I often wonder – how many people have had that thought? First, let me be direct: it isn’t true. However, neither will I lie: a computer science degree is extremely valuable, but it isn’t required to have an extremely successful career in technology. Don’t believe me? Consider Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and Michael Dell. These guys don’t have degrees at all, let alone in computer science – but it would be really hard to say they haven’t been successful. Why not you?

“But I’m not Steve Jobs.”

Okay, right – but who is? And I’m not trying to make the case that you can go out and become a billionaire (if that does happen, I expect a cut). What I am saying is that you can have a successful and rewarding career in technology. In my capacity as President of General Networks, I’ve watched it happen many times. It can happen to you too. While there is no formula to determine if technology is the right field for you, there are some indicators. Read on.

The Curious Mind

Have you loved technology all of your life? I don’t mean just playing computer games (though you probably like that too). I mean you’ve built a computer, or installed Linux and learned how to write shell scripts, or taught yourself enough JavaScript to make a browser game, or were the first to jailbreak your iPhone, or took a programming class and did twice as much as the assignment required…just for fun. I mean you love technology not just for what it can do, but for what it is.

Do you read articles about algorithms? Have you ever had a computer that you opened so many times that you finally left the case unscrewed? If your toaster breaks, do you want to open it up to see what’s wrong? If any of this sounds like you, keep reading.

Focus is Peace

Personally, there is only one thing that can truly help me forget all of the difficulties of everyday life, and that is a task that requires 100% of my concentration. For me, that’s programming. Does that work for you? Do you get so engrossed working with technology that everything else fades out? Maybe for you it’s not programming but instead working through a complex software configuration or troubleshooting a complicated bug. Maybe it’s designing the perfect User Interface. If any of that is you – keep reading.

Hard is Fun

What happens when you face a difficult problem? Do you become annoyed, or intrigued? After the first 2 hours of work trying to make a button blue instead of red, are you ready to give up? Do you seek out an expert for help, or do you obstinately persevere until you figure it out? Are you aware that your way is not very efficient, but you don’t care because you’re not willing to let someone else have all the fun figuring it out?

Having taken the less-efficient route my entire career while watching those who work more efficiently relying on outside experts, I’ve come to a conclusion: if you defer hard problems to experts, you never get better at solving hard problems, and therefore, never become an expert yourself. But for me, it wouldn’t matter even if this was wrong – I would want to solve the puzzle–err…problems myself anyway, any day. You too? Keep reading.

“Yeah well, that sounds like me. But what can I do?”

My first advice is that if you really want it – don’t give up. You will get frustrated sometimes when applying for jobs, but just like a complex problem with a computer, you have to push through it. If you keep at it, someone will give you a shot. Here are 5 things you can do to take full advantage of that opportunity when the time comes:

1. Work harder than everyone else. This doesn’t mean huge hours on the job (though it may). It means that when you get an assignment to do some JavaScript and your skills are marginal, you spend 4 hours at home every night until those skills are sharp. Remember that you skipped a lot of time working with technology during college, so you need to make up for it.

2. Pay attention. If you are in a meeting that’s particularly boring, instead of “zoning out,” keep focused and try to learn. You may find that there’s an opportunity to do some additional work. If so, volunteer. You may learn something about the project you’re working that will pay dividends in the future. No matter what, knowing more is better–period.

3. Ask good questions. If you don’t understand something that’s critical to your work, ask. Sometimes this will expose your limited understanding, but if that’s the reality, it’s better to deal with it head on. This is not a license to reflexively ask “what do you mean by that” to every statement; you need to know what it is you’re trying to learn as you ask a question. If you do, it will be a good question.

4. Keep the chip on your shoulder but don’t let it show. If you feel like you constantly need to prove yourself, you’re on the right track because you do. Some will judge you because of your background (or lack thereof). Use your work and your results to prove them wrong every day. At the same time, avoid arguing that you’re good – let it show in your work and your words won’t be necessary.

5. Be ready to leave if you need to. Hopefully, you’ll find the right place to work right off the bat, but that probably isn’t realistic. Keep pushing to move forward and when you get stalled, work with your manager to understand why. When it becomes clear that you can’t move forward at your company, start looking elsewhere.

If some of this sounds like you, maybe you should apply at General Networks – we’re always looking. And by the way: I don’t have a computer science degree either.

Todd Withers

President

General Networks Corporation