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Want a tech job? What to study in a fast-moving field

“You really need to be a well-rounded, Renaissance, Internet-era kind of person” to succeed in landing a tech job,” said Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation.
“You really need to be a well-rounded, Renaissance, Internet-era kind of person” to succeed in landing a tech job,” said Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation.
Published Aug. 15, 2014

As tech jobs evolve at the pace of light through fiber-optic cable, leaders of tech firms such as Mozilla, Reddit and Tumblr say students should consider schools that will not only teach them traditional skills like coding, but also the softer skills that aren't listed in the course guide but are essential to the 21st century workplace: abilities to work with others, solve problems and pick up enough from disciplines other than their own to create products users believe are indispensable to their lives.

That means high schoolers need to ask colleges different questions from the ones their parents might have asked. (After all, how many colleges have schools of problem solving?) At the same time, colleges are trying to figure out what they should be teaching.

"Coding, editing video, design — it really is just the tip of the iceberg," said Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, based in Mountain View, Calif. Mozilla produces the Web browser Firefox. "What's below the tip of the iceberg is participation, critical thinking and being able to collaborate. You really need to be a well-rounded, Renaissance, Internet-era kind of person."

Although it's still possible to get a job without a college degree, as companies mature, they tend to look for employees who have experience collaborating with peers on projects and have picked up skills beyond, say, programming. Coding can be learned online, but students' abilities to connect with people and with alumni who can steer them to internships, jobs and mentors can't easily be replicated outside a college setting.

Employers say the choice of a major isn't critical. It's the discipline to spend years on an area of study — and producing work that demonstrates the result of that effort — that persuades employers to take a chance on hiring someone in their 20s.

"We don't really care what school you go to," said Ellen Pao, senior vice president of strategic partnerships at Reddit, the San Francisco social news aggregation website that ranks content based on a user-influenced scoring system. "We're interested in people who really love what they do."

Employment statistics reflect the promise of job security for young people who want to pursue careers in technology. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 22.8 percent increase in employment for software developers through 2022, more than double the 10.8 percent increase in overall employment. The median wage isn't too shabby, either: $101,410, according to the Labor Department. As more commerce — from making restaurant reservations to routing steel shipments — moves online and people increasingly search online via smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices instead of PCs, businesses will need more people to create and customize software, the Labor Department says.

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U.S. News and World Report ranks "software developer" as the best tech job in 2014, up from seventh a year ago. Third, and ranked ninth overall on U.S. News' list of the 100 best jobs, is "Web developer" (median salary: $62,500).

Meanwhile, growth in tech-related college majors is surging. According to the Computing Research Association, enrollment in computing majors rose 13.4 percent in 2012-13, the sixth straight year of increasing undergraduate enrollment. In its list last year of "11 Hot College Majors That Lead to Jobs," U.S. News included cybersecurity, data science and computer game design. The Princeton Review began ranking video game design programs for undergraduates and graduates in 2009, starting with eight programs; its most recent survey ranked 50 programs.

"Students are really pushing for these types of majors, and schools are responding in kind," said David Soto, director of content development at the Princeton Review.

Colleges have been racing to add classes and majors — sometimes starting programs from scratch, other times expanding existing programs or creating majors across different fields of study. Other schools with solid reputations in science, technology and engineering are mixing in healthy doses of the humanities.

Students and faculty caution that not all new tech careers are equal. Some, like user interface/experience manager, are more focused on art. High school guidance counselors and heads of startups say applicants should think hard about what they like doing on the Internet: playing video games or designing them? Testing whether a game works or marketing it?


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