At Digital Wave the other week I spoke to lots of young people interested in starting a career in software development. One question that kept coming up was, "Should I go to uni?".
It's been 8 years since I graduated from Bournemouth Uni with a degree in Software Engineering Management. I've worked alongside people who've achieved better degrees from top establishments, as well as people who have never stepped into one. Hopefully I can give some guidance based on my experience.
Not an easy decision
I chose to go straight into uni after College at the age of 18, at the time it wasn't a difficult choice. There weren't the equivalent digital apprenticeships that are available nowadays, the only other option would have likely been some sort of frontline support role and trying to self-learn the profession in my own time. At the time tuition fees were about £1200 a year with the expectation that parents would cover them. This meant student loans only really needed to cover living costs. So for me, at the time, it was a no brainer to go. Now with tuition fees rising above £9000 it is a much harder choice.
University was a way for me to start on a course that was designed to get me into a career in the industry that I wanted. In theory it would provide me the skills that are attractive to employers and enable me to jump straight into a job. In reality, the course was quite dated focusing on techniques and practices that the industry had long moved away from. This isn't just a case the Bournemouth's curriculum wasn't great but I think it was endemic at the time across lot's of uni's. Fortunately since visiting Bournemouth recently, the course structure has improved greatly and is much more aligned with industry practice. I can't say my basic understanding of assembly language has been particularly useful but most of the core fundamentals of the course I still apply on a daily basis.
A big part of uni was the opportunity to move away from home and gain true independence. The ability to eat what I want, come and go when I please, stay out partying all night long. This isn't all positives; there isn't anyone to help cleaning, to cook you dinner, or remind you to turn off the PlayStation and do your coursework! One of the biggest things to come out of my university experience was gaining an amazing bunch of mates which without them and working endless nights in computer labs trying to complete my dissertation I wouldn't be the person I am today.
For me the biggest and most important part of my degree was actually my placement job which is a bit ironic. I spent a year working at IQ Systems, while not the perfect role in a company like Google or Facebook, it provided a real insight into worklife and a way for me to hone my skills. I went into my role having never written a line of C# and came out thinking I was a
awesome ASP.NET developer. I learnt how to apply important skills about team working, design patterns, communication, and development processes.
The idea of getting into a career without accumulating lots of debt and securing a job before your fellow uni mates seems very appealing. Learning on the job allows you to get hands on experience developing real life systems. It means you can start earning a salary and look to start progressing within a company before you would have finished uni.
My only worry is ensuring that the foundations of software development are learnt correctly. It's very easy to learn basic programming skills and then hack away at software. For an apprenticeship to be successful (and degree's) the foundations of software development, patterns & practices, and more, need to be familiar. If an employer is more interested in cheap labour there's a risk of churning out developers who may struggle to progress their career.
Just as GCSE's were necessary to go to college, and A-Levels to go to uni. It might be seen that a degree is needed to get a software development role. I think most companies are sensible and personable enough not to worry about this. However some of the largest multinationals may see a degree a some form of entry criteria and discount a CV without one.
No right answer
Unfortunately I'm not going to tell anyone that they should or shouldn't go to uni, time should be taken to evaluate all options and decide what is right for you. Remember just because you don't go straight into uni at 18 it doesn't mean you can't change your mind a few years down the line and go then. You might find that actually being a bit more mature you get more out of your experience. One piece of advice, don't go on a whim or pick a fluffy course, it could turn out to be an expensive mistake.
Most of uni what I got out of uni wasn't from the learning but making friends, moving away from home, and having a placement job. I was fortunate that my placement company offered me sponsorship and a graduate role. This is something I've helped to implement at Redweb which I'm really proud of.
In reality you should never stop learning. I'm always reading blogs, attending conferences and participating in user groups to develop my skills. If I was to start again I think I would still go back to uni but it has become a much harder choice and both options should be thoroughly considered.