Big Tech’s New Paper Ceiling

Big tech, an early proponent of dropping degree requirements, has backslid in a big way, writes Jeff Casimir, head of the Turing School.

Regression can be found in the most surprising places.

Over the last five years a tight labor market has left hundreds of thousands of jobs unfilled. Across key economic industries, America is struggling to find the necessary talent to compete. But our biggest tech companies are facing a totally different problem.

Jeff Casimir, executive director of the Turing School of Software and Design

The tech industry was a pioneer in skills-based hiring, where “what you can do” is more important than what degree you hold. But just as a growing number of organizations are working to “Tear the Paper Ceiling,” the big tech companies are now backsliding aggressively, with a computer science bachelor’s degree becoming the price of admission. What happened?

When our worst fears about COVID subsided in late 2020, the Googles, Facebooks, Microsofts, and Apples of the world launched aggressive growth and hiring campaigns. With the sudden talent liquidity of remote work, tech giants were able to snap up software developers overnight by paying higher salaries than the competition. From 2020 to 2022, US-based software developers reported salary increases on the order of 25%, while across the tech sector revenues soared.

What really drives a multi-billion dollar valuation? It’s not in the software they’ve already built, the investment equivalent of a luxury sedan with its value decaying by the day. It’s no longer in the massive user base, as new players have proven users will shift their attention to new platforms in weeks, not months.

The real value is their talent. It’s what powers imagination and creates the next big thing.

Software developers are problem solvers. They’re system builders. And, increasingly, they’re free-thinkers. In the last few years they’ve begun to ask why it’s still so hard for people of color to thrive in this industry or why accessibility is always an afterthought. They’ve demanded medical, parental, and retirement benefits. Some software developers have even threatened the most disruptive idea of all: collective bargaining.

Over the last three years tech talent became aware of its own power, and boardrooms were under threat. Despite record revenues, the biggest companies started rounds of layoffs and return-to-office mandates to discipline labor. Over the last 18 months, leadership has solidified its power.

This is the moment where the disruptors became the establishment. When “order” outweighs growth. Where they stop pushing the boundary of what’s possible and instead declare a “Year of Efficiency.

With software developers scared straight and order now restored, these talent companies need to grow again. Where can they find the next generation of people ready to work hard, leverage great skills, but also follow the rules? 

Big Tech needs people who can keep their head down and finish a four year degree. They need people who prioritize their credentials over experience and stick with long, bureaucratic processes regardless of the return on investment. So-called “STARs” who didn’t follow the right path are too free-thinking and dangerous, even if they have the skills to do the job right now.

And just like that, the paper ceiling is back! Almost every major tech company is accepting applications for Summer 2024 internships. The first and only hard requirement? You must be in school now and graduating no sooner than January 2025. They want to build a pipeline of software talent that demonstrates patience and compliance, not one that might come with an attitude.

Most corporate internships are about finding out who, on minimum pay, is willing to jump through the hoops, work ridiculous hours, and strive to fit in—all just for the chance at a job. And if the company decides to discard the whole bunch, they don’t have to deal with severance or lawsuits. 

While the new establishment falters under its own weight, opportunity opens for a new generation of disruption. A 350-person company can change the whole conversation. Early stage funding is going to those who’ve previously been marginalized and overlooked. Young people are building the skills to drive tomorrow’s innovation. 

Gates, Jobs, Ellison, Branson, and Dell didn’t need college degrees to build their empires. The next great tech innovators are on the way, and they’re not carrying a CS degree. They’re STARs who come with skills and life experience—they’re veterans, educators, parents and recovering healthcare workers—and they’ll redefine what’s possible in this industry. 

What happens when a STAR hits the paper ceiling? It burns right through.

Jeff Casimir is founder and executive director of the Turing School of Software and Design.

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