Making It In Silicon Valley, Minus A College Degree

Four years ago, Hallie Lomax’s packed schedule barely left time for sleep. Lomax, then 21, was in her second to last year of school at Howard University, attending classes fives days a week, working three jobs on the side, and going to hackathons every weekend.
Even so, she felt behind. The previous summer, Lomax had interned at Google, an experience that made her think she had gotten into computer science far too late and needed to play catch-up: “Everyone I was interacting with during my internship was like, Oh yeah, I started programming when I was seven. I was like, I’m 21 and just now getting into this.”
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When she returned the following summer for another internship in the Bay Area, armed with a year’s worth of weekend hackathons and work experience, she began considering another path.
“I started hearing hearing more of a narrative about people who had dropped out of school,” Lomax says. “Sure, most, if not all, of these people were white dudes, but the fact that there were people who dropped out of college or never even went to college and were still getting jobs [in tech] made me feel like I could be one of those people.”
After weighing her options, Lomax decided to stay in Silicon Valley and apply for her first official post-college job, without a computer science degree. Lomax’s story isn’t unusual in Silicon Valley, save for one aspect: She’s a young woman.
The tech industry is full of mythic tales of wunderkind college dropouts who leave prestigious universities to found companies and become self-made billionaires. The protagonists of these stories are, as Lomax observed, almost exclusively white men: Bill Gates left Harvard to found Microsoft; Steve Jobs left Reed College to launch Apple; Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard to run Facebook; Jack Dorsey dropped out of NYU to found Twitter. One female outlier is Elizabeth Holmes, the Stanford dropout who founded Theranos, but that story has a very different ending.
These stories are problematic for a number of reasons and not just because they are almost entirely devoid of female protagonists. The dropout narrative typically excludes students who leave college for other reasons, whether it's financial or mental health related. Their stories are every bit as important, as they point to existing challenges and double standards in the industry that need addressing.
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Designed by Richard Chance.
For female dropouts who want to pursue a technical role in the industry, the cliff can seem especially steep. As of 2017, women made up just 26% of the computing workforce. While tech companies would do well to consider skilled women without degrees with the same seriousness as someone with a degree, this isn’t always the case:
“The typical interviewer’s mind, and that includes female interviewers as well, isn’t as prepared to see a woman being the hardcore nerd type who drops out of college and just loves to hack, so it’s harder for them to perceive a woman that way,” Gayle Laakmann McDowell, a former software engineer at Apple, Google, and Microsoft who now consults with tech companies on their hiring processes, told Refinery29. “For women, it becomes more important to have the credentials that show you can do the job.”
One of those credentials is a college degree. Despite having an impressive résumé with engineering internships at Google and Kleiner Perkins, Lomax says she interviewed with 40 companies after leaving school, sometimes doing as many as three interviews a day, without any luck. After a rejection email from one top tech company implied that her decision to drop out was the reason she didn’t get the gig, Lomax started feeling self-conscious.
“When people would ask, ‘Are you out of school?’ I started saying, ‘Yeah, I’m out of school,’” she says. “I didn’t say that I graduated, but I also didn’t say that I dropped out.”
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It isn’t always easy for someone to explain why they decided to leave school, especially if those reasons are private and don’t fit with the “I started a company” track. This was certainly true for Enid Hwang. Unlike Lomax, Hwang didn’t know she wanted to work in tech when she left UCLA in 2009, during the last semester of her four-year degree. Her reason for leaving was deeply personal. “I had some mental health issues that I think were unresolved for awhile, stemming from sexual assault,” she says, calling her decision to drop out “very much a snap thing.”
Designed by Richard Chance.
Hwang’s entrance into the tech world was the unexpected result of a fortunate circumstance and proactiveness on her part: Her brother received an invite code to try out what was then a new website called Pinterest. He passed it along to Hwang, who signed up as Pinner number 367. The vintage fashion lover quickly became addicted, racking up 200 pins in her first week of using the site. She emailed Ben Silbermann, Pinterest’s co-founder, expressing interest in working there. But when Silbermann emailed back saying he had no money to hire her, she decided to offer her services for free, handing out invite codes to attendees at the conferences she attended for her day job as a social media manager at Crossroads Trading Company.
“I pretty infamously got fired from Crossroads for doing this,” Hwang says. “But, luckily, Pinterest had gotten a little bit of funding.”
Hwang joined the company as its sixth employee, and in the last seven years has risen to a community management role. Nowadays, she says doesn’t feel stressed out about going back to school because of her many years of hands-on experience.
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Hwang had the confidence to cold email Silbermann, but Laackman McDowell says that not everyone who drops out has that kind of self-assurance in the interview process, and that can work against them.
“They assume that people with a degree have a magic source of knowledge,” she says.
Lomax experienced the impact that confidence can have firsthand. As she became increasingly frustrated with the interview process and her inability to find work she decided to shift gears again, and embrace the fact that she had dropped out. It played out in her favor: Lomax eventually got a job at the financial tech company LendUp and, earlier this year, joined Lyft as a software engineer.
“The moment I said, You know what, I’m just going to tell people I dropped out and be honest, people responded really positively to it,” she says. “I started getting more offers to come in for interviews. It was almost like it benefited me to just own the fact that I had made the decision to leave school.”
In recent years, some companies have developed interview processes designed to focus on skill rather than schooling, becoming friendlier to men and women without degrees. In an oft-cited 2013 interview with The New York Times, Laszlo Bock, then Google’s SVP of People Operations, spoke about data that showed GPAs and test scores are “worthless as a criteria for hiring.”
Designed by Richard Chance.
During Bock’s 10-year tenure at Google, he instituted a new policy around how the company looked at an applicant’s educational background. When it came time for hiring decisions to be made and candidates’ résumés passed on to what is called the executive offer review stage, Bock says the field describing someone’s education was blacked out. So when he looked at résumés, he wouldn’t know where someone went college or if they had graduated. As a result, in that same New York Times article, he noted that the proportion of Google employees without a college education increased. (Nowadays, Google will ask a candidate for information about the institution they attended if they indicate they have attended college.)
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“Only a third of Americans finish college,” Bock told Refinery29. “The other two-thirds are just as smart and capable, so it’s an error to overlook those people just because they didn’t have the same opportunity.”
Even as there is increasing evidence that the industry is catching on and hiring more qualified dropouts, there’s still a ways to go if companies want to be welcoming not only to women overall, but also to women without degrees. Much of this comes down to the interview process, which Laakmann McDowell says should be more transparent: “Students in college are surrounded by peers who understand the interview process. Employers don’t realize a lot of the candidates are unsure about what to expect. People without degrees can walk into an interview and not know that they’ll be expected to code on a whiteboard.”
Female dropouts shouldn’t be an anomaly. Women like Lomax and Hwang prove that there is no singular path to success. With hard work and perseverance, they landed enviable roles in tech. It's time we heard and shared their stories, so a new generation realizes what is possible.
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