Do You Still Need a Computer Science Degree to Be a Software Developer?

By: Fullstack Staff

The United States Department of Labor projects that job prospects for software developers will grow by 24 percent over the next 10 years. With information technology (IT) job opportunities on an upward trajectory, there has never been a better time to equip yourself with computer science skills.

But what’s the best way to build those skills?

Since the inception of programming as a mainstream skill, the only skill-building option has been to invest time and money in a computer science (CS) degree program, but in the last five years, technical certifications via independent code schools--also known as coding bootcamps--have offered would-be programmers a more affordable and efficient path forward.

Knowing your options, you may be asking yourself, “What can I do with a computer science degree?” or “What can I do with a bootcamp certification? And is there a difference in career options for the two paths?”

It’s important to know right off the bat that you can do plenty with either background. The IT field is composed of professionals like information systems architects, data scientists, and web developers, all of whom have learned to program somewhere and have at least a fundamental grasp of computer science skills. So that’s a broad overview of your IT options.

But to help you answer your questions in detail, this article will cover the following:

  • Computer science careers and salaries
  • Computer science degree programs vs. bootcamp certificates
  • What to expect from a coding bootcamp
  • Computer science degree types and what to expect from those

What Can You Do With a Computer Science Degree

Computer Science Careers

Whether you have aspirations to work with a small startup on a new product or to work in the IT department at a financial services firm, here are some potential careers and their accompanying median salaries gathered from the United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Web Developer: $101,790

Web developers program applications for end-users to interact with. They may use front-end programming languages like CSS3, HTML5, and JavaScript, or back-end languages like Node.js, PHP, Python, and Ruby. If they are proficient in both front-end and back-end development, they are considered full-stack web development professionals. They are also skilled in UX design and object-oriented programming, and they ensure that applications render across devices and platforms. Web developers build apps for mobile operating systems like iOS and Android, for web browsers, or for other platforms. 

Computer Systems Analyst: $88,270

Computer systems analysts, also referred to as system architects, analyze and optimize an organization’s computer systems and IT procedures to maximize ROI. This is not an entry-level position as it requires expert-level knowledge of software systems, hardware, and organizational business interests.

Information Security Analyst: $95,510

Security analysts are responsible for protecting an organization’s computer networks and systems. Their tasks include maintaining anti-virus software and firewalls, installing encryption programs, configuring network permissions and authorization protocols, conducting risk assessments, and establishing data breach recovery procedures.

Systems Developer: $107,600

These developers build the actual operating systems and networks that user-facing applications need in order to function. Rather than considering the needs of the end-user directly, systems developers instead consider what the software applications need to run effectively. This is a role that junior developers may take on once they get a little experience under their belts.

Database Administrator: $87,020

Database administrators design, organize, and maintain databases that send, receive, and store information. They use their knowledge of data science to define data so it can be queried, to establish access control protocols, to troubleshoot, and to recover compromised data.

Network and Systems Administrator: $81,100

Systems administrators are highly trained general IT support staff. They see to it that an organization’s internal computer systems operate effectively by maintaining the proper hardware and software, monitoring network user permissions and behavior, optimizing for security, and troubleshooting when issues arise.

Degree Programs vs. Coding Bootcamp Certificates

Computer science degree programs are typically two to four years long and teach everything from information systems theories to computer programming languages. In bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, you can expect to learn about the history of computer science and the contributions of early innovators like Alan Turing and Grace Hopper. In addition, degree programs often have career services that help students find an internship to gain real-world experience in the IT industry.

Degree programs can be a good investment--but it depends on your end goals. Traditional two- or four-year degree programs are an extraordinary expense for most people, costing anywhere from $40,000 to $140,000, so it’s important to understand the return on your investment. If you are interested in being a systems or security analyst, a degree program is a good way to go. You can likely customize your education to include all the niche coursework you’ll need in order to learn those skills.

But if your primary goal is to become a web developer, systems developer, or database administrator, a four- or even two-year degree program is overkill. Especially when you can learn all the skills you need in 12 to 18 weeks at the cost of no more (and sometimes less) than one semester of a degree program. It’s less that a degree program won’t teach you what you need and more that it’ll teach you way more than you need--and require that you pay for it.

Don’t get the wrong impression: Coding bootcamps aren’t bare-bones, just-the-basics educational institutions. They provide an intensive curriculum of practical computer science skills and training in high-demand programming languages such as JavaScript, Python, PHP, or Ruby on Rails. It’s just that the bootcamp experience is designed to give students precisely what they need to succeed in the IT job market, without all the theory and history that is great to learn, but won’t help students actually get hired.

The other major difference between the two educational models--besides cost and curriculum--is the career services element of coding bootcamps. Most bootcamps are outcomes-oriented, which means they’re very focused on how quickly their grads get hired--and at which companies (whereas degree programs are more focused on making sure students complete the program and less focused on students’ next steps).

These bootcamps, therefore, offer dedicated career success staff who will review your resume and LinkedIn profile, conduct mock interviews, introduce you to recruiters, share best practices for networking and navigating the interview process, and keep you motivated once you’ve graduated and are finally on the job market. Some bootcamps can even help you negotiate your first offer(s), ensuring a nice return on your investment in software development training. This kind of personal attention is not usually feasible for large-scale colleges and universities with graduating class sizes of 500 or more.     

The Benefits of Coding Bootcamps

What Can You Do With a Computer Science Degree?

Coding bootcamps are a relatively new technical training option but are increasingly popular with those looking to increase their job-readiness in the computer science domain. Web development bootcamps are an appealing option for several reasons:

  1. You are often able to select from both local, in-person bootcamps and online or virtual bootcamp programs
  2. You can take only the courses necessary for your particular area of interest in programming and pay for only those courses
  3. Bootcamps provide not only intensive training in programming skills, but also job search savvy and hands-on experience building projects for your portfolio
  4. You can finish your training in weeks instead of years
  5. Many bootcamps have hiring partnerships with local businesses and IT firms and are able to submit your resume directly to IT companies with appropriate openings
  6. Bootcamp graduates report an average salary increase of 51% from their pre-bootcamp salaries

Many bootcamp students enroll because they want to transition to a new career or have not completed a formal computer science degree. Even some CS degree holders supplement their degrees with bootcamp training--sometimes because they want to be able to get more senior level jobs and see bootcamp certification as the equivalent of an advanced degree, and other time because they don’t feel confident about their day-to-day programming skills or familiar with all the latest technologies they’ll need to get hired as actual developers.

Bootcamps are able to offer such cutting-edge curricula because they’re designed to be flexible. Colleges and universities have to buy into expensive learning management systems in order to coordinate curricula across so many students--but that makes it incredibly difficult to change any of that curricula or how it’s all delivered. Add to that the bureaucracy of state and federal accreditation that degree programs are beholden to, the volume of academic material required to make updates for hundreds of students across different courses, and the difficulty of retraining tenured professors, and it becomes prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for degree programs to regularly update their curricula.

Coding bootcamps, on the other hand, run lean. They offer small class sizes and shorter programs, which gives instructional staff the time to get feedback, update coursework accordingly, participate in training, and iterate. And though many bootcamps are overseen by state agencies--to ensure consumer protections--most aren’t accredited, which means their curriculum updates can be dictated by industry trends and requirements, not by bureaucrats who may or may not be up on the latest tech advances.

For degree and non-degree students alike, bootcamps teach the latest skills, and provide a leg up for grads entering the job market.

If you are looking to jump-start your career as a software engineer, check out this list of coding bootcamps supplied by Course Report. Many camps offer both full-time and part-time programs, as well as online programs. Whether you are in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco--or even if you live nowhere near a tech hub--you have plenty of learning opportunities.

Fullstack Academy

The Grace Hopper Program

General Assembly

Hack Reactor

Software Guild

Tech Elevator

Tech Talent South

App Academy

Brainstation

Codesmith

A number of bootcamps also offer tutoring, supplementary seminars, and additional free courses. Inquire with your chosen code school to see what’s offered.

In the New York area? Check out these free learning opportunities!

Degree Programs

If you do decide to go the college degree route, there are four different degree levels you can pursue: associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate.

Since a master’s degree is a prerequisite to pursuing a doctorate, and a Ph.D. is generally only for those interested in a career in academia or conducting government-sponsored research, we’ll leave the Ph.D. research up to you 😉 and tackle those first three options.

What Can You Do With a Computer Science Degree vs. Bootcamps

Associate Degree

An associate degree usually takes two years to complete and can be earned at community colleges, technical colleges, or vocational schools. A computer science associate program will provide both general education classes and industry-specific coursework. Here are some of the technical skills you are likely to be trained in:

  • Web design
  • Graphic design
  • E-commerce site management
  • Intro to HTML and JavaScript
  • Intro to databases
  • Pre-calculus

Bachelor’s Degree  

A standard bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete and is a more advanced credential. In your education, you will explore computer science concepts and theories in greater depth. There will be a greater emphasis on math, science, and software engineering skills. You can expect some of the following coursework:

  • Internet technologies and information systems*
  • Fundamentals of computer science*
  • Software development methodologies*
  • Advanced web design
  • Website optimization*
  • Calculus
  • Data structures*

*Skills taught at most coding bootcamps.

Master’s Degree

This is an advanced two-year degree for those who are committed to becoming an expert in the computer science field. Students who have already completed bachelor’s of computer science or other engineering degree enroll in a master’s program as the next step in their career path.

Those hoping to pursue a master’s of computer science with an unrelated background will have to get up to speed by completing prerequisites in math, engineering, and information systems. You will pin down an area of expertise at the master’s level, so it’s important to choose a program with the faculty and courses that you want to specialize in.

Courses will vary among schools and departments, but these are some of the disciplines commonly offered:

  • Web application security*
  • Algorithms for machine learning*
  • AI components*
  • Advanced data analysis
  • Computer architecture*
  • Content management systems
  • Principles of computing*
  • Network and computer security*
  • Human and computer interactions*

*Skills taught at most coding bootcamps.

If you are interested in higher education options but don’t have a reputable computer science degree program in your area, consider online courses. The Best Schools has put together this list of institutions offering online degrees in software engineering:

Pennsylvania State University

Washington State University--Everett

Champlain College

College of St. Scholastica

Arizona State University

Brigham Young University--Idaho

DePaul University

Western Governors University

University of Maryland--University College

Bellevue University  

What’s Right for Me?

Both the intensive programming training offered by bootcamps and more traditional degree programs are viable paths to a rewarding career in computer science. When making this important decision, here are some key considerations:

  • How set on this career path are you? Do you already have some programming skills, or are you trying it for the first time? If you are brand new to the CS field and programming, a bootcamp experience may more sense than investing in a two- or four-year degree, but know that most bootcamps do not accept beginners and are geared toward helping grads get jobs in the field, so you’ll want to take some intro courses and get the basics under your belt before applying.

  • Do you have a specific IT job in mind--like web or systems developer, or database administrator--or are you still exploring and think you might benefit from a broader technical education first as you explore your interests? Formal degree programs offer that broader background in computer science, plus introductory training across a number of technical skill sets, so you can figure out which ones most appeal to you.
  • What are your time and money constraints? Will you have access to financial aid or financing options? There are few things that take a larger commitment of time and money than a four-year degree in the United States.
  • What are the IT job prospects in your region, and are the training options tailored to prepare students for those opportunities? Bootcamps often build their curriculum with the local job market in mind, and update their programming courses to reflect industry innovations.

So, is a computer science degree a must-have for those seeking to start a career as a computer developer? Not anymore--especially for anyone for whom a four- or even two-year degree is prohibitively expensive, or anyone looking to get hired immediately. But as an aspiring IT professional, it’s up to you to choose the most strategic route to realizing your unique career goals. We wish you luck.

Want to learn more about what software engineers do? Check out this post on software engineer job types, training, and salary.

  


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