The question Do you need a degree ... was closed as off-topic as it clearly applied to any area of development, not specifically open/free content development.

This question is a re-framing, but very specifically from the open/free side. However, some background is required to properly do so.

At the time I completed high school, degrees in software engineering (as opposed to computer science) were few and far between. After taking a brief - privately run - course, I was easily able to get hired as a programmer. No interviewer even questioned my lack of degree - they were more interested in what I could do.

That has all changed today. Here in California, a degree of any kind is considered necessary to even begin searching for a job - and not just in software. I know many people with degrees in business or marketing filling posts we would once have considered 'menial'. It is a standing joke here that the University of California will soon be offering a Bachelors of Retail Science to help people get work as checkout operators at supermarkets - and that the supermarkets will then demand applicants have this degree.

However, focusing on creative domains such as software engineering and the arts, the open/free content movement appears to have no such barrier to entry.

Are there indications that this movement is opening the way for "unqualified" people to find positions in their respective industry?

Possible sub-questions:

  • Are there statistics about the average age of contributors to major open projects?
  • Similarly for their qualifications?
  • Are there well known examples of non-degreed people moving from the open world into professional positions on the strength of their published work?

In short, can an early dedication to open/free content creation help you bypass the cost of a University education? Does this increase the equality of opportunity for the less well off?


Lest people think my comment about the California job market is just an urban myth, vague feelig, or localized phenomenon, see this quote

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that total employment is expected to increase by 20.5 million jobs from 2010 to 2020, with 88 percent of detailed occupations projected to experience employment growth. In the midst of all this, jobs requiring a master’s degree are expected to grow the fastest, while those requiring a high school diploma will experience the slowest growth over the 2010- 20 time frame.

From the article By 2018, 60 percent of job openings will require college education. The article itself is not a primary source but it cites (or at least quotes) BLS statistics and reports to support the headline.

Further The Economist devoted a large part of its January 24, 2015 Edition to issues surrounding college education, its social and financial costs, and the growing gap in equality of opportunity.

  • 1
    What would an answer to this question consist of? It seems to call for a full-bore survey study which looked at a statistically significant number of people.
    – bmargulies
    Jul 10, 2015 at 16:58
  • Well known examples would work as well. Again, there seem to be many good research questions and little research
    – kdopen
    Jul 10, 2015 at 17:04
  • 3
    Anecdotal, and not well known, so I won't leave an answer, but my work in Open Source is what landed me my latest gig. No degree of any kind, but a great work history in tech and an impressive commit log got me into a proper development role.
    – RubberDuck
    Jul 16, 2015 at 10:44
  • 4
    Perhaps where you write 'non-qualified' or 'unqualified', what you really mean is 'uncredentialed' - i.e. lacking certification of (maybe) relevant qualifications? Rewording along those lines would clarify this, I think. Jul 22, 2015 at 19:09

4 Answers 4


Historically, many people have become professionals in coding without benefit of a degree, your perception of the California job market notwithstanding. A CEO whom I know well, amongst many others of my middle-aged peers, is an example.

When I hire people, I put a lot of emphasis on 'portfolio', and I know that I'm not alone. Open source is certainly convenient for this, but it didn't exist when many of my peers were launching their careers sans degree. So I don't see how it's possible to quantify the incremental effect of open source. It's entirely possible to create a portfolio on github.com entirely of one's own work, with no collaboration with open source projects.

In any case, there's a catch-22 that applies to your thesis. You have to know how to do useful work to contribute to an open source project. It's hard to do that without either studying the subject or getting yourself hired by someone who will teach you. But, if you do manage to teach yourself to the point of obtaining real skill, chances are that you can get a job whether or not you have ever submitted a patch to an open source project.

In my time contributing to open source projects, I've never seen any evidence that anyone met your profile of bootstrapping themselves this way. Of course, no one has to reveal this. Or reveal their age, which would make it rather difficult to answer some of your other questions.

Every few months, someone shows up at the Apache Software Foundation wanting to do a study or survey to learn something about who is involved in open source projects. If I had $10 for each such thing I've participated, I could buy a new camera. I can't tell you whether any of this has led to publication-quality research, but arxiv might yield something.


Understanding the motivations, participation, and performance of open source software developers: A longitudinal study of the Apache projects


Exploring the Impact of Socio-Technical Core-Periphery Structures in Open Source Software Development

  • Does ASF stand for Apache Software Foundation in this context? It might be worth either expanding the acronym or making it a link. Jul 10, 2015 at 22:06

First: nice question!

Degrees are looked upon as a fairly standardised measure of your ability in the subject you study. Employers look for them because they indicate (in theory) that this person is capable of doing the job they claim they can do. In today's fast-moving world, where you need this new hire last week, they're useful in being able to say "this person has a better degree; they should be able to do a better job.".

That's not to say that you can't get a job without a degree. If you can instead demonstrate to an employer that you have just as much education and capability as another candidate, you're still a strong contender. The problem with doing this is that it's hard to have something that demonstrates this as quickly and concisely as saying "I have a top degree in software from MIT.".

That leads nicely onto the actual question: can good content creation help you bypass university education? Yes, it can. However, it does have some problems:

  • It requires more time from the recruiter to review (time = money);
  • It's not as standardised. I remember seeing a question on Programmers.SE about a recruiter thinking self-taught candidates don't know programming concepts like Big O notation;
  • It's hard to compare. Is good content creation a better indicator of proficiency than a degree? (Opinion: yes, but I'll just throw that out there).

The other thing to note about this phenomenon is the reason for it. With creative professions, it's easier to gather together a showcase of "work wot i 'ave done" and show it to an employer. If you want a job at a cash register, you can't really bring another cash register that you worked on previously to tell your employer how good you are.


Working on open source does give several benefits In a large(ish) project, you are working shoulder to shoulder with professionals, doing professional work. You'll learn how to use a suite of tools, and to work in structured relationship with coworkers (in open source, often you never even meet the colleagues). This is training that you'd otherwise acquire only in a few years of employment. Finally, but not by any means the least, your work is available to show off.

But it can't replace a formal education. There are lots of stuff that people working on developing software, and analyzing its performance, and observing people interacting with it, have found out (often the hard way) are important to consider, that aren't at all easy to see in the trenches. You can pick that up on your own, but learning it in a structured way from someone showing you the way is far easier.

  • 1
    Unfortunately, my involvement with academia (no degree myself, but I've been on faculty advisory boards :) and my experiences hiring new graduates is that University isn't preparing its graduates for the real world.
    – kdopen
    Mar 5, 2016 at 23:09
  • 2
    @kdopen, I'm teaching myself, and I could not agree more. Much of what is missing can be learnt by involvement in open source, however. And with today's extremely varied employment landscape, forming people for their first job is impossible. Besides, in computing everything changes radically in a few years, you need to train people in learning on the job, not in doing the job.
    – vonbrand
    Mar 6, 2016 at 0:44

Yes, joining the open source project allows to get necessary skills like following coding standards, accepting the code review process, understanding the documentation, understanding and extending the code base that is not yours and the like. In any professional development later this is likely will be required.

Of course, you need to know the programming language and related technologies first.

This should be really be reserved for the difficult cases of CV: bad choice of profession early in the life, no money to support the education, stupid education system only giving right to study in the university (maybe informatics) for a few percent of the best (maybe in French), etc. The path of the self-learner is very difficult and not advised for case you have a choice to do this differently. But it is passable.

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