In 2020, Stack Overflow found that over 62% of professional developers held a degree in computer science, software engineering, or engineering. Of all the professional developers surveyed, 85% believed that formal education is somewhat important to breaking into an engineering role in tech. But what should you be pursuing if you want a career in tech?
Whether you’re a high school student trying to figure out which career path to take, or someone who’s been working for a while and would like a career switch, this post aims to shed some light on the various tech careers out there and the common educational routes taken to get your foot in the door.
We’ll first explore popular tech career pathways, then run through the top universities for computer science programs and finally, answer the most commonly asked question about breaking into tech.
I’ve read through job descriptions, career advice websites, articles written by industry experts and even interviewed Isaac Tan, a product manager at Supahands (a startup that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning) to bring the best insights to help you figure out your next move.
Let’s get started.
Popular Careers in Tech
Software Engineer / Developer
Software engineers are responsible for the “big picture”, combining project management with software design, development, and testing, to solve business problems. Software developers, on the other hand, focus on coding, building, and developing specific features or applications that make up the larger system or solution.
Common degrees: Computer science, Computer engineering, Information systems, Engineering
Colleges/ Universities: Scroll down for a list of top universities for computer science programs!
Learn more about becoming a software engineer here >>
Security Analyst / Security Engineer
A security analyst monitors computer infrastructure and information networks to ensure that a company’s data and systems are protected. According to Cybersecurity Guide, this ranges from controlling file access, maintaining firewalls and updating networks, to “proactively trying to hack systems to look for vulnerabilities and weaknesses.” Most security engineers start off in IT teams before securing industry-specific certification to transition to cybersecurity.
Common degrees: Cybersecurity, Information security, Computer programming, Computer science
Colleges / Universities: Bellevue University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Webster University, Jacksonville State University
Additional certifications: Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), Certified Information Security Systems Professional (CISSP), CompTIA Security+
Get great advice on breaking into a career in Cybersecurity >>
Learn more about cybersecurity certifications here >>
Data scientists gather large sets of data from various sources and use a combination of computer science, statistics, and mathematics to make sense of the data. They help visualize the data to effectively communicate insights to the rest of the organization. Chris Linder from Indeed found that computer science and business/economics were the most common fields of study amongst data scientists. In fact, most data scientists have an academic or software engineering background and often pursue a Masters in data science to properly break into the field.
Common degrees: Data Science, Mathematics, Computer Science, Economics, and Business with some classes in statistics, calculus, and programming.
Colleges / Universities (Masters programs): Drexel University, Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Missouri - Columbia
Get a full list of recommendations for Data Science Master’s programs here and here.
Get really useful advice on how to break into data science here and how to grow your career as a data scientist here.
Machine Learning Engineer
Machine learning engineers analyze various data streams to create, test and deploy models that provide organizations with the information they need. After writing a program, engineers provide data to help the system learn to interpret the input and make conclusions or predictions. Over time, the engineer monitors and tweaks the program to improve its accuracy. Most machine learning engineers start off with a technical degree, then carry on to gain hands-on experience or earn a Master’s in machine learning.
Common degrees: Applied mathematics, Computer science, Computer programming, Data science
Colleges / Universities (Masters programs and short courses): Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University Online, Massachusetts Institute of Technology - OpenCourseWare
Online resources recommended by Isaac from Supahands:
- Andrew Ng's machine learning 101 on Coursera is one of the best courses to learn the fundamentals of AI/ML
- Coursera's Deep Learning specialization (also by Andrew Ng) is a great program to learn about end to end of deep learning
- Synced and Google AI is a good blog, but it can get quite technical
- Learning with Google AI also offers useful resources for engineers, product managers and designers
Learn more about the skills you need to develop to become a machine learning engineer >>
Full list of top universities for Master’s programs in machine learning >>
Hardware / IoT Engineer
Hardware engineers design and test the physical components of a computer such as circuit boards, processors, networks, and so on. With the increasing popularity of IoT, hardware engineers proficient in software and data security might find themselves transitioning to IoT roles that truly leverage their skills and expertise in all areas. Aspiring IoT engineers tend to start with an undergraduate degree in engineering or computer science, then pursue a Masters in computer engineering or IoT. If pursuing an engineering degree, it’s recommended that you choose programs that are accredited by ABET.
Common degrees: Electrical engineering, Electronic engineering, Computer engineering, Physics
Colleges / Universities (Masters programs): Carnegie Mellon University’s Information Networking Institute, Stanford School of Engineering, Malmö University
For more recommendations on IoT Master’s programs, check out this article and this article.
User experience or user interaction developers focus on creating great experiences for users on platforms like websites, software, and mobile apps, just to name a few. Many UX/UI developers don’t hold formal UX degrees because the formal discipline is relatively new. However, there are many online courses and bootcamps that offer specialized certifications that can help you get your foot in the door.
Common degrees: Digital media design, Website development, Psychology
UX/UI course providers: Interaction Design Foundation, UX Mastery, General Assembly, Careerfoundry, Udacity, Coursera
Check out this article for a list of top-notch courses you can join today >>
According to Martin Eriksson, founder of Product Tank, product managers sit at the cross-section of UX, tech, and business goals. A product manager wears many hats. They identify the pain-points of the user, figure out the best solution for the user based on available internal resources, define and plan the product strategy and product roadmap, and optimize the product or service to achieve larger business goals. Most importantly, they represent their user within the company and constantly strive to create user-centric solutions.
Common degrees: Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Software Engineering, Business, Economics
Colleges / Universities: Carnegie Mellon University MS in Product Management, Stanford Online Product Management Courses, plus scroll down for a list of top universities for computer science programs
Learn about the career pathways for a product manager >>
Computer Science Programs Around the World
Computer science degrees were most frequently recommended for the jobs we explored above. To make life easier, we’ve compiled a list of top schools in the world for computer science.
Top 10 universities in the world for computer science
according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021:
- University of Oxford (UK)
- Stanford University (US)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)
- ETH Zurich (Switzerland)
- Carnegie Mellon University (US)
- Harvard University (US)
- National University of Singapore (Singapore)
- University of California, Berkeley (US)
- Imperial College London (UK)
Other top universities for computer science around the world
Australia & New Zealand
US - Public Universities
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign
- University of Texas - Austin
- University of California - Los Angeles
- University of California - San Diego
- Texas A&M University
- University of Virginia
- Arizona State University
US - Private Universities
- Cornell University
- Columbia University
- University of Southern California
- Rice University
- Yale University
- École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland)
- Technical University of Munich (Germany)
- University of Edinburgh (Scotland)
- Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris (France)
- KU Leuven (Belgium)
- University of Amsterdam (Netherlands)
- Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
- Seoul National University
- Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH)
- Indian Institute of Science
- Indian Institute of Technology (the Bombay and Delhi schools are particularly popular)
Other Parts of Asia
- Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
- The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)
- National Taiwan University (NTU)
- Universidad de Chile
- Universidade de São Paulo
- Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)
- Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA)
Do you really need a computer science degree to break into tech?
To answer this question, I reached out to Isaac Tan, Head of Product at Supahands to get his two cents. Supahands is a startup that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to offer data labeling services at scale, and Isaac is actively involved with hiring new team members for both product and engineering.
For Isaac, product management (PM) was something he stumbled into by accident. He began his career as an intern at Supahands.
“I learned to work independently and stepped up to solve problems I encountered. I worked on the difficult stuff that no one wanted to work on, regardless if it was or was not part of my job scope. To be an effective problem solver, I needed to learn new skills or collaborate with different teams to solve a problem together.
Basically, I was good at being scrappy.”
His can-do attitude got him noticed by his CEO who suggested he apply for the PM position. After learning more about the role, he realized he was already doing most of the work of a PM, so he took the obvious next step.
As a PM, Isaac told me that while most of his teammates don’t carry a technical degree or an MBA, there are benefits to being familiar with engineering and data science as they move up in their careers.
Given that AI and ML have only recently caught on, I wanted to know what Isaac and his team looked for in engineers who might not have had formal education in these areas.
“We seek out engineers who can show that they are incredibly passionate about ML and AI. I think a person genuinely interested in this area is more motivated to continue learning about the technology, up-skill themselves and become a valuable asset to the organization.
I also pay close attention to engineers who can demonstrate that they are able to explore new concepts and learn new skills. Having a strong portfolio or side-project in AI/ML is a huge plus as it shows us that the candidate truly cares about the topic and has taken the initiative to learn.”
Apart from technical skills, empathy is a skill Isaac believes is often overlooked but can be valuable when working in teams.
“To me, empathy is important. While engineers are typically great problem solvers, they tend to detach people from the problems they’re solving. When people are removed from the equation, things get messy. Communication and collaboration breaks down, or the user’s experience is neglected because the team forgets about the end-user.
A great engineer is able to understand the problem from multiple points of view - their users and their teammates - and create solutions for all these stakeholders in mind.”
What alternatives can you pursue instead of a computer science degree?
In an interview with No CS Degree, FreeBird’s CTO Adam Duro acknowledges that “stumbling” into web development or software engineering is a lot harder than it used to be.
While there are a lot more high quality resources for people to learn the basics, Adam states that “I don’t think it’s easier for self-taught developers than when I started." He goes on to explain:
"Why? Because there is so much more to learn these days to really have the skill set that is valuable to modern engineering organization.
I got to learn these things over time, as they were released into the community.Nowadays these things are the standard. And this is why it’s even more important these days to really understand the fundamentals of engineering, and be steadfast and hungry to learn."
That said, it is not impossible to learn these skills on your own. Websites like No CS Degree have hundreds of inspiring stories of individuals who made the brave decision to pursue a career in tech by learning the skills they need on their own.
There are also hundreds of websites and platforms offering online courses, workshops, and bootcamps that teach you how to code from scratch. The trick is to figure out what you want to build or the type of work you want to do, and then learn the languages and frameworks that can get you there.
Here are some popular sites to get you started:
- Codecademy - Free and paid courses on software engineering, web development, data science, and more.
- Coursera - Free courses on a wide range of topics with content from leading universities. Upgrade to a paid version to earn industry recognized certifications.
- Free Code Camp - Free courses on software development, funded by donations from around the world.
- Grow with Google - Free courses on IT Support, Data Analytics, UX Design, and Android Development.
- The Odin Project - Free web development courses.
- Udacity - Paid courses for cloud computing, software engineering, cybersecurity, business, and more.
- Udemy - Paid courses for a wide variety of computing, design, and business.
- W3schools.com - Get free tutorials and interactive exercises on web development.
To really get your foot in the door, a technical degree can only get you so far. Today, product and engineering teams are looking for people who not only have strong foundations in their chosen fields, but who also have an insatiable desire to learn and push the boundaries of technology.
Here’s what Isaac has to say to aspiring product managers and anyone else who wants a career in tech:
“I recommend that you get comfortable with not knowing a lot of things and believing that you have the ability to learn as your career in tech progresses.
Do not let fear of that stop you from learning and exploring. Take time to develop a learning framework that works for you and fall in love with the process of learning and relearning. Technology moves faster than our imaginations can keep up. What sets good PMs apart is not how much they know from the past, but how fast they can learn what they need to solve the problems of today.”