My mom, a college dropout, used to relentlessly repeat that finding a decent job without a college degree is virtually impossible. She shared her life wisdom with me. During her times, higher education was a key to a good job and a good life. Unfortunately, knowledge only reached as far as the professor’s voice, and there were only so many professors, lecture halls, and seats where she lived. Even when the teaching was lousy, the scarcity forced many to clench their teeth, get a tutor, and still grind through every single class, no matter how boring or irrelevant it was.
I got luckier than my mom. I grew up in a world where I could work as a software developer, manager, data scientist, and even co-founded a VC-backed startup without as much as a Bachelor’s degree. During my time, skills open more doors than diplomas. Knowledge travels with the speed of light, reaching anyone carrying a smartphone. Everyone has free access to courses from MIT, Stanford, Harvard, and thousands of independent teachers. Quality education is so abundant I don’t even have to tolerate lousy teaching or selective admissions.
Degrees mattered when information was scarce
Have you ever wondered why universities were created in the first place?
To me, it was an act of creative rebellion. A group of students in 11th century Italy had a knowledge problem1. They wanted to learn, but the only two knowledge mediums in existence, scholars and manuscripts, were controlled mainly by the church and only shared with the wealthy males and future monks. They were neither. Lacking other options, they created one by finding a scholar willing to home-school them as a group for a reasonable price. Then the news spread and brought more students, more money, better teachers, books, lecture halls, and legal status. That organization still exists today and is known as The University of Bologna.
After 900 years of progress, accessing knowledge became easier, but still not easy. My mom lived through the same knowledge problem as the Bologna students. There was radio and television, but no tele-education. There were books, but not specialized, translated, recent, and relevant bundles. There were computers, but no digital content. The universities were still rare places of knowledge abundance in the world of scarcity, and slowly extracting that knowledge into your brain and notes lecture by lecture was still the only way to take it somewhere else. That’s why the degrees mattered.
But then I was born in 1991, and a few short years later, the world changed beyond recognition.
Just-in-time education matters when information is abundant
Between 1999 and 2002, humans produced roughly as much information as during the previous 47,000 years of history, and kept increasing the pace ever since2. We entered the age of information abundance. It’s no longer about scrambling for scarce information. Now it’s about taking only what you need. It is a different challenge, and so we need a different solution.
Here’s is one that worked for me: I launched my career at 14 without a degree by becoming a Lean Startup of one. At the time, I didn’t know what either lean or a startup meant. I was just acting intuitively. When I looked back to connect the dots, I saw a blueprint for a strategy I’ll call Just-in-Time Education. It consists of:
- Using fun as a compass
- Navigating the abundance
- Learning in public
- Modern internships
- Just-in-time learning
- Continuous learning
Using fun as a compass
I always enjoyed building things, but I wasn’t particularly good at drawing, singing, or writing. When my brother and dad showed me how to make websites, I loved it from first sight. It helped me express myself. Suddenly, I could create anything without even learning how to code. I just moved things around in Microsoft Word. Other hobbies came and went, but this one stuck with me. It just never got boring.
In the modern knowledge economy, having fun is a must. It is an unfair advantage that naturally makes all the other parts fall into place. It helps you find time, ask questions, and connect with like-minded people. When you genuinely care about something, it’s easy to go one step further than the person who dreads it. These steps compound over time.
But you can’t always have fun. Everyone has setbacks, plateaus, low energy days.
We all struggle, and I am no exception. Still, it is much easier to struggle when the activity brings you joy and fulfillment than when you dread it or don’t care about it.
Learning in public
Soon, I wanted to go beyond Microsoft Word and learn the actual code. I chose the first HTML tutorial I found on google and started learning. More specifically, I started building websites about my favorite bands, video games, and a boy scouts group I attended. It was exciting! Every site felt like an achievement, so I kept uploading them to a free hosting service to show my friends from school and online forums. Some even picked up HTML, and we built some sites together. I didn’t realize it then, but I was making my portfolio and a study group simultaneously.
You don’t need a middle-man in the form of a diploma to vouch for your work. You can just show your work. For me, it was hosting websites. For you, it may be writing about your progress, recording videos, tweeting, contributing to open-source projects, helping online communities, you name it. Just show your work. You’ll build a reputation, find like-minded people, and learn faster.
But what if my work isn’t good?
It’s not an if. You will suck. It’s okay, we all do at first. Just get over it and do something, get feedback, improve, and repeat.
But what if I’m wrong in public?
That’s great! Being wrong on the internet is one of the best ways to learn. It could be an ego problem, too, like: What if I expose myself and get hurt? If that’s the case, philosophy and therapy can make being vulnerable in public easier.
When I was 14, I found an online marketplace where people got paid for doing the same thing I did for fun. I got excited! We weren’t particularly wealthy, and I really wanted a cheap, 128MB MP3 player. Well, now was my chance. I placed a few low-ish bids with links to my hobby projects and noted that I’m just setting my first steps on the market. It wasn’t much, I didn’t believe it would work, and I was actually slightly embarrassed. And still, I got a request just a few hours later.
I started working the next day after school. The project was challenging, forced me to learn the basics of PHP, and involved a few rounds of feedback which gave me my first taste of how the software industry works. After a few weeks, the site was ready, my customer was pleased, and I bought my MP3 player.
I call this idea a modern internship.
A classic internship is when you ask a local company to direct your work for a few months. It is a big commitment that takes time, the options are often limited, and once you get in, you may not even practice what you hoped to.
A modern internship is when you find that one person willing to outsource you a specific task based on what you already built. It’s like a freelance project. The commitment is small, the options are abundant, and you get to choose your work.
I worked with the same guy on about a dozen more projects. Every week I struggled with this animation or that search feature, so every week I read relevant articles, documentation chapters, and asked specific questions on online forums. It was intense but also joyful. My learning was immediately applicable and guided by my needs. I developed a deep relationship with knowledge and even found myself disagreeing with some of the authors. It was a new experience as it rarely happened in school.
At one point, the work became repetitive and my learning slowed down. I realized it’s time to move on, but I was scared I wouldn’t find another project. I gathered all my resolve, applied to a few interesting projects, and matched with another person a few days later. By repeating this cycle, I worked on search engines, social sites, and later when I was ready, even payment processing systems. I essentially curated my own learning curriculum in real-time.
Imagine a store order a truck full of apples but only sells half of it before they go bad. That’s a lot of wasted apples! That’s also how degrees work. You don’t know how many classes you need, but you still invest into four years worth of them. Every class is a bet. Some will be of great use, and others will be irrelevant, forgettable, or get outdated quickly; you just don’t know which are which today. It’s risky. And then, humans are pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy. What if you get that degree and discover you don’t like the industry?
Just-in-time learning minimizes waste. It’s like ordering only as many apples as you can sell, only with education. You don’t spend time on courses you wouldn’t use; you only learn what you are about to apply. It’s when you read a single book chapter or watch that one video you need the most right now, and then use it before reaching for more. It’s a safer investment. It’s like slicing the four years bundle of information into many small pieces and strategically reaching only for the ones you need. It’s the closest you can get to betting only on the winners.
But without a structured program, you’ll lack the basics!
On the contrary! It’s not about skipping the basics; it’s about minimizing waste. Using the fruit analogy: The two stores will sell the same number of apples in the end, but the second one will profit more.
And if you’re still not convinced, here’s practical proof: In March 2021, I actually did earn a Computer Science Bachelor’s degree. How? I tested out of all but two classes. The exams took about a month, and I didn’t prepare for a single one of them. It turns out I know the basics pretty well. I just sliced the material differently.
But learning takes time! And there are pre-requisites; you can’t just learn anything from the get go!
Sure! The good news is that you don’t have to. Learning takes time, and degrees don’t last one day either. Just be responsible. Don’t commit to building second facebook when you still struggle with HTML. Grow one shoe size at a time, be honest and upfront, and engage with low-stakes projects where you can safely make mistakes.
My curiosity has led me to cover an entire continent of knowledge. Building Bench was like an MBA, only a practical one where I actually founded a company, hired people, and raised funds. We put up a good fight, but the practice is tougher than theory, and we didn’t make it. I knew how to operate a startup, though, and leveraged it to join the WordPress.com marketing team at Automattic in 2018. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Automattic is true to its creed and has supported my growth in every way imaginable. When I wanted to improve the funnel, I was given a lead role over WordPress.com Signup and Onboarding. When I found that the management path was not my jazz, I smoothly moved to the open-source WordPress project. When I wanted to double down on my data science hobby, I was offered a rotation in Tumblr. I had a good time and more impact than I thought I could, but my heart was with the WordPress community.
My learning has never finished – it has become a way of living. I started at 14, and now I’m 30. I have experience in 10 different professions, a degree, and an insatiable curiosity. Where will it take me tomorrow? I don’t know, but I want to see it. So far, it’s been nothing but a great time.
A degree is when you split your life between years of learning and working. The constraints are pretty arbitrary. Why four years for a Bachelor’s degree? Why 40 courses? Why 12 weeks per course?
Continuous learning is when you fuse learning and working together. There is no degree because there is no finish line. You just follow what’s exciting and useful for the rest of your life. Sometimes you’ll take a deep dive, and other times you’ll pivot in another direction. Your skillset becomes a beautiful and unique tree that grows towards the sun of your passion.
But this great job posting lists a degree as a requirement
The just-in-time approach won’t work for every profession yet, but it may work for more than you think. Certain big players have started challenging the classic degree requirement lately.
Many companies are dropping the degree requirement
Google recently dropped the diploma requirement from many job postings, pioneering alongside Tesla and Apple 3. Hundreds of others follow, including Bank of America, Penguin Random House, and Hilton 4. Instead, they’ll consider your overall profile, offer skill-development programs, or accept specialized courses certified by Google in place of a degree.
Why would they do that? Because they found that it’s not a helpful hiring criterion. Google even exclaimed that it is worthless after they found no correlation between GPAs and work performance 5. I find it pretty ironic that the deeply rooted belief that an academic diploma makes a good proxy for work skills doesn’t hold to academic rigor.
Why is that? I see at least two reasons.
First, academia is a somewhat artificial environment where you often succeed by recalling specific facts at a specific time. Work is more complex than that. There are no exams, problems tend to be unique, and many times there are no single best answers.
Second, there are novices holding the same diploma as experts, and experts with no diploma at all. Choosing one candidate over another based on a single checkbox that doesn’t reveal anything about the person is about as helpful as choosing a McDonald’s over a Michelin-starred based solely on its slightly higher Google Maps rating of 4.5. It’s pointless.
If not diplomas, then what? The theme that I keep running into is that the best forecast of work performance is… work sample. Not very surprising, is it?
How do we prepare for a world where diplomas become less and less necessary?
Alright Adam, the age of abundance is here, the world is catching up, but what do I do with that? How do I prepare?
Recognize plans are just bets. Bet deliberately.
Pursuing a degree may still be a smart thing to do. Maybe you value being there in person, or you need access to expensive equipment only found at the university, or there are laws saying that only graduates may practice your profession. Just do it. You may still find some ways to apply the knowledge as you go and pivot when you need.
But you may also go lean-first. It is a path less traveled, far away from the path of tradition, but such is all innovation. The steps are:
- Find the right hobby
- Through hobby, build basic skills
- Through basic skills, build reputation
- Through reputation, get modern internships
- Through internships, find fulfillment
Find the right hobby
My HTML adventure was sheer luck. You can choose yours intentionally. Pick a hobby that offers high leverage.
A hobby, because it must be exciting for you. That’s not optional. You will keep thinking about it even on low-energy days if you’re enjoying yourself. It’s your answer to Why should I care? Without it, you’ll get tired and let go sooner than later.
High leverage, to give you compound interests on your education over time. If you learn how to cut trees with an axe, your can’t scale that. One hour of work will always equal roughly the same amount of lumber. But there are skills you can apply at scale, like programming, writing, teaching, recording videos that allow your app, a post, a video to reach people while you’re asleep. There are also topics that make your other skills better, like philosophy, sales, leadership.
This very article is me compounding writing on top of my other skills. An hour of my input creates more output out of thin air with every new reader.
You don’t have to get it right every time. Pivoting to other skills is easy. That’s the beauty of it. I have tried my luck in sales and as a vending machines tycoon. It didn’t work, but in the long run, it doesn’t matter.
Through hobby, build basic skills
Take the smallest units of information you’re able to apply, apply it, and reflect. Follow your natural curiosity, joy, the feeling of fulfillment. If you’re getting neither, pivot to something else. Don’t prepare too much. You want to build skills, not compete with computers at memorization. Take small bites of knowledge and do something with them every week, or even every day. Embrace the lean startup rule: If you’re not embarrassed by what you’ve made, you’ve made it too late. 6
Here’s a few ideas where to find learning materials:
- Google tutorials, courses, and books. Many high-quality materials are available for free.
- Watch tutorials on YouTube. Many classes are available for free.
- Take a free class on edX, MIT OCW.
- Buy a class on a site like edX, Coursera, or Udemy.
- Ask on Twitter, Reddit, online forums, or any other social site how to start.
- Ask a friend to give you some tips. If no-one has the skills you’re after, reach out to a stranger on the internet.
- Stack exchange and similar sites exist to answer questions. Find answers, ask your own questions.
- Join a Cohort Based Course.
- Find mentors. They will fast-track your learning. In-person is better than online, but online is infinitely better than nothing.
- That’s more than enough 🙂 Don’t stockpile, just take one thing and do something with it.
Through basic skills, build reputation
Reputation is when people trust in your ability. Learn in public to build that trust. Build out in the open as much as possible. Demonstrate how you’ve harnessed the skills. Create your own proof of work.
Here are a few ideas how to show your work:
- Start a blog, a twitter account, a youtube channel and share your work there.
- Don’t just share your work. Share your process, epiphanies, secrets, share the specific knowledge you can only learn by doing things.
- Contribute to an open-source project.
- Join an online community and build something for them.
- Distribute it in blockchain.
- Answer questions on stack exchange.
- Help someone.
Other people will accelerate your learning so keep reaching out and keep in touch. Share your excitement. Ask for feedback. Snatch an opportunity to form a study group of two. Start a project with someone. Ask good questions. Look out for potential mentors, they may accelerate your learning.
Here’s a few ideas where to find people:
- Go to a co-working place.
- Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers.
- Join a community. This could be a Tuesday book club, an internet forum, a WhatsApp group, an open-source project, or anything you want.
- Get a coach.
- Join a Distributed Autonomous Organization.
- Find an existing study group or start a new one.
- Join an accountability group.
- Take a short and practical class, if it’s widely recognized then even better.
- Sign up for a Cohort Based Course.
If you’ve done well, be shameless and ask for kudos. It could be a comment under your article, good feedback on a forum, a star rating, or a LinkedIn recommendation. The more specific, the less you need to build a reputation. A recommendation letter trumps a thousand likes.
Through reputation, get a modern internship
When you start, you have no skills. Naturally, zero reasonable people would pay you to apply them. As you grow, there is a tipping point where zero becomes one. It’s when you have just enough skills that a single person in the entire world would happily hire you to do something for them. It happens earlier than you think. Then you learn more, and now there are two people, then ten, and then a hundred.
How will you know you’re there? You won’t. The only way to find out is to try and contact these people. The internet is a great matchmaking machine, and that’s where you’ll find them if they exist. Talk to the people you’ve met during the reputation phase, talk to your network, post on the internet groups, apply to freelance jobs, offer help. Accept less money in exchange for access to the industry, credible projects, and professionals.
Don’t wait for permission or until you’re ready. Dare to ask for small commitments with space to make mistakes. I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t get a Computer Science diploma, a startup diploma, or a management diploma, yet I still worked as a web developer, startup founder, manager, and data scientist. Ask audaciously, commit reasonably.
Through internships, find fulfillment
If you’re enjoying the internship, that’s fantastic! Follow that joy, find challenges, and keep growing.
But what if you need to course-correct? Maybe you need a better match, or perhaps a related skill is more appealing, or perhaps you don’t like the industry after all? It’s a bummer, but it’s alright. Your commitments so far were minimal, so you can just find a different internship, pivot to a related skill, or find an entirely new hobby. If you choose a compounding skill, it will come useful later on. It would have been much worse if realized after five years of university.
The culture changes slower than the technology, but it does change. During my mom’s time, degrees opened many doors. During mine, we’re moving more towards skills. Who knows what it’s going to be when my future children grow up? Initiatives like web3 may bring even more open access to knowledge, an easily verifiable reputation, and a skill-based economy. Or it may go in an entirely different direction, we will see. For sure, their world will be very different from mine. I like to think that I will embark on this journey with them, and together, we’ll open many, many doors.
2 Lyman, P., & Varian, H. R. (2000). Reprint: How Much Information?. Journal of Electronic Publishing, 6(2). https://groups.ischool.berkeley.edu/archive/how-much-info/how-much-info.pdf
2 thoughts on “The Death of a Degree”
Very interesting thoughts Adam. I partially agree, but I also still believe that there is a lot of value in earning a degree. I have a Ph.D. in Germanic Linguistics, which took me nearly 10 years to finish (including my bachelor’s degree). I don’t use a lot of the things I learned in my Ph.D. on a daily basis. Similar to you, I started learning html as a hobby during graduate school, and eventually learned enough to turn into a computational linguist / data scientist. I probably could have skipped the degree entirely, but I am not at all sorry that I got it. I love learning. I love the environment of the university. I love being surrounded by students and professors who are interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. When I entered my Ph.D. program, I decided that I would stay in it as long as I was enjoying myself. I had a scholarship, so I didn’t have to pay for it. In fact, the university even gave me enough to live on. I enjoyed the whole time, and I finished.
Someday I will finally write my thoughts down about the research mindset. That is what I believe is best learned at a university – not any one particular technology or skill, but learning how to learn, and how to think critically. I have encountered many people in the software industry who jump to solutions before really understanding the root cause of a problem. I believe that is because such people are lacking a research mindset (I’m not saying that you are included in this set Adam).
Regarding G.P.A.s, I noticed that the linked article did have a caveat about that
> G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation.
I am not surprised that there is at best a small correlation between grades and hiring at Google. I would imagine that the distribution of GPAs for applicants to Google is rather small. People with poor marks probably don’t even apply to Google, because they know they don’t have a chance. The same goes for university applications. Almost all students applying to Harvard have exceptional grades. They could probably replace their admissions practice with a simple random choice. However, if they did so, and people started learning that, then maybe more people with bad grades would apply, and randomly get in. In other words, while there may be very little correlation between grades and how well people perform who get hired, grades function more as a gatekeeper.
I think that there are other reasons that having a degree can be a useful marker for later success in life. While you are right that not every class you take will end up being useful, at the end, you have demonstrated that you are willing to work hard on a long project which was not entirely of your choosing. Most jobs entail this as well. Most jobs will ask you to work on a project that you don’t particularly like. Perhaps one that even turns out to be irrelevant in the long run.
There is a potential down-side to getting a degree (particularly a Ph.D.). There are some people and companies who don’t want to hire people with advanced degrees because they worry that they will be too academic focused, and not practical enough. The more I think about this, I realize that this stems from a false conception of academia as an ivory tower. The ivory tower might have existed 50 or 100 years ago, but it certainly does not. Much of work in academia is actually very practical, just as in any other job. I brought up this issue with my advisor at some point, and this was his reply (paraphrased from my memory): “Getting a Ph.D. does close some doors, but it also opens some really fantastic doors.”
> Very interesting thoughts Adam. I partially agree, but I also still believe that there is a lot of value in earning a degree. (…) When I entered my Ph.D. program, I decided that I would stay in it as long as I was enjoying myself
I admire how you followed your heart, Robert! I’m glad to hear that your journey have served you well.
> what I believe is best learned at a university – not any one particular technology or skill, but learning how to learn,
Would you elaborate more on how the university helped you learn how to learn? I’ve heard the opposite from some of my friends, and even discussed how cool it would be if a course similar to one from Barbara Oakley was widely taught. If that’s what happened on your university, that’s brilliant!
> and how to think critically. I have encountered many people in the software industry who jump to solutions before really understanding the root cause of a problem. I believe that is because such people are lacking a research mindset
I share the sentiment! I think both critical thinking and research mindset are indispensable. Attending a reputable university is a good way to learn both, and today we also have other ways. I do see value in academic rigor, structured programs, and easy access to professors and likeminded students. I liked the group project part of the Stanford AI Professional program where we wrote machine learning papers.
My beef with universities is fixed syllabi, big time commitments, and timing. To that last point – by the time you apply to a university, you’ve already been interacting with the world for years. How do you know which facebook updates, news reports, and even school textbooks are trustworthy? Now that everyone is shouting, we need to be able to filter information more than ever. I wonder what intertwining critical thinking into education as early as in primary school would look like?
Also it’s worth adding that we are talking about reputable institutions here. A bad-to-mediocre university will let you through without either critical thinking or research mindset as long as check the right boxes.
> Regarding G.P.A.s, I noticed that the linked article did have a caveat about that
Thanks for pointing it out! I trimmed it down from this already long piece as it would require an additional paragraph or two, but it is a great point and I’m glad it came up here.
> People with poor marks probably don’t even apply to Google, because they know they don’t have a chance.
Your argument makes sense, but I am not convinced. I could counter-argue that people who treat hiring as numbers game just apply everywhere. Anecdotally, there’s a Quora thread Is it possible to get a job at Google with a <2.5 GPA? where people say they got hired with GPA 2.2 by not posting it on their resume. We won’t figure this one out without looking at some data, though.
> The same goes for university applications. Almost all students applying to Harvard have exceptional grades.
To me, this one is different. Ivy league universities famously brag about their rejection rates to the point where attending is just as much about status as it is about education. To quote Scott Galloway:
Ivy leagues have acceptance rates of 4% to 10%. A university president bragging about rejecting 90% of applicants is tantamount to a homeless shelter taking pride in turning away 90% of the needy that arrive each night.
> I think that there are other reasons that having a degree can be a useful marker for later success in life.
That’s a great question, especially in today’s age of information abundance. I’m aware of topics like delayed gratification, but I think there’s much more depth this could be mined for. I wrote this prompt down for the future – thanks!
> While you are right that not every class you take will end up being useful, at the end, you have demonstrated that you are willing to work hard on a long project which was not entirely of your choosing. Most jobs entail this as well. Most jobs will ask you to work on a project that you don’t particularly like. Perhaps one that even turns out to be irrelevant in the long run.
To me, it’s a matter of personal preference.
I know people who don’t mind less engaging episodes in their jobs and just keep showing up. I admire that because it’s a trait that I lack.
I tend to say no to this type of work, and I mean that in the long run. I don’t mind some chores here and there, but if the job requires me to do unfulfilling work, I jump the ship. It has led me to some tough moments, like when I admitted to myself that I don’t want to be a full-time team lead, but ultimately it has made my career more fulfilling and enjoyable.
There’s also an argument about productivity. I don’t believe I can be as effective in something I dread as in something I love. It only feels right to either be explicit about it, find a way to enjoy the project, or to push back. But if I get stuck doing something I dislike, I’m sabotaging my own output.
> The ivory tower might have existed 50 or 100 years ago, but it certainly does not. Much of work in academia is actually very practical, just as in any other job.
It’s interesting how that varies from place to place. Some of my Ph.D. friends had the opposite experience. I would love to hear more about your experience here!
> “Getting a Ph.D. does close some doors, but it also opens some really fantastic doors.”
I love the quote!