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By Jack Ganssle

Degrees

Published 7/13/2007

When Intel introduced the 8008 microprocessor in 1972 I was working my way through college as an electronics technician, but for fun had learned to program in a number of languages, including Univac 1108 assembly. The company was desperate for anyone with assembly language skills of any sort, so made me an engineer to help get a new microprocessor-based system done.

That was a perfect case of being in the right place at the right time.

Such serendipity is rare, though. Most of us get the "engineer" moniker only after a long slog through the university. Today, few companies are interested in any engineer-applicant who doesn't have at least a BS degree in a relevant technical area like computer science or electrical engineering. That's at least a four-year endeavor.

Armed with the degree, one is competent to, well, learn. It's amazing how many of us quickly forget most of what we learned in college. How many EEs can still manipulate Maxwell's equations with aplomb? Or solve a differential equation? Ironically, we may remember the fruits of the liberal arts classes best of all! I can still remember Kafka's and Descartes' work, but had to relearn calculus to help my son in his senior high school year.

I get an awful lot of email from folks who want to break into the embedded field. So much so that I wrote an always-evolving paper about it (http://www.ganssle.com/startinges.pdf). But lately some of the emails have changed. People are asking how they can become a developer without getting a degree, or with a completely unrelated degree (accounting, literature, etc). Frankly, I don't think that's possible anymore except in the most unusual circumstances.

Every job offering lists a degree requirement. Acronym scanners gleefully deployed by HR delete any resume that doesn't exactly match minimum requirements. That's an absurd way to evaluate individuals, but is a somewhat understandable reaction to the deluge of low-quality resumes that flood out of sites like monster.com.

Some people tell me they're willing to work as an intern or apprentice to hone their skills or to prove their degree-less skills to an employer. Such opportunities are rare (other than programs for college students). And once you're working cheap any incentive to boost your pay disappears.

Some engineers argue that a degree is a meaningless bit of paper that's just an entrance ticket to the profession. I disagree; most of my education has been valuable in one way or another, from those hated three years of high school Latin to circuit theory. Yes, a lot has been useless. I still have no idea what abstract algebra was all about, and the nuns failed miserably trying to beat proper penmanship into me. But I do use some of the math and more of the engineering learned in college.

There are alternative ways to get that knowledge, and I think that culling resumes by degree does a terrible disservice to people with alternative educations. But I can't imagine how to make the system fairer.

What do you think? Are there alternative paths to engineering that don't require a degree?