What are qualifications actually worth?

Reading this short post on Mashable (extract below), which cites that Google have stopped asking job applicants for their academic results, I am forced to question the authentic worth of academic qualifications.

Google, one of the tech giants, have stopped (to some extent) requiring these certificates that our societies have evolved as the means of securing income earning potential. Is this indicative of wider change?

I have the pleasure of working with Graham Hobson, the Chief Technology Officer of PhotoBox, in developing our ICT Strategy. He gave a talk to my Sixth Form ICT students on SCRUM and his use of other agile development methods. At the end of his talk, I asked about the qualifications he requires from technologist job applicants. None. No A Levels and no degree. He places value on authentic (evidence-based) passion: some kind of portfolio of work they have done. Graham anticipated new recruits would become useful after training in the specific systems used by the companies and this might take a few months.

In the interests of balance, I spoke to a fellow teacher at another school whom has taught A Level Computing for many years. He was struck by how easily his students, past and present, were able to find temporary jobs connected to Computer Science in some way, and how this often led to long-term employment in interesting positions. His experience is as follows:

…if the computing boys can find a place to get started they quickly develop their skills to a level that either gets them holiday work or a full time job later. Graduates in CS from good universities are very employable; there seems to be a shortage of people at this level. But the skillset may be quite hard to develop. Few boys here choose CS (no UCAS applicants here in CS for 2014, the first time this has happened for as long as I can remember, we usually have 3-6). The job is not very well defined, as you know from your brother [my brother is a co-founder of Marketing QED and a formidable programmer]. If you are good then there is great opportunity but it’s not like other professions e.g. medicine where there is a more clearly defined path to the top. I guess computing is more entrepreneurial: you develop skills and then form your own company; sell up, get rich and start again. Exciting, interesting but not so clearly defined. We are puzzled by the lack of interest in software development and CS and usually put it down to things like the lure of the City, a fear of being labelled a geek, fear that it is boring and that it is quite hard.

Worthy of note is that, despite this evidence that it’s potentially fruitful, young people are steering their paths away from Computer Science qualifications. This indicates that it is not a natural career path. Maybe it is because being a programmer is too niche and not seen as a way to high-end income earning potential.

I asked my brother who is CTO of marketingQED and a programmer. He uses a recruitment agency who do the initial screening and basic competency checks. All compatible candidates are forwarded to HR in his company who telephone interview them to sift the wheat from the chaff and these candidates are then psychometrically tested. Successful candidates are then interviewed by the development team where, as part of the process, they have to present a piece of their own code to be discussed in detail. Two members of his development team had started a degree but failed to complete them. In both cases the courses were at non-UK universities where it is expected that the student will be working alongside their study and work can start to dominate their time, usurping the qualification. My brother noted that qualifications become significant when two CVs are otherwise similar, and added it is very important to include detail that makes you stand out, citing an example: ‘one of our guys listed “Mushroom Picking” as his only hobby which led to us interviewing him to find out more and he ended up getting the job despite lack of qualification’. So, we can see that qualifications are not defining in this selection process. The capacity of a candidate to write and discuss their code is. Are we sufficiently developing these skills in school?

Google, however, are opting to refine their selection process, possibly finding traditional methods are not satisfactory in identifying the key characteristics they require:

Google is more focused on “behavioral interviews,” which are less about the interviewer than the applicant. Bock [Laszlo Bock, Google's SVP] says these type of interviews yield more information about how the job candidate deals with situations in the real world.

Bock also noted during the interview that Google has found grade-point averages to be a “worthless” metric for hiring. For that reason, Google has stopped asking most applicants for their transcripts and GPAs. In fact, Google is also hiring more people with no college experience whatsoever.

“The proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well,” Bock said in the interview. “So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

Source: http://mashable.com/2013/06/20/google-stopped-asking-brainteasers/ (accessed: 21/6/13)

Is this an increase in relatively low-educated technologists? It feels pretty much impossible to collate how all the major tech companies recruit their technologists, but surely this is indicative that, despite there being excellent Computer Science degree courses (as well as some dodgy ones), that the criteria for interview success is based on individual personality and a portfolio of projects, with a core element of being able to show that you have an authentic understanding of your work. Was it ever any different? You would be hard-pushed to say personality never played a part, with or without specific qualifications. What this does mean is that we, as educators, need to be encouraging our pupils to develop themselves holistically in their specific areas of career interest. And to find a way of creating a portfolio or evidence-base of their work, be it private that can be shared at interview, or public on a blog or similar. Pushing for league table success might make sense to the educational organisations, but, in some cases, it might be a disservice to the young people in our care. Having said that, one of my ICT students now studying Business and Information Systems at Aston University visited school to have lunch with me a couple of weeks ago. He was surprised by the quality of his whole education. He presumed that all schools educate you in the same way but he now realises that this is not true. The education we provide for our students is really very important to them. To each of them. And we should make sure they have their eyes open, know a lot about the world, and that there are many roads to choose from. As we are driven by exam results and the like, the employers are increasingly abandoning such measures as indicators of suitability for employment. How do we tell our students and pupils that school is possibly not providing the first rungs on the career path?

  • Ian Guest

    As always, wise, considered and perhaps just a tad contentious, words Mr B? I’ve been asking myself the same question as the post title for
    some time now. I tend to agree that the formal qualifications to which your refer serve our students only poorly and are increasingly simply
    about providing the means for accountability of individual teachers, the departments and schools within which they work and ultimately I guess,
    the Government. They provide a quick (and dirty) mechanism for HR departments or HE admissions tutors to filter applicants. But beyond
    that? I’m not sure.

    I too feel that a portfolio illustrating a student’s capabilities, passions and progress might provide a more rounded picture of their suitability for a particular position, though appreciate that portfolios too are not problem free. Your points are largely in the context of computing/computer science, so I wonder to what extent it is appropriate to extrapolate your arguments beyond these fields? I can’t claim experience in the fields, but it appears that the artistic sectors manage quite well using the principle of portfolios, so why not others? [Puts on tin hat and bulletproof vest]