Self-Taught Coder vs. College Programmer: 10 Differences

There are many ways to learn to code, but the most popular options are learning through college and teaching yourself. So, what are the differences between these routes for learning?

Self-taught coders and college programmers are different in that self-taught individuals learn more practical skills, where college programmers learn more background knowledge. College programmers learn practical skills, but that part of the curriculum takes a backseat to computer science concepts.

Read on to learn more about the differences between completing a programming degree and teaching yourself to code.

Differences Between Self-Taught Coders and College Programmers

Self-taught coders and computer programmers have a lot in common, but they vary in how they learn and what they learn. Either route will prepare you for a career in computer programming, but you should be careful about which choice you make to ensure that the one you choose is right for you.

Let’s take a look at the differences.

College Programmers Have a Background in Computer Science

Beyond the practical knowledge you get from learning to code, a degree in computer science will give you a near-complete background in computer science to use as a foundation for your knowledge.

Because of the degree of context and background that a computer science degree gives you, some college programmers find that the degree is not extremely efficient in learning practical coding skills.

Although computer science students learn to program in multiple languages, this doesn’t usually occur until late in the curriculum. Computer science students usually need to continue learning to code after leaving college to prepare for different jobs in the field.

Rather, computer science students consider themselves well-prepared for jobs in the field because they understand how databases, servers, and clients interact with each other, which are fundamental to web development careers. 

Because of this background, computer science students may also be prepared for careers in information technology, database administration, and other programming fields. 

Self-Taught Coders Learn Specific, Industry-Relevant Skills

Self-taught coders need to understand some amount of background in computer science to be functional programmers, but on the whole, their learning is much more focused on practical skills. 

They have the freedom and flexibility to learn the skills necessary for a particular job or set of jobs, unlike someone in a computer science program. They can also maximize their time spent learning languages so that they’re ready to jump into coding work.

That said, this is an ideal case. 

Self-taught coders need to do plenty of research to ensure that they are learning industry-relevant skills. Of course, it is also possible that a self-taught student will learn skills unnecessary for their future work. 

Often, self-taught coders will learn many languages in preparation for several jobs, then narrow down their focus as they become more expert.

Self-Taught Coders Need To Be Goal-Oriented and Independently Motivated

No matter what route you choose, you’ll need to dedicate time and hard work towards learning to code. 

However, self-teaching programming skills requires an extra amount of goal orientation and motivation. This is because self-teaching has no clear endpoint, and you won’t be getting regular feedback or structured lessons from an instructor.

Self-learners need to be prepared to take themselves through difficult lessons and keep learning even when they feel very beginner, and they need to set goals that will keep them moving forward. 

These goals can be skill-oriented or have something to do with the kind of career you want to have. 

College Programmers Need To Be Able To Handle Heavy Workloads

While a self-taught coder can easily move at their own pace and learn just the necessary skills, a college programmer needs to be prepared for a heavy workload with academic rigor. They need to be willing to put lots of hours into studying concepts that may or may not impact their professional life later.

College programmers do best when they have a natural interest and curiosity about computers and computer systems, as this will carry them through difficult theoretical courses learning abstract concepts. 

In one program, a college programmer may learn about cloud computing, operating systems, cybersecurity, parallel computation, and numerous other complicated topics relevant to computers today.

College Programmers Need To Be Prepared for a Co-Op or Internship

Many programming degrees involve at least one semester of on-site, on-the-job training. 

This helps make up for the fact that computer science degrees are largely so theoretical. But this practical learning is more fast-paced and comes all at once at the end of the program, making it difficult for students to keep up.

To prepare for a co-op or internship, spend some time getting to know what skills will be necessary and learning on your own. Knowing how to use the necessary languages will make a big difference to your experience.

Make sure that you choose a co-op or internship that aligns well with your interests, as this may be the most valuable job training you get as a part of your degree. While it won’t necessarily determine what you do for the rest of your career, it will play a large role in determining what you’re able to do next.

College Programmers Have Many Mentors

One benefit of college programming courses is that they have experienced and talented instructors. Students in these programs should make the most of these mentorship opportunities by asking questions and soliciting career advice where possible. 

Self-taught coders may also be able to find mentorship opportunities, but it will require digging, whereas college programmers have easy access to many mentors without looking far.

The benefits of having mentors in your life are many. They can help you through learning by pointing out where you need to focus, and they can tell you what the field is like outside of an academic setting. 

They also have expert knowledge and can answer plenty of questions related to their subject. 

Self-Taught Coders Have More Freedom

One key element of a self-taught coding curriculum is that you have more freedom to learn what you want when you want to. 

You can spend your evenings and weekends learning and keep up a full-time job, and you can put whatever amount of time that you have into it without worrying that you’ll fall behind. No matter how long it takes, if you invest consistently, you will learn.

Self-taught coders can focus as much as they want on front-end skills, back-end skills, or both. 

There’s no need to learn things you’re not interested in, although you may want to cover a broad foundation of skills in your self-taught curriculum just to make sure that you have a handle on all the basics.

The downside of this freedom is that you have no one making sure you’re doing the work or giving you feedback on your projects unless you specifically seek it out. You may find yourself getting hung up on certain problems and having a difficult time staying focused unless you create a structure for yourself and remain disciplined.

Self-Taught Coders Need To Work To Find Community

Whether you’re looking for a mentor to help teach you to code or fellow learners to make the process more comfortable and less daunting, finding peer programmers will be an extra challenge for self-taught coders. 

Many self-taught coders learn in a bubble, which can make the process much more difficult. 

Professional programmers recommend finding people to work with so that you can better develop your skills. Other people can answer your questions and find problems in your work that you didn’t see before.

While self-taught coders may not have the easy access to peer programmers that college students would have, they can develop their computer science communities through online resources like Meetup. 

Meetup hosts computer programming groups worldwide to make the process of finding a coding community easier and more accessible.

You can also use LinkedIn to meet other developers and as a way to look up what skills different company employees have. For example, if you’re interested in working for a particular company, you can browse profiles of various company employees looking to see what background they have and even send out messages to ask questions.

Self-Taught Coders Need To Develop Their Own Curriculum

Self-taught coders don’t have the structure of a degree program unless they make it for themselves. Thankfully, there are plenty of resources out there for self-taught coders to help you develop a curriculum and keep moving forward.

Books like Cracking the Coding Interview, available on, can make it easier to develop this curriculum because you’ll know what employers are looking for. This book gives you a set of programming challenges that you often need to solve in job interviews, which is very helpful when you’re trying to determine what skills are most critical to learn.

Websites like can also be very helpful for putting together a curriculum. This site, in particular, is helpful for self-taught coders because it connects you with hiring companies. 

Signing up for HackerRank gives you access to coding challenges that you can use to prove to employers that you have the necessary skills. It can also give you some direction when you’re first learning to code because it shows you what sorts of skills employers are looking for.

This is especially helpful given how many skills and languages there are to learn. 

The field of computer science and programming can be overwhelming for beginners, especially if they don’t have a curriculum or can’t commit four years to full-time learning. Figuring out where to focus can help you pick a language or a few languages to learn to get you going.

Ideally, you’ll master a few skills that can help you get your first job, then work from there to develop your skills further. There are countless languages and technologies out there, so make sure to focus your curriculum on learning a relevant few if you want the best chance of success.

Self-Taught Coders Need To Focus on Having a Solid Portfolio

Where computer programming college students have a degree they can point to, self-taught coders typically have no official certification or degree to show employers. Instead, they need to have a solid body of work displayed in an online portfolio to get to the interview stage of job applications.

The best thing you can have in your portfolio is tidy, error-free coded projects, no matter how simple or complex they may be. It’s better to include fewer projects but have them be solid pieces of work rather than include everything you’ve ever worked on and have less-than-ideal code on display.

Building a portfolio is also about developing yourself as a hireable brand, which means focusing your projects on areas of interest and talking about your motivations as a developer or programmer. 

It’s a good idea to include a link in your portfolio to Github, BitBucket, or any other code-hosting website where you can show off the code behind your projects. The more active you are on these sites, the better it will look when you’re showing them off in your portfolio.

College programmers may also need to build a portfolio, but because they have more credentials in the field, it is less necessary to get a job. 

They also typically have more on-the-job experience than a self-taught coder when they complete their degrees, making the portfolio less critical, especially in terms of adding personal projects.

Self-taught coders need to be prepared to develop several independent applications or web pages to add to a portfolio because they cannot simply include coursework or examples from a hired job. 

That said, you might be able to find freelance clients as a self-taught coder and be able to pull in projects from that into your portfolio, too.


Learning to code on your own is a valuable experience, but there are benefits to completing a computer programming degree, too. Essentially, a degree in computer science or something similar will give you a fundamental understanding of contextual concepts to make computer programming make more sense, where learning on your own may be more practically useful.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *