The Myth of the Degree

There’s been s lot reported lately on the Equifax security breach. Equifax failed to apply a security patch for Apache Struts in a timely manner, and attackers took advantage of this to get at a whole lot of customer data.

What we don’t know at this time is whether this was a fluke due to a minor lack of process, a failed attempt at a patch…or whether Equifax has a complete lack of care regarding security. My educated hunch is that the mistake lies somewhere on the former side – although you’re welcome to speculate on whatever side you want. People want to find blame, I guess.

But I’m a little surprised irked mad pissed off on the attention the internet has given to the Music degree of the Equifax Chief Security Officer – and how it’s implied (or in some cases stated), that she is unqualified for the job due to her degree.

First off – while she is ultimately responsible for the security breach, it’s a long shot to assume that her own lack of action is what caused the breach. People still looking for blame but no one but Equifax are in a position for a true root cause analysis of this issue.

More importantly, I see little correlation between degrees and qualifications – especially when the degree is a decade or two in the rear-view mirror. Too many people (and frankly, too many universities) want to view a university like a vocational school – as if a university degree somehow trains you for a real job. While one may learn a good portion of knowledge relevant to a particular career, success in the real world depends much more on the work ethics and knowledge acquisition habits learned while pursuing a degree.

In fact, I’m on the alumni board at my university where I talk to teachers and students frequently about the value of a degree in Arts and Humanities. Once they figure out that I’m not a sell-out for leaving music to work for “the  man”, they realize that the critical thinking and collaboration skills they learn (whether it’s music ensembles, writer’s workshops, or art projects) prepares them for a variety of interesting and challenging jobs should they every find a calling beyond what they’ve studied for 4-years.

Like the Equifax CSO, I studied music at college. I have undergraduate degrees in music composition and music education (I taught music in the public school system for 4 years), as well as a masters degree in music composition. After grad school, I drifted into a job in software. I picked up things quickly, worked hard, and self-studied. I took advantage of opportunities that stretched me (less than 10 years into my tech career, I owned debugger development for windows 9x, and was making bug fixes in the windows kernel). I studied testing and leadership, and became Microsoft’s Director of Test Excellence where I talked to senior leaders across the company and the industry to help them solve their testing challenges. I’ve written shipping code in dozens of Microsoft products, and contributed heavily to the quality of many more. Few (if any) people doubt my ability to be successful at high levels in tech even though I “merely” have a music degree from a small state college.

Of course, it’s not an easy path – nor an immediate one for a liberal arts major to land a tech job. However, it’s ludicrous to imply that an arts major could not be successful in a technology job. I could elaborate to no end on how the skills I learned as a musician have helped me in my career, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point is, that beyond giving you the background and skills necessary for an entry level job, university degrees don’t matter. A university is not a vocational school – it’s not intended to prepare you for one career and one career only. It’s intended to enable you to specialize in one area that you find interesting. More importantly, it’s intended to teach you how to learn to learn (and those work ethics and habits I mentioned above). Thinking that a-particular-career requires a-particular-degree is short-sighted and just-plan-wrong.

As a hiring manager, I’ve insisted that CS degree requirements are removed from my job descriptions – or at the very least adding ” or equivalent” to the description (yes, even / especially at Microsoft). OTOH, I’ve interviewed software engineering candidates from top schools who failed to get jobs because they had a huge lack of critical thinking or couldn’t apply their knowledge in a practical manner.

I think a university education is extremely valuable – especially if you put extreme effort into getting as much as you can out of the experience. The degree (other than helping you find that first job), is much, much less important. Emphasize the journey (learning) over the outcome (a piece of paper), and never doubt someone’s ability to do a job based on their degree.

One Comment

  1. Oren
    Posted September 19, 2017 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Your success story, and so is Steve Jobs, Richard Branson’s and Michael Dell’s are nothing more than an anecdotal proof. You need numbers, statistics comparing success rate of university graduates vs non graduates while taking into account other factors like gender, family earnings and character traits.
    This kind of study will probably never happen since usually you can’t track rejected candidates objectively

    When I read CVs a university degree (or the institutes name) is not a gate, but it sure does add some positive points to the candidate

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