I first wrote this article in 2013. Back then, the lack of a college degree hadn’t impacted my life much. Recently, however, with the advent of applicant tracking systems (ATS), not being able to check the “college degree” box means that a human being will never even see your resume. The ATS dumps it straight into the trash. One of the many frustrations of job hunting in your 60s.
Do I wish I’d stayed in school? Did the teaching credential I eventually earned help out? Read on…
When I started college at De Anza in 1976, I was convinced that my future was entirely centered around software engineering. Since I’d been working—and playing—with computers for years, I bypassed a lot of the early classes and jumped right in to higher-level classes. I was living the computer dream, working nights in the computer lab at school and making extra money tutoring programming. I even taught a class, which is where my problems began.
Why I don’t have a degree
I proposed the class to the Dean of Data Processing, and he turned me down. Imagine that. He turned down a cocky 19-year-old who thought he was mister junior professor. In retrospect, I understand completely, but at the time it bothered me no end. I was grousing about it to my boss at the computer lab job, and he laughed.
“Have you ever actually looked at my business card, Gary?” he asked me.
I hadn’t, so I picked one up. His title was listed as “Director of Staff Development.” I looked at him quizzically.
“That means I am responsible for training the staff,” he explained. “The reason the Dean didn’t just set up someone else to teach that class you proposed is that none of the professors know that HP-2000 Access computer system like you and the other operators do. I can put your class in the catalog as a staff course whether he likes it or not. If it doesn’t fill up with staff, we open it to students and everybody wins.”
As it turned out, everybody didn’t win. I got my class, and the Dean got pissed. Finally, at the end of the semester, he summoned me to his office.
“I’ve been going over your transcript, Robson. It appears that you haven’t taken a lot of your prerequisite classes. I see, for example, that you took Advanced FORTRAN without taking Beginning or Intermediate FORTRAN.”
“Of course I did. I’ve been tutoring Intermediate FORTRAN since the beginning of my freshman year, and I’m tutoring Advanced now.”
“Yes, but as the Dean, I can withhold credits for courses if you haven’t completed the prerequisites. In fact, I see you never took Computers and Society or Introduction to Computing.”
Suddenly, I realized where he was going. I’d taken a pretty heavy load for two years, and I had almost three years worth of credits. He could wipe out most of those credits with a stroke of his pen, and it would take me another whole year to fill in the gaps.
Though I enjoyed college and I would have liked to continue, the Dean held all the cards and it was clearly time to look at options. After an exhausting all-day interview, I was offered a full-time salaried job as an Operating System Programmer in the nascent Silicon Valley electronics industry. I accepted. End of college career for Gary.
How I ended up with a teaching credential
Fast-forward a bit over ten years. My wife and I, through the business we owned at the time, had just donated some computer software to West Valley Community College in California. The problem was, nobody there knew how to use it. They asked if we’d be willing to teach the classes for a couple of years, and the staff could attend along with the students to bring them up to speed. We agreed, as long as we didn’t have to teach more than a class or two at a time.
Shortly before the semester started, the head of the department called and asked me to come in and fill out paperwork. I went through all of the papers, filled in the blanks, dotted the i’s, crossed the t’s, and handed them to her. She scanned through everything and came to a screeching halt.
“You don’t have a degree?”
“No, I don’t. I thought you knew that.”
“I can’t get you a temporary teaching credential without a degree!”
This impending crisis ended up involving several other staff members, one of whom came up with an idea. She asked how long I’d been working in the field, and went off to look something up. As it turns out, ten years of related real-world experience could be applied in lieu of a bachelor’s degree for purposes of granting credentials.
On August 28, 1987, I was granted temporary credential #342745 by the State of California, allowing me to teach “computer and related technologies.”
I immediately called my mother to tell her the news.
“Guess what, Mom! I got a teaching credential and I’m going to be teaching college classes!”
There was a long pause.
“Does this mean you’re never going to get a college degree?”
There’s nobody better than a mother for keeping you humble.
Over the years, my lack of college degree didn’t impact me much. Once that two-year stint at West Valley was over, the credential didn’t help much, either. It’s great for credibility, but it was temporary and it expired long ago. The only other college I taught at was in Montana, and they don’t require credentials. I applied to teach at a two-year school in Wyoming, but they wouldn’t even accept the application without a Master’s degree, so neither a B.S. nor a teaching credential would have helped there.
Today, surprisingly enough, not having a degree is a huge problem when applying for jobs. You’d think that 40 years of experience in the field would make the degree irrelevant, but it doesn’t. One place it doesn’t have an impact, though, is consulting, which is what I’m doing now.
Sometimes I wish I’d finished that degree, but I really wouldn’t give up the ride I got in early Silicon Valley. Where else—and when else—could a kid without a degree become an operating systems programmer, an integrated circuit designer, and an entrepreneur, all in a few years? Maybe after I retire I’ll go back to school and get a degree in something fun. We’ll see…