Should PHP web programmers go to college?

Written by Chris Roane
Should PHP Programmers go to College?

A common debate in our field is whether or not a college education is worth it when becoming a PHP programmer. People will throw statistics in how much more money you can make with a college degree. But is the cost of college (time + tuition) for a four year degree better than the benefits of having four years of experience in the web programming field?

When doing this comparison from a logical perspective, we have to acknowledge that not all college degrees and curriculums are created equal. For instance, South University in Richmond might focus more on the technical aspect of programming while other colleges will lean towards the conceptual side. We also have to acknowledge that whichever option you decide to pursue carries risk. If you don’t go to college, you may not get a job when compared to someone who has gone to college. If you do go to college, you may have to start making as much as someone who just graduated from high school. In both cases there are no 100% guarantees and you cannot depend on a degree to provide you with a job or at least a job that brings in a certain amount of money.

In fact, there are no clear answers as to what is the best choice in your case. Part of it depends on personality and intelligence. One other important determining factor is how skillful you are at learning new things on your own without someone there to help you.

Let’s go through some positive and negative comparisons. Some of these items are repeated using different wording to illustrate a point.

PHP Programming: The Benefits of Going to College

  • You get a strong foundation in understanding core programming practices with multiple languages, along with more advanced programming concepts (object oriented programming, etc..)
  • You can learn other useful skills that don’t directly relate to programming…such as: teaching, communicating clearly with others and how to research effectively.
  • Often times you learn what is the best way in solving certain programming problems, instead of having to learn through experience.
  • The broad range of education that you receive will help you pick up new programming languages and systems more quickly.
  • You might make more money when you get a job after graduating. You also have the potential of applying for higher level corporate positions that only consider candidates with college degrees.
  • You might beat out other programmers without a degree for higher profile programming jobs.

PHP Programming: The Cost of Going to College

  • You need to pay for tuition, unless you get this covered through a scholarship or your parents.
  • In most cases, it takes four years to get a bachelor degree, which is a cost of time.
  • You may not have time to work for a web company while you go to school. This might make it difficult in making more than an entry level web programmer after graduating.
  • 100% of what you will learn in college will not be useful for your career.
  • Depending on the college you go to, what you learn may not be applicable when you enter the job market. This could be because the college does not keep up with the latest web technologies, or the way they teach the material is not practical for the work environment.

The Benefits of a PHP Programmer Not Going to College

  • You do not need to pay for tuition.
  • You do not have student loans to pay for, so it might be acceptable to start working at a lower income level. This allows you to work your way up a company and allows you to possibly consider more positions.
  • Instead of a four year degree, you can end up with four years of job experience…which might be more valuable in certain circumstances and at certain companies. In fact, some employers believe four years of experience in this field is more valuable than a four year degree (opinions vary on this).
  • What you learn on the job is immediately applicable to your career.

The Negative Aspects of a PHP Programmer Skipping College

  • Especially right after high school, your resume will not look as good as someone who graduated from college. You also may find it difficult to get corporate level programming positions without a degree. If the market in this field gets saturated (which it is not, currently), it might be difficult to find a job compared to candidates who have a degree.
  • It can be more difficult to get a strong grasp of more complex programming principles.
  • Bad programming habits or programming misconceptions can be more common if the person is not constantly learning and reading. Collaborating with other programmers can help with this.
  • The main methods for a programmer to learn without a degree are: online research (articles, tutorials, etc…), books and peers. So in other words, how much you know and what you know is determined by how much energy you put into learning and who you go to for advice.

In the field of PHP web programming, ultimately experience is king. General programming knowledge and how-to is valuable, but if you are in a production web shop and can’t get projects done in a profitable timeline, than this resume point is worthless. Because systems and languages are changing all the time, having multiple years of experience is invaluable. So in either case, experience is the best way in getting a better job and making more money.

Based on my experience, I benefited the most by not going to college. This could be different if I was in a more populated location that saw more competition in this field. This is not meant to condemn college, but merely to challenge you in articulating whether college will be valuable in your case. Sometimes I think I would have benefited going to college, but I don’t think I would be where I am at now if I did take this path.

Has going to college benefited you as a web programmer or a graphic designer? Would you do anything differently?

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Friday, September 3rd, 2010

50 Comments or Pings to Should PHP web programmers go to college?

  • Angelika Wurz says:

    Nice article!
    You actually wrote about something that was on my mind for ages: it really isn’t necessary to go to college if you want to be a good programmer.

    I went to college, and I wouldn’t be a programmer if I didn’t go to college. I actually wanted to be a designer, but I had to learn programming in my college too. And suddenly i found myself loving every bit of programming (and suddenly disliking every bit of designing).

    At college I was forced to learn bits about security, databases, programming basics, etc .. which really helped me in the end, but most of the stuff that was revelant for my job I still had to learn myself.

    But the best programmers I met were programmers who didn’t go to college. I really don’t think that you need to go to college to be a programmer, and you don’t need to go to college to be a good programmer. In the end what counts is that you’re really interested in the topic.

    College teaches you the basics, real life teaches you what you really need.

    • Chris Roane says:

      I think you will find your college education probably helps you more than you realize. In fact, it is really hard to know how much this information is taken for granted, until you see someone who doesn’t have that solid core in understanding that comes so naturally to you. This was one reason that I found it very difficult to get a good grasp of object oriented programming.

      Thanks for sharing your experience! The more I learn about this stuff, the more I understand that there really are no clear cut answers as to what is the best path.

      • Jason says:

        Hi Chris,

        I am Jason a college performer other than programming. I am wanting to learn more and more about php but can’t because the PHP Bible, Head first, PHP Learning / Programming are helpful but not complete and the Florida Colleges provide design class as if I am wanting to learn static graphic design for a maganize or video. I have a delema in which I am wanting to use my database to input the prices into the PayPal form but the will not connect and I just don’t know where I can get the education I need for such solutions…

        Jason Kraft
        Inks Etc. LLC
        941-993-8943

  • Jaza says:

    I am sure that shoul. I have read php tutorial but I am doinf to join college to get practice

  • @Vitor42 says:

    Great arcticle.

    I am having both college and working with php at the moment. I consider college as a supporter to my profession right now, as I’ve learned mostly good practises, patterns and developing projects, not php by itself.

    It took a lot of research and work experience to learn php, and that was not taugh at college.

  • Sam Smith says:

    I think most of your points are dead on, if your goal is to be, purely, a PHP programmer. Although the “100% of what you learn in college will not be useful in your career” point is ridiculous. If you can’t find a way to apply something you’ve learned, you didn’t learn it well enough.

    I’ve been doing PHP work for around 3 years and am in my last year at Purdue’s Computer & Information Technology department. To be completely honest, their PHP and web application education is pretty shaky (except on the topic of mobile applications). Their program focuses on the analysis, planning, and modeling of information systems, as well as project management in general. Many people do come out of the program with specialized degrees, yet *everyone* who finishes is well prepared to be a leader in whatever they do.

    Freelancing along with college seems like the best route to me. You just have to find a school whose coursework is flexible enough to allow the extra experience.

    • Chris Roane says:

      The fact of the matter is that some of the general classes you take are not going to be directly useful for your career. Am I saying that these are not useful in some way? No, I’m not.

      With that said, communication, work ethic, etc…can all be obtained with an education. But it all depends on the mindset of the student. Because we all should be students, regardless of college.

      I do think your freelance/college mindset is very smart. This is a great way in getting the best of both worlds.

      • Sam Smith says:

        “But it all depends on the mindset of the student. Because we all should be students, regardless of college.”

        Well put! I’ve run into far too many technology students who cruise by and wonder why they can’t find a job when they’re done.

        One must be willing to learn before anything happens.

  • Rich Zygler says:

    Having hired both programmers with college degrees and those with none, I can say from experience that those programmers with college degrees will always be ahead in several aspects of professional development like architecture, security, and optimization as well as the soft skills like communication and getting along with others. College teaches you a lot more then what you can read in a manual. It teaches you how to deal with others, how to work in a team, and how to work against a deadline.

    • Chris Roane says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective!

      I agree with some of what you said, but I do not agree with how you said ALWAYS. That is a definitive term that implies this is the case 100% of the time. I don’t think we can ever make this claim in regards to this, as it just depends on the individual.

      The idea that college graduates tend to be better with architecture, security, and optimization…I do agree with this. But again, these are things that one does not need to go to college to learn. In regards to the soft skills…I just have not seen this true with college graduates.

  • M says:

    You present both sides of the argument very well, but I think a more appropriate title for this article would be “Do PHP web programmers need to go to college.”

    I think that everyone should try to go to college. If almost all of the people around you have a college degree, then not having one will hurt your career — and not just while you’re paying back those loans, but the entire duration of your career. If you just want to be a PHP developer, then no, you don’t need a degree. If you want to become a lead or work your way into management, then a degree would absolutely help.

    Even if you don’t learn a great deal from your degree, you will likely earn more money right out of college as a 22 year old than a 22 year old who didn’t go to college. You’ll generally be better equipped to work with and/or manage a team because of all the group projects that are required in college or, if you’re lucky, courses specifically designed to take a project through the entire SDLC.

    What if a self-taught developer decides that they no longer want to be a developer? Without a college degree, this developer would be automatically screened from more jobs than someone with a degree.

    PHP developers do not need to a go to college as long as they want to be a PHP developer for their entire career and don’t mind younger developers being promoted over them. This is not always the case of course, but generally will hold true.

    • Chris Roane says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective.

      I do agree with the idea that if a web developer with a degree decides to change careers, the degree might make this easier to do. But I would say that this would only be true if they are doing something completely different than programming. Otherwise what they know should be useful in someway.

      • Are you kidding me 1/2 way through your freshman year most of what you learn will be outdated or a new version will be out. I can see learning the basics and the understanding, but to waste 4 years in school in an ever changing field is nuts. This should be looked at as a trade school with modules and continuing education.

  • Hari K T says:

    If you are looking for a MNC job, or something need a degree.
    But if you are looking to become a good programmer , you may not want a degree. You want to read good books. Becoming a community member and actively participating.
    For phpdevelopers, http://phpdeveloper.org/ is a nice place .

  • Artem says:

    Great article Chris.

    There are many PHP developers making 6 figures (in this economy, no less) who haven’t set one foot in a university class room. If you’re asking whether or not a degree is required to be successful in this industry, the answer is no. If your question is whether or not a programmer is better quality with or without a degree, I would say the answer depends on the developer. If he/she has the capacity for teaching themselves a trade, then no. If they need guidance, then yes.

    This does beg the question – what does this say about our educational institutions? It says that they suck.

    A fundamental aspect of *every* job market in this country is business and economics. Without a fundamental understanding of these things, many programmers will never have the competitive edge required to survive a recession, for example.

    There is a troubling disconnect between the needs of a business that pays the bills for 100 employees and what CS graduates are capable of delivering. Some lengthy examples:

    1) CS programs emphasize the importance of performance and well organized code. In the real world, these things are second place to being able to estimate time for a task, communicate with clients effectively, and building a solid project plan on a technical level.

    You know that beautiful code that you just spent the weekend writing? There’s a 90% chance that no one is going to see that code. And even if someone does, it’ll be another developer who is going to trash you anyway. How much of that weekend did you spend thinking about you’ll be presenting your work to upper management? Would they have been more impressed if you added a low priority feature instead of refactoring your code to increase portability 6 months from now?

    One other aspect of this is writing extensible code. Now I’m not saying you should sabotage your clients by writing crappy code that only your company can later fix – it’s not that simple. Students need to understand, however, that most businesses rely on lengthy contracts and the company CEO couldn’t give two squirts about anything but the bottom line. It gets complicated.

    2) College graduates get their degree and have one thing on their mind – get a job and stay put. Once they get hired, many fall into a boring rat race which we call the “corporate ladder”. They live for promotions, raises and bonuses. They devote themselves to their employer. They would never think of looking for another job (what if someone finds out?).

    What they don’t realize is that they themselves are a business! No, they’re not registered as a business. They don’t pay business taxes. Yet still, they are a tiny little business. Programmers (not just PHP ones) need to learn how to sell themselves and their abilities. They need to learn if they’re not sending out a few resumes per year to land a position better than their own they are danger of falling into a huge career rut should their employer fall on hard times. In other words, if their company has a board meeting and decides to cut 1/4 of the development team they’ll do it without batting an eye. Most of them are nasty about it too with no severance packages or support. There’s nothing wrong with always seeking out newer and better opportunities. Don’t worry, you won’t hurt your boss’ feelings.

    3) Writing code is easy. Unless you’re working for NASA or an equivalent institution full of borderline autistic super nerd geniuses, the problems you solve aren’t going to be that complicated. Sure, there will be times where you have a fun, exciting and challenging problem solve, but those times are few and far between. In fact, 99% of the time someone else has already solved the problem and all you have to do is implement their solution.

    There are cases where the foundation upon which a product or company is built is solving a complicated problem (think Mint.com and how complex the integration with various financial institutions is). In a case like this you’re still solving a bunch of little problems in order to solve one big problem. And, even then, it’s usually not a computer science problem.

    Ultimately our work is easy. Especially in web development. We’re not building space ships, dealing with memory management, operating system portability, complex algorithms, or processing terabytes of data per second. Nearly 100% of the time we’re creating websites or applications that run as websites. What makes a web developer’s job complicated is performing this task quickly, bug-free, and on time. Much of what it takes to accomplish this is not taught to students.

    - -

    The above examples just scratched the surface. There is one recurring theme in all of them: the most complicated things about being a web developer have nothing to do with web development.

    In my opinion, to truly be an effective web developer, a person must understand economics and business as it relates to the tech industry:
    - How startups work and what they strive for
    - How the largest software companies like Google and Microsoft are structured
    - What it takes to run a technology company
    - Different ways technology companies make money (client based, product based, contract based, etc)
    - Contracts and agreements that web developers typically need to sign. How to draft a basic general agreement with a client. How to protect one’s self from going sued by a nasty client.
    - Business etiquette (how to dress, how to act appropriately, etc).

    Without an understanding of the above, how is a developer supposed to bring value to a company? How are they supposed to protect themselves from getting tricked or abused? How can they stay competitive in a fluid market such as this one if they don’t understand what businesses are truly aiming to do?

    They can’t.

    These are only things that life teaches you after getting shafted one too many times in the software industry. It’s a shame that our schools aren’t doing their job – preparing young adults for workforce.

    • Sam Smith says:

      “- How startups work and what they strive for
      - How the largest software companies like Google and Microsoft are structured
      - What it takes to run a technology company
      - Different ways technology companies make money (client based, product based, contract based, etc)
      - Contracts and agreements that web developers typically need to sign. How to draft a basic general agreement with a client. How to protect one’s self from going sued by a nasty client.
      - Business etiquette (how to dress, how to act appropriately, etc).”

      I fully agree with these need-to-know points. Thankfully, the course work I’m involved in (outside of direct technical education) stresses leadership, legal foundations of business, as well as basic financial instruction. I’m pleased to say that Purdue’s Entrepreneurship program also does an excellent job of exposing students to the structuring of business plans/models, as well as the networking skills needed to build a top-performing team.

    • Chris Roane says:

      Wow! This could almost be an article by itself. I love it!

      Your points 1-3 are incredible. You have confirmed my bent with this question. The last part of the post got me thinking. I’m not quite sure I can relate in how knowing how a starup works would help a programmer…unless of course the programmer works for a lot of startups. But I guess this would be one way of getting into the six figure income.

      Thank you for sharing all of this. This is very valuable.

  • I think Collage is ‘MUST’ For the programmer, I found many people try be programmer in just 1 mont using course material.
    And the just confuse about looping, class, function and other… I never find good progmamer who not go to collage.

    • Chris Roane says:

      There is not doubt that learning this stuff outside of college is difficult, but it can be done. I got started through a basic programming course I took in High School. From there I learned what I could by reading a lot of articles and working through examples. It has worked out pretty well for me.

  • John Joe says:

    I skipped college and went straight to work with the knowledge i had built up just by experimenting and reading php.net like the bible.

    I’m now earning over the average mans wage at the age of 20 while most of my friends are at university with no clue of what career path to make, if they can even get a job.. oh and 20k’s worth of debt.

  • darkllangle says:

    PHP Programming: The Benefits of Going to College
    “You get a strong foundation in understanding core programming practices with multiple languages, along with more advanced programming concepts (object oriented programming, etc..)
    You can learn other useful skills that don’t directly relate to programming…such as: teaching, communicating clearly with others and how to research effectively.
    Often times you learn what is the best way in solving certain programming problems, instead of having to learn through experience.
    The broad range of education that you receive will help you pick up new programming languages and systems more quickly.”
    ————————————————-
    PHP Programming: The Cost of Going to College
    “100% of what you will learn in college will not be useful for your career.”

    How is that can be?!

  • kevin says:

    Coming from a self-taught PHP programmer with a full time job and the ability to write any script I desire:

    I find it ironic that people might suggest going to school to learn an open source language that was developed by people who never went to college for it.

    • Chris Roane says:

      That is an interesting perspective. But again, I think it is a very important question that we can’t answer for everyone. I think the fact that people seem to be successful with or without a degree in this field is testament to this fact.

  • jim says:

    The question “should” -answer YES
    The question “need” -answer NO

  • The PHP programmer is just a position, not even a profession. Actually, yes, you can become a PHP programmer without going to college. But you are also likely to stay a PHP programmer till the end of your days, if of course PHP lasts that long.

    Going to university should give you some fundamental knowledge and with that knowledge you can try pursuit a more challenging career of not writing PHP scripts, but, say of writing the PHP engine itself.

    Needless to say taking a degree is just good for socialising and just having fun, I believe you will have a long life full of work duties anyway, so why sacrifice a wonderful part of your life while you’re young and can devote your time to having fun?

    By the way, I also wrote a post on the same topic but from a completely different standpoint – http://www.mikeborozdin.com/post/Shall-I-Get-a-Degree.aspx

    • Chris Roane says:

      Mike,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. My experience goes against some of your assumptions…especially with the idea of staying a PHP programmer if you don’t go to college.

      I have gotten a state level C# position over candidates with college degrees, when PHP was my strongest language. In fact, I am confident a lot of the skills I have learned on the job, I can transfer to many other fields in the web industry. In fact, I can honestly say I wouldn’t be as productive or know as much as I know now, if I went to college. But that isn’t to say that I wouldn’t excel at other areas if I did go to college…

      The fact of the matter is the limits a programmer has are not determined by where they went to college. This is an idea that I live by.

      But I do agree with the social aspect of college…but it seems some people focus on this a little too much and forget the actual cost of college.

      Everyone seems to have their bent when it comes to this subject, and I think there are valid points we can all learn from both sides of the argument.

      Thanks for sharing!

  • hafizan says:

    From my experience.
    I come from non world it coding and have been coded php.When go to collage.Found out the syllabus mostly wrong and outdated.
    Wasting time fighting with lecturer who have MASTER but cannot accept other mind.
    Syllabus in collage need to change to adapt new technologies and management.It’s not like we think we code and we release.It’s all about skill and management.

  • Brian Reich says:

    There is a saying: “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    Going to college gives you exposure to new ideas (and that’s not just limited to programming). It teaches you to keep an open mind, listen to and respect the opinions of others, and will give you a solid foundation on which to begin your career. Though many universities will focus on a single language, they’ll still introduce you to a variety, and that’s key.

    It’s very easy to get started with PHP, all the tools you need are free, and there is a wealth of information online. And that’s GREAT! But when you only learn one language (or use the same language for too long), you’ll lack the skills to tackle other problems and lack the knowledge to recognize that a better tool than PHP exists to solve it. For example, you’ll see a LOT of programmers writing PHP code that loops through the result of a SQL query and executes another query based on a key in the first. Without knowledge of SQL in addition to PHP, they’d never know that their code could be streamlined (both in terms of amount of code AND speed) using a JOIN. In stead of executing 1 query, they execute “n+1″, but because they don’t know any better they still think their code is amazing.

    I’m not saying it’s not possible to become a highly skilled, self-taught expert in PHP; and I’m not saying college educated PHP programmers can’t write bad code. I’m college educated and some of my code still truly sucks. I’m saying in that terms of skill improvement a formal education can’t be a BAD thing. Though college loans do suck!

    • Chris Roane says:

      I think you worded your perspective very well! I pretty much agree with what you said. Thanks for sharing.

    • hafizan says:

      There’s are differences between normalize and denormalize database.i don’t know heck a thing about n + 1 so so what ever.The point was logic.
      Some people think much faster because of pre calculate data .but in the end,it more dangerous because data can be alter by customer.better normilize and FOREIGN KEY.
      Most i saw collage teach php is cms and database was mysql.In real fact,php can build complex system like .Net World and far more easy then c# and vb.net or java

  • Strick says:

    Best option? Work full time and go to college part time. You may become Van Wilder, but hell, by the time you do graduate, you’ve got 4 – 7 years of experience AND a college degree ;)

  • Cyril Gupta says:

    Hey Chris!

    Great article. I agree with much of what you’ve said.

    I never went to college, in fact I dropped out one year before completing high-school. But I run a software development company now, and I do a lot of programming in many technologies.

    I found out early that I could teach myself things better than my teachers could teach. I’ve been using books, internet and forums to learn all that I’ve learnt, and that includes practices and patterns.

    For someone who’s ready to invest in educating himself on his own the same way he would invest while going to college (and I mean time, not money), then he can be a damn good programmer and earn damn good money without worrying about college.

    I’ve been earning from programming the first year I started doing it. It was sweet to skip college.

  • good perspective! I think this is a wise choice and it will serve you very well with your career. keep up the good work

  • menon says:

    I am not going through college… am learning java also, an object oriented language, i am doing well.i hope i will be able to learn both in 4 years…i feel liberty and passion on self study and practice.hope, i will do well…

  • jswanson says:

    Yes. Start with a vo-tech if time and money are barriers.

  • Kent says:

    Absolutely should get properly trained.

    Training + practice + blogging + bookmarking = $success;

    Propper training will piece it together and get you forced to type the concepts. Repetition and practice will allow you to hand code OOP php and prcedural php.

    Generally, you have strong html / css skills since PHP extends on this knowledge.

    A quasi-master will know how to edit and hand-code all PHP MYSQL scripts.

    You know you got somewhere when you can handcode complete applications very quickly and faster than using copying / pasting.

    Learn more here with this quality blog more than 40,000 words.

    http://bohemiawebsites.com/Our-Blog.html

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