Self-Taught Silicon Valley

Bridges vol. 42, December 2014 / Startup Corner

By Robin Tim Weis

The complexity of Silicon Valley might seem intimidating to bystanders. Between code lines, server protocols, and packed hackathons one might feel that employment is unattainable in the Bay Area, especially as one hears about Silicon Valley’s notoriously strict hiring standards, which cater to top-tier graduates from universities such as MIT or Stanford. 

Times have changed, however. Fueled in part by the hike in engineers’ salaries, Bay Area companies are looking increasingly towards hiring the self-taught man (gender imbalances remain a critical and polemical issue in the area). Overall, tech professionals in the Bay Area have seen their average salaries increase by 11.7 percent in the past five years. Recent figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics pin the average technology worker’s annual salary at $196,000 for 2013. Start-ups such as are now dishing out salaries upwards of $250,000 to win the hiring races against the mature start-ups/corporations of the Bay Area such as Twitter, Google, or Apple.

In effect, established megaliths such as Facebook have now resorted to scouting young promising coding talents straight out of high school. Moreover, early Facebook investor Peter Thiel is known to pay teenagers upwards of $100,000 to quit school and work on their own projects.

Jan Schwoebel, an Escalation Engineer at Nimble Storage, had none of Peter Thiel’s generous funds; yet, he is the quintessential epitome of Self-Taught Silicon Valley, which has gone on to defy traditional social conventions. 

Rather than embarking on years of college education, Jan decided to skip the employment gatekeeper and begin his apprenticeship in 2006, after having engaged with computers for a little over two years.

In hindsight he believes that becoming work oriented at a young age benefited his career, as college classes would have been “outdated” and not prone to “real-life scenarios” as he called it. In the same period of time, he was able to gain more knowledge in the workplace. Jan even suggested that his lack of a college education accelerated and ignited his “… excessive interest in technology.” He sees himself as part of a new cadre of engineers, intuitively dedicated to innovation. “When being self-taught,” he says, “you automatically show excessive interest in the technology and it shows that you can solve problems by yourself without getting any instructions from a teacher. 

In the workplace, Jan sees more and more engineers who have followed his path, although with the fine distinction that they are college educated with various MBAs or master’s degrees in physics. Yet most of them did not have computer science-related backgrounds going into the tech industry. Despite the rise in interdisciplinary, self-taught engineers, this group of workers does tend to have it harder than their counterparts with college work in technological fields. Nevertheless, Jan staunchly believes: “Interest and passion do not get taught in school.”

As established firms are resorting more and more to self-taught computer scientists and engineers, they are also pushing high schools to prepare kids better and earlier for the tech-heavy demands of tomorrow. The non-profit estimates that more than 1.4 million computer jobs will be needed to be filled by 2020. However, in the US, only 400,000 students will go on to study computer science in college.

In 2013 the Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts became the first school in the United States to integrate computer coding into each of its classes. Currently the US Government is also looking to meet the demand for coders and engineers by implementing new requirements in school systems. In the meantime, Schwoebel believes self-taught engineers will continue to gain value. “I think as more companies adapt hiring self-taught engineers, they realize that it is beneficial to their company culture as well as the product development,” he says.

Despite his positive outlook, Jan well understands the stigma, which his self-taught colleagues still face. Overall he sees Silicon Valley being much more open and embracing of trajectories such as his, whereas back home in Europe he felt there was a lack of understanding on the part of his peers. Overall, Jan would hire a self-taught engineer any day, since he firmly believes a “hunger for knowledge” trumps any potential drawbacks non-college-educated software engineers might hold.

An increasing number of software engineers have, however, cautioned proponents of the self-taught camp. Critics point to the time lost in offices due to documentation problems, as engineers often do not learn how to communicate errors and ways to work through bad coding. Bernard Meisler summarizes the malaise by saying: “The downfall of many programmers, not just self-taught ones, is their lack of ability to sustain complex thought and their inability to communicate such thoughts.” The ability (or inability) to communicate with fellow programmers can lead to the success or failure of any company.

Unlike Meisler, Roy Bahat, president of IGN Entertainment, believes that a college education is not crucial and essential. He sees talents like Jan Schwoebel in a positive light, as he and others rethink what coders they look to hire. In a Fast Company op-ed Bahat stressed that:

"Software is thought of as a science, [however] … what if it's not a science? What if it's more like a craft? Or even an art? If you wanted to hire somebody who could be a great craftsperson, you wouldn't look for somebody with a Ph.D. in that craft." 

The industry has been awakened by hard economic battles for talented engineers, and is increasingly looking out for adaptive and disciplined self-taught engineers who bring with them radical out-of-the-box thinking. Slowly but surely, Silicon Valley is becoming a Self-Taught Silicon Valley, which is testimony to the constant rejuvenation and renewal for which the Bay Area has long been known.

Robin Tim Weis serves as a project manager in OSTA in Washington, DC. Previously, he served as a policy analyst at the International Narcotics Control Board in the United Nations. As a former Europe correspondent for and foreign commercial assistant for the US Embassy in Brussels, he has been a strong proponent of bolstering transatlantic relations. You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinTimWeis.