DEGREE OR NOT DEGREE?

AN HONEST OPINION

Wnen I was at secondary school in the mid-nineties, we were allowed to leave at 16 years old after completing our GCSEs, but the majority of students stayed on to study A Levels - why was this? The truth is, it had become the norm and was pretty much what society expected from students in a regular secondary school at that time.

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Many parents wanted their children to go to university, and therefore encouraged them to complete their A Levels, and of course, the schools wanted the business! It struck me that people would often take this default route with little consideration of the alternatives. It was simply “what (almost) everyone else did” regardless of whether or not they actually wanted or needed a degree.

The system was very biased towards encouraging children to continue with their education. To use a metaphor, I felt that my secondary school was behaving like a sausage factory, churning out one A Level student after another, with little regard for what was actually in the best interests of the child. We received very little in the way of independent career advice to explain our alternative options, and the advice we did receive was uninspiring and felt tainted as though it was by far the less desirable route. Presumably, this was exactly the outcome the school was looking for to further encourage students to stay on. Of course, there were a number of children who did choose to leave school at 16, but unfortunately, these were often seen as the “drop-outs” (which is clearly demeaning). Nevertheless, I chose to leave school at 16 years old. Unsure of what to actually do with myself, I joined a local training agency and took up a Business Administration work placement in the hope that it would lead to a well-paid office job of some sort.

Starting Work

Ever since being young, I’ve had an interest in computers. It started with a hand-me-down Atari games console in the mid-eighties, followed by an Amstrad CPC 464 (with colour screen!) and a Commodore Amiga 500 Plus. As I began my career working in an office, I started to build on my interest in computers by learning more about PCs. I also began to offer basic IT support to other members of staff. Eventually, my employer offered me the opportunity to switch to an Information Technology apprenticeship where I began to study for a BTEC in computing. This involved being released from work one day a week to attend college, which meant I could continue to gain valuable work experience (and pay!) whilst also studying for a well-recognised qualification.

After about 6 months into my apprenticeship, I noticed a job advertised in the local paper. It was a junior sysadmin role within an American company who had premises nearby. I cautiously applied, not expecting anything to come of it (I say cautiously because I was actually enjoying my apprenticeship at the time). Surprisingly, after a successful interview, I was offered the job. I think this was based on my genuine enthusiasm for the role rather than my actual skillset at the time! After careful consideration, I decided that this was probably my best chance to properly break into the IT profession, so I reluctantly left my apprenticeship to take on the new role. This meant that I had nothing of significance to show for my efforts so far - I had no A Levels, certainly no degree, and I hadn’t even completed my BTEC apprenticeship! The only thing I had was my GCSEs and a couple of basic NVQs in Business Administration and Information Technology. However, this would prove to be a positive move.

The new job offered lots of opportunities. Over a number of years, I progressed from desktop support, to server support, to network support, to systems architect, up to infrastructure team manager (a role which I actually turned down on a permanent basis, but that’s another story!) Quite early on, the American company was bought out by a British FTSE 100 company and we received an incredible amount of investment to build a number of high-stakes production environments from the ground up, both on-premise and within external data centres (making use of industry-leading products).

I was fortunate enough to get my hands on some fantastic technology, and throughout this time I also attended numerous training courses and obtained a number of industry qualifications. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have taken more exams - the opportunity was definitely there, but I didn’t quite appreciate it at the time. After a number of major restructures and TUPE transfers, I found myself in a global role which involved managing security appliances across AMER, EMEA, and APAC regions. Although it may sound quite glamorous, the job had become very siloed and far less challenging, so after 17 fantastic years, I reluctantly decided to seek employment elsewhere.

Moving On

In 2017 I switched from private sector to public and joined a large NHS foundation trust to manage their IT team. I promised myself that I would not rest on my laurels, and I quickly introduced a number of successful service improvements within the trust. Although responsible for all aspects of IT operations, due to my past experience managing security appliances, I naturally swayed towards IT security.

When an opportunity came up to attend a 5-day cyber security course (SSCP) I grasped it with both hands. I subsequently passed the exam and quickly progressed to passing the more advanced CISSP exam (which I self-studied for). Around this time, I also became a Member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (which proved quite a challenge without a degree!) After only a year in the job, I saw a national cyber security role advertised within the NHS, which I applied for. Although I had around 20 years of IT experience, I was wary that the lack of a degree may be my Achilles heel. However, this proved not to be the case.

After a series of interviews, I was pleased to be offered the role, and this is where I find myself today - helping to improve data and cyber security resilience and readiness across the health system. Working at a national level is very interesting and challenging and there are fantastic opportunities for training and attending cyber security events. Things can feel a little daunting at times because I am surrounded by well-educated people who tend to hold degrees, which makes life a little tricky when conversation turns to discussing our good old university days (or lack thereof!) But other than that, it’s a fantastic role and I feel very fortunate to be in the position I find myself in.

To Conclude

I’m now mid-career and I sometimes wonder if it would be worth studying (part-time) for a degree, but I’m unsure it would add any real value at this stage in my life. I have to balance the benefit against the cost (not only financially, but also in terms of time). After all, I could use that time to further my career by studying for another industry certificate, or by helping to promote cyber security awareness outside of work (which is something I feel passionate about). I’m now a father myself and I would love to see my son go to university, but only if he genuinely wants to go and not simply because that’s what society expects of him. I took a rather unorthodox approach as a child back in the mid-nineties, but I’m happy with how things have panned out so far. I’m by no means at the top of the ladder, but I have managed to carve out an enjoyable and interesting career from what started out as an interest in computers. It may sound like a cliché, but I have found that experience, honesty, and integrity go quite a long way, regardless of whether or not someone has a degree. My advice would be to consider your choices very carefully and don’t just follow the crowd. Be aware of the opportunities that arise and take the chances that life throws at you. With a bit of passion (and luck), I’m sure you’ll achieve success.

All the best in whichever path you choose.

John Haith