIn. Here’s hoping nobody lies.

Stock images courtesy of Shutterstock

Jobs/Gates image courtesy of Joi Ito.