As university students return to class, Shopify’s chief executive has a message for them: Your degrees don’t matter as much as your abilities.
“One of the ingredients in Shopify’s success has been to completely ignore academic credentials in hiring,” Tobi Lütke, Shopify’s CEO said recently on Twitter. “It’s a signal, but just one of many, and probably not in the top three. Glad this is catching on.”
Lütke made his comments in reaction to a post about U.S. tech giants Apple, Google and IBM eliminating the college degree as a minimum requirement for a new employee.
University and college degrees have traditionally served a gatekeeping function for big companies: as a trusted, proxy measure for skill, intelligence and employability. But tech firms like Shopify are not playing by the old rules.
“From Day 1, we’ve always valued different types of experiences,” said Anna Lambert, director of talent acquisition at Shopify, Ottawa’s e-commerce software giant.
“We’ve hired people with degrees over time, for sure. But, since the beginning, there’s never been a requirement that you need to have a bachelor’s degree in computer science in order to be a developer at Shopify.”
Shopify has hired 1,000 people in the past year alone, bringing its global workforce beyond 3,000.
The company values people who have built something of their own, volunteered their time and pursued new learning opportunities.
Dropping the degree requirement allows firms to identify qualified people who have taken non-traditional paths through self-study, coding boot camps or online learning through websites such as Coursera.
“It opens the aperture of the candidate pool,” Lambert said. “I know we’ve absolutely hired people who other companies have said ‘no’ to because they don’t have the traditional form of experience, and they have gone on to be successful leaders in the organization, successful teachers in the organization.”
Shopify often asks job applicants to demonstrate their particular skills during interviews. Writers will be asked to write something, Lambert said, while developers will asked to review some code or a web design.
University of Ottawa professor Ross Finnie said the hiring approach taken by Shopify and other high tech firms should make post-secondary institutions examine themselves.
“These are companies at the cutting edge of innovation and technology: They’re the spearhead of the knowledge economy,” said Finnie, director of the Education Policy Research Initiative, which seeks to inform policy discussions about education and the labour market.
Finnie said the high tech hiring practices suggested universities were not equipping students with enough of the “new skills” that employers valued: teamwork, communication, problem-solving, flexibility.
“It’s a challenge, but one of the functions of universities, among others, is to prepare people for the economies of today — and tomorrow,” he said.
It means universities have to understand the skills employers want, decide whether they have a role in developing them and design ways to do deliver those deemed essential.
If universities seize that challenge, he said, students will be better prepared for the job market, businesses will gain more productive employees and universities could win increased funding by delivering more value. “I think the systems needs a big shakeup, and, if we do it right, I think everyone can win,” Finnie said.
Shopify is not the only high-tech firm that no longer requires a university or college degree to get in the door. Three of the city’s hottest tech firms use similar approaches when hiring.
Cory Michalyshyn, chief financial officer of Solink, a firm with a business app that analyses corporate data in real-time:
“Credentials can be an aspect of a candidate’s experience, but we find that real-world experience, motivation, personality and culture fit are more relevant and carry greater weight in our decision making. The concept of education is changing: A person can educate themselves on a huge array of technical skills. What can’t be learned in school is a person’s innate approach to teamwork, goals, critical thinking, problem solving and community participation.”
John Proctor, chief executive officer of Martello Technologies, which helps companies optimize their network computer traffic:
“Academic credentials are an indicator, not a deciding factor for us typically. People gather job knowledge in different ways: education, on-the-job training, volunteer work, et cetera. What’s important to us is understanding what they’ve done with that knowledge.”
Alyson Gaffney, vice president of marketing and partnerships at Leonovus Inc., a data storage firm:
“We wouldn’t necessarily say that we ignore academic credentials. Someone who has done a master’s or PhD in a relevant field — machine learning, mathematics, cryptography — has demonstrated both an ability to learn and research as well as a personal interest in the types of technologies we’re using. That said, we definitely don’t have a post-secondary degree requirement of any kind. At the end of the day, we’re looking for smart people who are team players and have natural curiosity and drive.”