Do you still need a degree to be a cloud pro?

At the end of the 20th century, high school students knew the rules to get ahead. Rule number 1: Any well-paying professional job requires a four-year college degree. Rule number 2: A degree from the right school opens more doors.

As a below-average dyslexic student who was unlikely to get a 1500 on the SAT, these rules caused me a lot of anxiety. Getting into a good college would be an uphill struggle; graduating was not guaranteed, and it would cost a lot of money either way.

I found an excellent commuter school and worked part-time for a large telecom company at night and on weekends to pay my tuition. That job itself was a conscious choice. It was related to the programming career I wanted to establish. As I worked my way up in the company, I gained more technical knowledge fixing the telecom’s systems and helping their customers than I learned in my technical systems classes. Although it took me longer to obtain my degree, I graduated debt-free with years of experience in my chosen field.

What if I chose not to get a degree at all? Would I have landed on the same career path? Would I have gotten that ever-important first job? Could I pull down decent money? Twenty or 30 years ago, the answers were obvious. These days? Not so much.

Do you still need that piece of paper?

Certain professions will always require a set amount of formal education and training to prove a person is qualified (doctors, lawyers, pilots, etc.). However, the value of a degree for jobs where lives do not hang in the balance has decreased substantially in the past 10 years.

The internet is filled with videos and social media postings of young people with college degrees that cost $200,000 or more. Now, they can’t find the money or positions that someone at their school practically guaranteed them when they enrolled. A common complaint is that their peers who skipped college now have years of hands-on experience and better jobs with higher salaries, while they wade through a sea of low-paying entry-level roles.

What gives?

I did a quick poll on LinkedIn to see what others thought about requiring college for cloud professionals; 79% said that a college degree was unnecessary. I suspect many who said a degree is not required still have a degree themselves.

Truthfully, most cloud tech professionals don’t put much faith in degrees. A new hire’s value relates directly to their ability to understand and solve problems with cloud technology. Sure, that history 101 class gave them a well-rounded viewpoint of Western expansion in post-Colonial America, but how good are they at building and deploying systems using serverless or cloud-native technologies?

When companies cannot find the talent they need, the four-year degree requirement is often the first thing to go. A candidate’s inventory of skills determines who gets the job and how much they’ll likely make.

Alternative paths to cloud skills

The demand for experienced cloud talent continues to explode, even accounting for economic downturns. People who want a career in cloud computing or IT who do not want to attend traditional colleges still need to get their skills somewhere. Here are a few alternatives:

Good old-fashioned on-the-job training is back in style. Candidates with interest but no experience can get into a lower-skilled cloud or cloud-adjacent job and then work their way up. Certifications, boot camps, and other training and education opportunities often follow. Back in the day, the telecom didn’t care about my degree. They valued my problem-solving skills, most of which I learned on the job. Those opportunities still exist today.

Boot camps that teach coding, data science, and other skills are another route to tech jobs. These are often very intense programs where you’ll learn as much as possible at an accelerated rate and get hands-on experience simultaneously.

They are typically more costly than slower-paced courses but turn out skilled pros in the shortest amount of time. As someone who’s taught many college courses, I know boot camps fit a semester’s worth of skills training into a few days, often on weekends, so that you can keep your day job. I’ve taught a few of these camps, and I’m impressed with how effective they are and how fast things move. They tend to provide a survey of most cloud solutions rather than focus on a specific set.

Their advantage is speed and cost-effectiveness. The disadvantage is that attendees who don’t learn rapidly or who need help from instructors will struggle. Typically, there is little or no support during the boot camp.

Certification programs in specific cloud skills are typically online training classes that focus on a particular cloud computing service, such as security, serverless development, or cloud operations for a specific brand of public cloud (i.e., AWS, Microsoft, or Google).

The outcome is a certificate that provides employers with some assurance that you possess that specific skill. If I’m hiring a cloudops person to operate my AWS deployment, I would look for certifications in the skills and tools I will likely be using.

Many people convert these certifications into good-paying jobs. I have counseled several people to take this path and watched them move from non-technical positions to cloud computing jobs. The pay is typically good to excellent, which means the courses will pay for themselves in a short amount of time. Some use these certifications to get hired at a specific company and then build a career there, moving into better jobs over time, including executive roles.

Good or bad news?

Is a degree requirement good or bad for the cloud computing industry or IT in general? A college degree often provides a well-rounded education and life experiences that can prove invaluable for certain careers and certain people. Some professions will always require a degree. However, it’s not a solid requirement for those moving into cloud computing. There are many alternative ways to gain the skills to drive a rewarding career.

What’s new is that many employers will still read your résumé even if it doesn’t have a college degree. Indeed, some may prefer the lack of a degree if a candidate has specific skills they can quickly put to use.

Most people now take five years to obtain an undergraduate degree. If you just graduated from a college program, you may not have the cloud or cloud-adjacent experience that prospective employers want. However, someone who went directly from high school into the cloud job market four or five years ago will have years of experience and be a more competitive candidate. I don’t see this aspect of the cloud job market changing in the next five or even 10 years. Experience will continue to trump an undergraduate degree in most cloud job markets.

The ROI for a four-year degree is changing fast. It’s time to figure out the true value of a degree for employees as well as employers. I suspect most people who read this article are well past entry-level cloud positions themselves. However, if you are looking for candidates to fill cloud positions, considering a larger pool of candidates can benefit more people on both sides of the hiring aisle.

Full disclosure: I have many online courses and benefit from those. I’m also an adjunct college professor. I try to present an impartial view of the cloud job market as I see it, but please consider these disclaimers in my opinions.

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