How to hack a coding degree

How to hack a coding degree

I was recently asked to contribute to an article in The Guardian about the risk of British businesses falling behind as a report stated that UK enterprise needed an extra 745,000 digitally skilled workers in the next 3 years. 

I wasn’t too complimentary about the state of the traditional method to learn coding skills. My precise words:

“If I was going to pay £40,000 for an education I wouldn’t be best pleased with the skills I was getting. Students aren’t being taught what’s done in the market”

When lecturers aren’t practicing their trade every day in the dynamic world that is modern technology, can their skills ever be expected to be up to date? But how can you justify paying to attend University, just to learn out of date skills?

As we enter the 3rd Industrial Revolution – of digital products and services delivered on a cloud infrastructure – and as youth unemployment continues to be an issue, this is a serious topic which needs serious attention. How do you best train to be a coder today?

learn to code

Why should you learn to code?

“Great coders are today’s rock stars” – Will.I.Am

It’s cool to code, as the guy with the glasses from Black Eyed Peas has said. Coders are the new rockstars (at least they like to describe each other in that way!).

It’s hard to argue with the fact that computers are everywhere, and they all need software. Agriculture, entertainment, manufacturing, healthcare; you name the industry, tech will underpin it (seriously: they’re guiding farms by satellite now).

We use technology for almost everything, yet very few people really know how to read and write code. According the Office for National Statistics, there are 333,000 programmers/software professionals working in the United Kingdom. That means only 0.5% of the UK population can really write code.

Learning to code is often assumed to be a dark art that only geniuses can master. Yet it is no harder than learning a foreign language and as with a foreign language it takes time, commitment and practice to be able to communicate your ideas.

The accessibility of online learning makes learning to code – like learning any new language – achievable for anyone. In fact, this accessibility raises questions over the effectiveness of the going to University.

A flawed model

From our direct experience at Techdept we know that students aren’t being taught what’s done in the market.

We have hired 6 graduate coders in the last 4 years, and we have to invest significant time to getting them up to speed in the latest technologies (and that’s over and above our working practices and quirks!). We assume that this process will take approximately two years.

In our world, practices are changing rapidly. It seems that every six months things shift, or something new comes along that requires a rethink of what we’d done before.

Students should check carefully the content of their courses and also should use their time wisely, in order to make themselves more employable. If you’re wanting a career in coding – you shouldn’t think that universities are the fountain of all knowledge.

But you shouldn’t write off University as an outmoded form of learning quite yet. Recent data from the US shows that “the pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year”.

interactive code school

It’s possibly better to see a University degree as a way of creating some ‘foundation skills’, in an environment where you can focus on learning – and experiment on new ideas with peers – while you have the time to do it (any students out there – trust me, the time you have at Uni is a luxury you’ll learn to miss).

A spokesman for London City University said: “Many graduates finish their courses but do not have a good grounding in coding. Prospective computer science students do not seem to be aware that writing code is the one skill that they will rely on throughout their degree option – whether it’s software engineering or business computing systems.”

I am not saying that budding computer programmers should avoid university altogether. You should just be clear eyed about that degree can realistically bring you.

University should be a forum to both build your skills and nurture an entrepreneurial mindset about developing yourself. This can be in a number of ways – attend hackathons, get involved in your local startup scene, read blogs, build a product, offer to work for free to a local business or digital agency (which is how I got my first job in the industry).

You may want to be a hacker, but first you need to hack your education.

coding degree

Step forward to the future

In 2012 the amount of students enrolling on a computer science degree rose by 29% according to the computing research association, a rise they called “astonishing”.

But are they wasting their money? The theme of “hacking” your education came up in this fascinating article in Fast Company magazine, which gave a blueprint for a cut price tech degree. As it says: “Believe it or not, only about one in four workers in the industry have a four-year degree in computer science, and a hefty 36% of IT workers do not hold a college degree at all.”

One of the big trends of the last few years, spurred by the growing demand for programmers, is the rise of in-browser tech education. Gone are the days when you’d have to buy a book and configure a development environment before you could get your hands dirty with a little code.

One of our favourites is Treehouse, an interactive education platform that teaches students how to make websites or mobile applications. It covers a range of languages including HTML, CSS, Javascript, PHP, Objective-C, and Ruby. It also provides business education classes to teach students how to start and market a business with courses available in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Just the attempt to try to learn JavaScript, as Treehouse starts students out with, is a useful and eye-opening exercise, no matter what you do in life. By familiarising yourself with concepts such as variables, functions, loops and conditional statements you will begin to understand the vocabulary upon which the future world is being built.

The platform has over 54,000 registered users all across the globe. Companies such as Simple and LivingSocial use the site to recruit new employees based on the badges they have earned.

Treehouse is not the only option with many other learning platforms available for the budding computer programmer – Codecademy, Codeschool and the highly credited Khan Academy are all fighting for their place amongst the power of the world’s top Universities.

how to hack a code degree


Online interactive learning gives you the opportunity to learn at your own pace, within your own time schedule and gives you the ability to balance this alongside work or other responsibilities you have.

We live in a connected world where remote working is becoming more and more common and is also seen by some to be more effective.   As a result, we are able to choose where we consume information, how and when we consume – office, home or usually unproductive commuting time.

Learning in Treehouse or Codeschool will give you a taste of what working in a flexible, modern tech environment could be like.

Cost effective

Treehouse costs only £17 per month to gain access to all of their learning materials. Now let’s bear in mind that the average degree costs around £40,000!! So if you embark upon a 4-year degree that’s going to cost you around £833 per month. What could you do with that extra £816 a month you save (that’s £39,168 over 4 years by the way)?

Maybe you could catch that elusive dream for many young people – a house. Maybe it could be your first home office?


Yet whatever you say about online learning, one of the big benefits of a ‘real world’ education is a vibrant community of people around you. To help replicate this, you would want to look around & think laterally – get involved in events and meetups in your local community.

In my home town of Sheffield there is a vibrant startup scene, driven by Sheffield Startup Weekend and Dotforge Accelerator – and great events like Pecha Kucha where you can meet creative and entrepreneurial people, wanting to change the world

A ‘3rd way’ to educate yourself?

Traditionally, learning to code could be achieved in one of two ways: University of Life, (here read trial & error, learning as you go) or a bricks-and-mortar University Degree course. But the risk is that the pace the industry moves at will render your expensively bought skills unsuitable for your dream job.

The rise of the online coding schools may well provide an answer: a the third way offering the latest tech, at an affordable price – and accessible when you want it.

But to hack your own degree you need to get ‘front foot forward’, be entrepreneurial in your mindset, and lateral in you thinking. If that sounds like you – the good news is the world needs you, and the tech world needs you in particular.

Have any of you experienced online interactive learning in the past? And if so, what are your thoughts, we’d love to hear them…

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