Companies Eagerly Tapping Into Self-taught Tech Talent

By Sarah Fister Gale

Dec. 28, 2017

In the war for talent, programmers and software engineers are often seen as the ultimate prize.

It’s easy to scan résumés for degrees and universities, but how do you compare candidates who learned to code at a two-month boot camp or via YouTube videos?

These technical geniuses are considered among the most difficult talent to attract and retain, adding time and cost to the recruiting process. A 2016 survey from Indeed found 86 percent of companies face challenges finding technical talent, and they find that applicants often meet less than half of the criteria in their job posts.

Perhaps that is part of the problem.

Indeed’s survey also found that nearly a quarter of respondents still think an Ivy League degree is “very important” when evaluating technical talent. Yet 90 percent of developers recently surveyed by Stack Overflow said they were at least somewhat self-taught, and about one-third thought formal education was not important to their career success.

With the soaring cost of four-year college tuitions and increasing number of low-cost boot camps and free online courses, aspiring programmers have a lot more options to learn their craft — some seen as more valuable than a traditional degree.

“You don’t learn to program in college,” said Bob Graham, co-founder of Event Temple, a venue management software firm in Vancouver, British Columbia. Graham taught himself Ruby on Rails, CSS, HTML and other programming languages using online tutorials and coding websites, and as a business owner he seeks out self-taught tech talent.

“Self-learners also tend to be more passionate about coding,” said Graham. He finds these candidates are more up to date on industry news and new codes, and that they like to build things on the side for fun. “They see coding as a lifestyle, not a job.”

Kieran Snyder, CEO of Textio, a Seattle-based “augmented writing platform” for recruiters, has a similar opinion. Like Graham, she taught herself to program and now actively recruits “career changers” because they have more hands-on experience actually solving problems with code compared to their degreed peers.

“Candidates with computer science degrees are really well-versed in design theory,” she said. But unless they’ve had internships, they often struggle with the transition to a production environment. While self-learners lack the theory, they tend to be better at solving real-world problems because that’s how they learned, she said.

Recruiting Self-learners

That is the kind of talent most companies want on their team, yet finding passionate self-starters can be tricky. It’s easy to scan résumés for degrees and universities, but how do you compare candidates who learned to code at a two-month boot camp or via YouTube videos?

To start with look at what they have done, not where they learned, Snyder said.

“A four-year degree is awesome, but it is not a skill,” Snyder said.

Textio asks candidates to include examples of how they changed direction in their lives or careers in their applications. “Whether it’s going back to school, learning a language or changing careers, it demonstrates a love of trying new things, which is important in a start-up,” she said.

At Event Temple, recruiters let the work speak for the candidate. His team reviews GitHub and Stack Overflow to see how candidates remain active in the coding community, and they search for examples of side projects, volunteer work with coding groups and online samples of their code. “When people teach themselves to code, they need to build things,” he said. Looking at the language they used and the problems they solved on these projects can provide great insight into their talents.

Snyder also suggests reaching out to local boot camps and code academies for recommendations. After hiring several students from ADA, a local coding school in Seattle, they began reaching out with suggestions of promising candidates. “There are some incredible developers in these programs and once you show interest they will come to you,” she said.

Once recruiters narrow the list of candidates, they should test their skills by presenting them with coding problems that occur every day in the workplace to see how they respond, Graham said. “If they can’t talk through how they would solve the problem in an interview, they won’t be able to do it on their own.” He urges recruiters to include programmers in these interviews. “HR won’t know what questions to ask or what the answers should be.”

Companies may struggle to give up their vision of an Ivy League programmer, but expanding the search to candidates who learned on their own and can prove they know how to write great code can help them find better talent faster, Snyder said. “If you focus on the skills not the degree, you can find great people for your team.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in the Chicago area. Comment below or email

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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