Skipping college pays off for techies

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2004

CHICAGO - Caleb Sima still marvels at how angry the people around him got when he fled high school for a computer job during the high-tech boom, thumbing his nose at the traditional career path.

Skipping college, they warned, would be a foolish route to nowhere. "One day, I'm going to see you taking out my trash," his principal told him.

Ha.

Boasting a six-figure salary as chief technology officer of an online security company, Sima is one of a select group of young techies who hit it big without an academic pedigree after technology and Internet-related businesses exploded in the late 1990s.

Just how many succeeded and how many failed in their quest is impossible to know. But a trail of anecdotal evidence on, where else, the Internet testifies to a few notable winners like the 24-year-old Sima, whose goal is to retire by 30. Only then might he attend college _ mainly to "have fun and relax a little bit."

"It infuriates me when I hear people say you have to have a college degree in order to make a certain salary," he said from Atlanta-based SPI Dynamics, which he co-founded. "That is not true."

Matching his diploma-less feat clearly has become more difficult since the tech bubble burst in 2001, however, and fewer seem inclined to try.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the number of those skipping college for the tech world has been declining steadily for three or more years. There were 40,000 16- to 19-year-olds working in computer-related occupations in 2000; 18,000 in 2003.

"While a small number did strike it rich by rushing into the work force, I would estimate that about the same percentage struck it rich by buying lottery tickets," said Steven Rothberg, president and founder of Minneapolis-based CollegeRecruiter.com, a job site for students and recent graduates.

Bill Gates and Michael Dell became billionaires without having finished college. But they are now looked upon as flukes.

"It's so difficult to find an IT job now" without a degree, Rothberg said. "Five years ago, if you weren't incarcerated and had a pulse, you had a pretty good chance."

The Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group representing technology companies, estimates there are 10.5 million IT workers. But competition for the jobs is intense and qualifications have risen from the dot-coms' pioneer era just a few years ago, spokesperson Bob Cohen said.

"Now employers really want to see people with a four-year degree, or at least a two-year degree and significant certification," he said. "Their expectations have gone up."

Sima was 16 when he dropped out of high school after his freshman year, bored with school and unable to fully pursue his love of computers. He earned a GED, got a job fixing PCs and gradually moved up to security administrator of an online bank before starting a company in 2000.

With all the experience he gained, there was never a regret about missing college. Even today, he often finds that job applicants with Ph.D.s in computer science don't have what it takes despite their lofty degrees.

"Book knowledge is helpful somewhat in the IT world, but not near as much as real-world knowledge," he said.

"When it comes to are you good at being a network administrator, are you good at developing software, well, what school do you have to come out of in order to do that? There are thousands and millions of people who have those skills who don't have a degree. We grew up with computers."

But Sima doesn't think teen techies should ditch school without good reason.

"I'm not saying that someone who is a high-school kid but doesn't know what they want to do should do it," he said. "I think you have to somewhat realize what your goal is and be able to set yourself up for success."

John-Thomas Gaietto, 22, is another young tech whiz who made it so big out of high school he was on track at one point to retire at 35, thanks to stock options. The native of Tiffin, Ohio, went to work for a computer company, setting up networks for corporations, and now is enterprise security analyst for a global manufacturing company outside Detroit.

When the market crashed, it also punctured his best chance for a super-early retirement. But his future appears secure, college or no college _ he bought a four-bedroom house at 21 and diligently learns new skills in his off-hours so he can move up in the IT world.

Gaietto acknowledges mixed feelings about having skipped college, since his aspirations to go into management could be stymied without a business degree. But he feels fortunate that good luck and hard work paid off for him, remembering friends who took similar leaps and ended up back home or in school after the tech boom.

"When we got into it ... if you could put a network together you had a job," he said. "Now there are so many people who have done it and trained for it, the market's completely flooded with individuals like that.

"Right now, I probably wouldn't have pulled it off."

Like Gates and Dell, 25-year-old Jacob Surber pursued his tech dreams after a brief stay in college a year at the University of Michigan. He's still working on the billionaire part, but, as program manager for an online training company in Ann Arbor, is making more than his friends who graduated.

Not unhappy with his decision, Surber nonetheless feels it will come back to hurt him in the long run unless he stays in small business. Big companies, he has learned, look more closely at the "education" part of resumes.

"I'd probably recommend people in my situation go to college," he said. "I've just had a series of fortunate events."



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