Getting by in a technical industry without a degree

As someone without a completed higher education and responsibility for hiring people into the company I work for, I thought I’d talk a little bit about what it’s been like to try and get by in a highly technical industry without a degree.

I work in the semiconductor IP industry, helping my employer come up with, sell and support our 3D graphics IP. It’s a technical engineering-driven position, although not without its fair share of politicking, management and what have you.

So you’d expect someone in a position like mine to have a computer systems engineering degree, or a computer science one, or similar, and in most cases you’d be right. I did start a comp-sci degree in 1996 at the ripe old age of 16 years old and very nearly got there, but I dropped out in my final year to go do something else other than stare at the same walls and be talked at by the same people and learn precious little about a field I was so incredibly passionate about. My mum had passed away in my 3rd and penultimate year which didn’t help (4 year B.Sc. in Scotland!) and it was the catalyst to just get on and love life and what I enjoyed before it slipped away (all too easily in mum’s case).

So I left knowing a bit about the machine and how to program it and loved technology, which was enough to see me scrape a living writing software and writing about technology, eventually ending up running Beyond3D for half a decade.

As far as computer hardware and especially 3D graphics goes, I taught myself how it works by programming it and being passionate about figuring out how it works. That inquisitive side that most technology enthusiasts have got me through a hell of a lot.

Nobody formally taught me, especially anything about 3D. I picked it up the very basics of real-time 3D by asking the hardware questions via software I’d written myself. When I got stuck, I read about it until I’d fall asleep at the keyboard and wake up with imprints of the keys on my face. I’d wake up and carry on reading until I thought I knew enough to ask the hardware some more questions.

Eventually I plucked up the courage to go talk about it in public, on Beyond3D’s forums. I learned that just spending time with other people as enthusiastic and as passionate as you was an incredible source of knowledge and motivation.

One day, after a year and a half or so of being unhappy programming on deeply broken systems at an ISP here in the UK, I decided to try and make a living out of what I was most passionate about, so I interviewed here and there and decided to give the small graphics IP company in Kings Langley a go. I started in January 2010 and haven’t looked back.

I was honest and told HR — note I was never asked about it during the engineering stages of the interview process, only after I’d been made an offer and had actually started at the company — that I dropped out and gave them the reasons why. I think it was just for my file, to make sure everything was present and correct, since I’ve always put my time at the university on my CV due to it being a 4-year stint, believing that showing someone I could stick out a fairly singular task for that long is valuable to someone interested in hiring me. Now I’m explicit and up front about it if anyone asks (and in public too, on my LinkedIn profile).

In the grand scheme of things in today’s world I’m very proud of my job at a great company that’s performing very well and doing great business in a frankly terrible economic climate. So what got me where I am today, making a success of myself? A few things stand out.

Hard work and singular focus is a given; if you want to succeed today then the best route is to get your head down and really put the hours in. What really drove me, and continues to do so, is being excited and passionate about what I’m doing. It’s very difficult to put the hours in and be truly focused unless you love the thing and have a real passion for it. That drove me to learn on my own.

Autodidacticism has been and continues to be crucial to me doing so well, pulling my brain into 3D graphics and giving me the desire to go learn about myriad related subjects, all incredibly valuable. I taught myself to program. I taught myself how drivers drive the hardware and how operating systems glue the hardware to user programs. I learned to design APIs on my own. I taught myself how computer and hardware memories work. Everything related to computer technology and 3D graphics that I’ve learned in my life, including my time at university, I’ve been driven to learn myself. It keeps me going today and it’s the reason I go to work, to figure out another piece of the puzzle.

I didn’t need a degree to do any of those things and neither do you. As someone who has to hire people into Imagination, especially graduates, my examination of anyone’s academic career is one where I’m looking for the person to be passionate about what they went to university for. I want to see evidence that they’ve learned about things in their own time, just because they love it, outside of their prescribed hours of lectures and coursework and assessment in order to get the diploma.

The B.Sc. or M.Eng. or whatever after you name means precious little, other than you stuck at it for a reason and you now have the basics for an employer to really go and build on. What’s way more important to me, and what should be important to the person doing the degree, is the reason why you did it in the first place. If it’s not because you love it then I’m going to be much less interested in retaining your services, even if your technical ability is first rate.

I wouldn’t expect any future employer of mine to be interested in retaining my services if they don’t see me loving whatever problem they have for me to solve. I don’t expect that Imagination hired me primarily for my skills, vast and amazing as I like to think they are, but because I also showed them that I’d love the job on top of that.

So you can get on in life just off of the back of a burning desire to learn and a love for whatever it is you’re doing. You can do very well in fact, even in incredibly technical fields. A degree is just one small portion of it, and for those just starting out in their careers, where you’re desperately young and inexperienced: you tend to put far too much weight on the letters on the piece of paper and not enough on your love of what you’ve just done, if you even love it at all.