Lessons From Tech Leaders Who Skipped School to Learn & Innovate

These days, it’s not easy to get a job without a college degree—unless, of course, you create one for yourself, something entrepreneurs have been doing throughout human history. Starting your own business is the best way to prioritize your ideas and bring them to life.

We’ve all heard the romanticized stories of brilliant tech giants who dropped out of school to work on their own projects—and ended up as billionaires who changed the world. But what can these stories teach us?

In honor of last month’s Computer Science Education Week, let’s take a closer look at how successful and innovative tech leaders who dropped out of school and created some of the world’s biggest and most innovative companies find success. Whether you’re a college graduate already or you’re thinking academia isn’t your thing, get inspired by these famous household names who didn’t need a degree to make their dreams come true.

Computer Science: A Field for Experimentation

Back when Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell were in college, the field of computer science was still very new overall. The curriculums available could provide a foundation for success, but lots of experimentation, willingness to take risks, and innovation was necessary to make big leaps in the field. Their tinkering could easily have led to nothing, but their curiosity and willingness to risk failure was instrumental in forming Microsoft, Apple, and Dell Computers.

Today, although college curriculums for computer science teach a wide range of skills, some entrepreneurs criticize these programs for being out of date, and not teaching students the skills they need to be bold and innovative. Computer science changes rapidly from year to year, and people working in the field need to be agile, adaptable, and able to pick up new languages and concepts quickly in order to succeed. If you want to work for an innovative company (or start your own), you need to be willing to try new things and push the limits of what computers can do

It’s Not About the Degree

In some fields, a degree is an absolute necessity. Medicine, for example, is not a field you can (or should) break into without formal education. In the tech industry, however, it’s often not about the piece of paper—it’s about your knowledge, skills, personality and abilities.

In the last few years, large companies like Google have moved away from hiring people based on their college experience. They found no relationship between job performance and going to college, and began to make changes in their hiring processes. In 2013, up to 14% of some teams at Google had employees who had never gone to college. Celebrated tech giant Elon Musk of Tesla Motors has a similar outlook: it’s not about the degree, it’s about what you know and what you can do.

Is College Worthwhile?

Do these tech geniuses’ success suggest that college isn’t useful? Not at all—after all, many successful people do complete college, and end up using what they learned to build their careers and businesses. However, the success of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world does suggest that college isn’t essential—with the caveat that not having a degree can make it difficult to land a job at some companies.

It’s important to remember that these uber-successful tech giants are the exception, rather than the rule. In fact, the 34 million Americans with college credits but no degree are 71% more likely to be unemployed than college graduates, and earn 32% less on average. For this reason, it’s not a path that everyone should take—but there are some valuable lessons to be learned from those who managed without college. What the success of these founders shows us is that innovation isn’t something that’s taught in the classroom—it’s something born from a drive to solve problems and bring visions to life.

Make Learning a Lifelong Priority

Technology moves fast. Just 36 years ago, IBM released the first personal computer, yet we now carry incredibly powerful computers in our pockets. A programming language that was cutting-edge 10 years ago may now almost be a fossil of the computer world, and new devices are changing the way our world functions.

Even though you don’t need a degree to become an innovative computer scientist or start a successful technology company, that doesn’t mean there isn’t hard work and learning involved. Today, it’s possible to learn programming languages online, either through a college program or through e-courses taught by experts. In 2013-14, there were 199,815 students attending online courses, with many more taking “unofficial” courses.

However you choose to pursue your education, it’s important to remember that learning should be a lifelong priority. To be an innovator, you need to be prepared to keep up with the trends and forge your own path.

By Ryan Ayers

About the author

Ryan Ayers has consulted a number of companies within multiple industries including information technology and big data. After earning his MBA in 2010, Ayers also began working with start-up companies and aspiring entrepreneurs, with a keen focus on data collection and analysis.

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