Is being self-taught a realistic aspiration?

University courses can struggle to stay up-to-date - but can you really teach yourself everything you need to know to become a great web professional?

University education or teaching yourself? Industry professionals give their opinions on which makes the best web developers.

Spend time honing your skills

Dr Leslie Jensen-Inman

"Humans make great learners," says co founder of Center Centre, Dr Leslie Jensen-Inman. "It is possible to teach ourselves how to do almost anything. It takes time and experience to become a great developer or designer. When you have an excellent mentor or coach helping you stretch and strengthen your skills, the time you spend honing these skills is often more focused and relevant to your learning goals. Whatever path you choose should include collaborating and working on projects with some people who know more than you and some people who know less."

It's all about what you can do

Ryan Carson

"There are not enough Computer Science and Design graduates from universities to fill the hundreds of thousands of jobs in technology – so most employers are now looking to what you can do, not what certification you have," comments co-founder of Treehouse, Ryan Carson. "At Treehouse, we can make a student job-ready in as little as six months, all from the comfort of your couch."

Learn how to learn

Christopher Murphy

"As an educator working in a university, I believe there's a great deal that a university education offers that isn't catered to in either online courses or short, intensive courses," says senior lecturer at Belfast School of Art Christopher Murphy. "Whilst these approaches have a place as part of a rich learning environment, degree programmes afford students the opportunity to learn over an extended period of time, enabling them to 'learn how to learn', a critical skill that takes time to acquire and that needs to be nurtured. I believe universities need to raise their game, however, which is one reason the Belfast School of Art's Interaction Design course curriculum is open.

Universities have limited curricula

Sara Soueidan

Frontend developer Sara Soueidan comments: "I have a BS in Computer Sciences, but what I've learned in college is a drop in the sea of what I've learned by myself. Being self-taught can very much allow you to compete with those who have been university taught. Universities have limited curricula that are rarely (if ever) up-to-date with the latest technologies and best practices. Plus, university courses may be able to teach you the basics, but it's experience that allows you to compete with others.

It depends on the individual

Anne-Gaelle Colom

"It all depends on the self-taught coder's background and their motivation," says senior lecturer at the University of Westminster Anne-Gaelle Colom. "It's inevitable, however, that a self-taught coder will have knowledge gaps when compared to a computing graduate. Academics spend a long time designing degrees to best prepare graduates for the industry. This means that a university graduate is skilled and has supporting architectural knowledge of key subjects. This is a huge head-start and helps them become effective coders much faster than those who take the self-taught route."

The best way to learn is by doing

Jack Franklin

Developer at GoCardless Jack Franklin says: "It is absolutely possible to teach yourself to code – there are so many resources available. I'd encourage anyone to spend some time looking at comp-sci foundations; I firmly believe that a basic knowledge of computer science fundamentals is an advantage to programmers. The best way to learn is by doing – come up with a project and try to build it. It will be frustrating, but the experience of building your own thing is invaluable, and the best way to learn."

One size doesn't fit all

Janna Hagan

"I specifically chose to go to college because I knew I didn’t have the discipline to learn on my own," says UI designer at Myplanet Janna Hagan. "I needed the structure and support that post-secondary provides, in order to succeed. However, there is no 'one size fits all' option. I don't think many companies nowadays care about whether you are self-taught or not; they care about how good you are. A self-taught programmer could be better off than a fresh graduate."

Illustration: Ben Mounsey

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 256.