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Ask Slashdot: Getting a Tech Job With Skills But No Formal Degree? 266

fmatthew5876 writes "I have a friend who graduated with a degree in philosophy and sociology. He has been spending a lot of his spare time for the last couple years learning system administration and web development. He has set up web servers, database servers, web proxies and more. He has taught himself PHP, MySQL, and how to use Linux and openBSD without any formal education. I believe that if given the chance with an entry level position somewhere and a good mentor he could really be a great Unix admin, but the problem is that he doesn't have a degree in computer science or any related field. He is doing stuff now that a lot of people I graduated with (I was a CS major) could not do when they had a bachelor's degree. Does Slashdot have any advice on what my friend could do to build up his resume and find a job? I know a lot of people think certifications are pretty useless or even harmful, but in his case do you think it would be a good idea?"
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Ask Slashdot: Getting a Tech Job With Skills But No Formal Degree?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 08, 2012 @05:54PM (#40263077)

    I barely graduated high school and I hold a high level IT position.

    Key plan: don't lie about your college degree!

    • by Cute Fuzzy Bunny ( 2234232 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @06:05PM (#40263213)

      Same here. Worked hard and cheap for a while, then worked hard and for a lot of money once I had the street cred.

      • by Gilmoure ( 18428 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @06:32PM (#40263545) Journal

        Same here; art school drop out (was having too much fun playing with computers and then making money freelancing repairs). The first actual in was meeting a guy at a wake and talking computers. He said his team at Honeywell needed desktop support and that go me into the door. From there, writing documentation (learning systems/processes), some classes and certs and now am admining HPC clusters. My coworkers are mostly CS/EE degree holders, all the way up to PhD but turns out most of the actual job requirements are still job related knowledge (be able to learn quickly), basic problem solving skills, able to communicate clearly and straight forward and having decent people skills.

        Oh yeah, in last two years, have started picking up people at the help desk and training up support personnel. Some of these folks have moved into our department as well. After our example, other teams are also looking at help desk as a potential talent pool. Used to be the only way out was up the desktop support ladder but that's changing. May want to look at help desk work and ask what their career options are.

      • Me four! We exist.

    • by maitai ( 46370 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @07:29PM (#40264101) Homepage

      Same as the GP, I didn't finished highschool. Have no degree at all. Started small and now make a bundle (and hire CS degree holders to do the monkey work I don't want to do, 'cause honestly... they suck...).

      Experience trumps paper.

      • I'm a HS dropout too. Learned computer programming at Radio Shack University on the TRS-80, worked fixing radio stations, produced telemarketing devices made out of C64s, got hired by an ISP in '96 since I was taking care of the local modems anyway. 2001 I was a Sr. network engineer at Amazon, Now own my own company providing technical services (what ever interests me.)

        People would ask me what they needed to do to get into tech. My reply was, "Be obsessed with it." Don't do it for the money, do it because that's what you have to do.

        • Heh, another high school dropout here too :D. I made it by working my way up through crap jobs until I got a decent break. Started in tech support for an ISP, then worked in a computer shop, made some contacts. Moved on to building servers and doing linux loads, then worked in an RMA lab for a router/firewall manufacturer testing hardware. Finally got a break as an admin. I beat out a guy with a CS degree for that position, just because I could articulate how DNS worked. Pay wasn't great, but better t
    • Me too, the hard part for your friend is to get past the guys at human resources, after that, it will be easier for him to go up, specially if your managers are not sociopaths.

      • by Auroch ( 1403671 )

        Me too, the hard part for your friend is to get past the guys at human resources, after that, it will be easier for him to go up, specially if your managers are not sociopaths.

        Just remember - the guys in HR are trying to avoid making a bad decision, and are going to be seriously risk averse. So if you come in claiming to know how to do things, they'll just ignore you if you don't have that degree. On the other hand, if you come in and explain to them a lot of the things that you HAVE done, they'll feel (slightly) better knowing that you're experienced. Get some good recommendations behind you on work habits, dress well ... and you *might* get to the next round of interviews wi

    • by grcumb ( 781340 )

      I barely graduated high school and I hold a high level IT position.

      Key plan: don't lie about your college degree!

      Theatre major here. I now work as Chief Technologist for a thinktank. The key in the early days is learning harder than the rest. For my first four years, I read about 1000 pages of technical literature a month on average and spent about 4 non-work hours a day playing with tech stuff. That's slowed down somewhat, but even after 20 years in the field, reading about and playing with new tech is not optional.

      Oh, and loving it helps, too. Here I am on holiday in Bali and I can't stay away from geek stuff. I d

    • I'm at the top of my skillset and am pretty happy with it. I never finished school, and I'm also happy to admit it now. I used to think I was the exception, but I realize now, after sixteen years in the field that I am actually the rule when it comes to self made men. It can be done. Especially if you're in an American job market.

      The key is that you need to be a good sales person, and you also need to have realistic expectations. The first five years in a new field are the hardest. If your friend can writ
      • Geesh, this reminds me of a phone screen I had once with a person at GE who's native language was not English. He asked me all sorts of basic stuff, which I could not understand becasue of his broken English. The most aggravating thing was finally peicing together what he said after the phone interview. "Do you know host file?" "Uh.....not familiar with that." Doh, fucking hosts file! Unsmattered English: Do you know what a host file is? Stupid.

    • The bottom line here is that you have to be able to get them to notice you. The way you get noticed (in no particular order)...

      1) have a degree
      2) have experience
      3) have certifications
      4) do something so interesting that they have to notice you.

      If he can't do one of the above then honestly it is all a crapshoot after that.

      Personally I don't have a degree, I have some certifications unrelated to my position. But I maintain a personal blog where I document interesting technical problems. Which I sel
      • If your first thought after the interview is "phew... Glad that is over." then you're doing it wrong.

        Fuckin A.

    • I barely graduated high school and I hold a high level IT position.

      Key plan: don't lie about your college degree!

      Unless you like being the ceo of a large tech company....

      • by Auroch ( 1403671 )

        I barely graduated high school and I hold a high level IT position.

        Key plan: don't lie about your college degree!

        Unless you like being the ceo of a large tech company....

        Yeah, because that worked out so well for him.

  • CS is not IT (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @05:56PM (#40263089)

    CS is not IT

  • by x0mbie ( 415207 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @05:56PM (#40263091) Homepage

    I have had friends do this (and myself to a degree) and it can open doors you didn't know you had. Also join some local user groups (like I joined my local VMware User Group) and made a lot of good contacts, one even got me a job when I just got RIF.

    • Exactly this. I have a degree in psychology and now work full time in IT, with IT-related business on the side. For several years before my first full-time IT gig I did things like maintaining computers and networks for the local youth centre and chairing the tech committee of the regional Skills competition. Volunteer work like this can build a reputation quickly if done well, especially in smaller communities. The person who made the decision to hire me at my current position was somebody I had worked wit
    • by Nethead ( 1563 )

      Exactly. That's how I got a job at an ISP. I offered to take care of the local modem pool since I was tired of ring-no-answers. They gave me a key to the POP and I would go kick the modems when they misbehaved. About 6 months later they offered me a job in Seattle taking care of all the modems and T1 lines. Four years later I was a Sr. Network Engineer at Amazon. I'm a high school drop out with no further schooling.

  • Nah (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Stargoat ( 658863 ) * <stargoat@gmail.com> on Friday June 08, 2012 @05:57PM (#40263103) Journal

    Certs are good for non-IT degree folks. Heck, certs are good for everyone. Yes, there are people running around with certs that cannot problem solve their way out of a cardboard box while holding a knife. But mostly, they make you look better. Definitely go for them.

    • Re:Nah (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bobcat7677 ( 561727 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @06:09PM (#40263253) Homepage
      Yes, as a senior software engineer with no degree, I can say that certs definitely help. Yes, they don't mean much really, but they make your resume more attractive than the stack of resumes with no degree and no certs. Some employers won't even give you the time of day if you don't have a degree. The ones that will consider applicants with no degree have to wade through mountains of resumes from all sorts of riff raff that think they can bullsh1t their way into a job. Anything that makes your resume possibly look better then the next guy's and seem more legit increases your chances of getting an interview and ultimately the job.
    • I would go for a 2-year technician degree since it sounds that's the level he's currently at. Overload with credits and do summer classes, and he'll probably finished in 1.3 years. You need the "sheepskin" to get past the HR people.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      To anyone who actually knows anything, they're worth less than toilet paper because they're too stiff to use in anything but truly desperate situations. Unfortunately, management almost never satisfies the "knows anything" condition.
  • See if the college's placement/career department can find an internship for him. Or perhaps one of your CS professors.

  • ...if you don't have a formal degree.

    As a matter of fact, software companies will often have those with degrees who are fresh out of school work in tech support for at least 6 months. Then move them up when a slot opens or they show that they are capable.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @05:59PM (#40263143)

    And complete it, for someone. A church, or a nonprofit would be good. Another alternative would be to build a useful application and add it to SourceForge. Nothing spices up a resume like free downloadable open software that you've written, assuming it's well tested.

  • Portfolio (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Zaphod The 42nd ( 1205578 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @06:00PM (#40263145)
    I wouldn't recommend getting a Cert, probably more trouble and cost than its worth. Not as negative to have on your resume for a SysAdmin than a programmer, but still, it doesn't exactly shine, so it doesn't feel worth it. Its going to be hard, no doubt. There's just so many people who apply for IT jobs that have NO idea what they're doing at all, hiring is a nightmare. So much of the "interview process" is just to weed out people who should never be applying in the first place. You mentioned, "He is doing stuff now that a lot of people I graduated with (I was a CS major) could not do when they had a bachelor's degree" There's the answer. That's how you get a job without a degree, you do really impressive stuff that shows you know what you're doing and you care about it. Tell him to do as many personal projects as he can, and try to find everything he can do to show evidence of having done them. Set up a personal website, and make it as in-depth as possible. Write extensive notes on all the stuff he's doing that graduates couldn't even do, and include that with your resume. Take pictures, include links to live things on the web if you can, everything and anything to show that while you don't have a formal education, you still have experience. That's what counts. Other than that, I'd just say apply everywhere imaginable. Getting your foot in the door is the hard part, once he's got a job on his resume or two, people won't care about his education at all.
    • Spot on. I broke into the game with a math degree and code in the wild. I was hired by an EE who fell into software dev in a similar way.
  • GO to user groups (Score:5, Insightful)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Friday June 08, 2012 @06:00PM (#40263153) Homepage Journal

    make friends and contacts.

    And if you already have a degree:
    Go to user groups,
    make friends and contacts.

    • This is the real answer. The number one thing I hear from people who do hiring is "Yeah, we post the job but it's just a formality. By the time it's posted, we already have a guy in mind who was referred to us by a colleague/business parter/stake holder/trusted friend etc."

      So if you want a job, you want to be the guy that's being recommended, and that comes from knowing the right people, not having the right degree. However, it's no mistake that in the process of getting the right degree you meet the rig
      • by NIN1385 ( 760712 )
        Having just lost my job due to our small computer store closing this comment makes me happy, a guy I worked with there has put in a good word for me at a major corporation he works for.
  • Comp Sci != IT (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Missing.Matter ( 1845576 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @06:01PM (#40263157)
    Given that sysadmin is not in any way equivalent to Computer Sceince, I'd say he's in luck. Anyone who requires a CS degree for a sysadmin job is just ignorant of that fact.
  • Have something you can demo. A personal project that you put serious time into. Have it well presented (a good website or document that highlights what you are trying to show off).

    That's the easy part. The hard part is getting in the door. Focus on smaller companies as most big ones will just bin your resume. Go in there and apply in person. Easy to delete a document when you see there is no degree. If you make the effort and go in there in person, usually they'll at least talk to you.

    The fact that he has _

  • I have been lucky. With only high school I have work all over the world doing software development since the early 1980's. I have worked as a consultant for mega corps with a staff of PhD's and invented some world changing algorithms ( which of course the mega corps patented ).

    If you are good enough, or have a perspective that is outside the box and produce results, the degree doesn't matter.

    It's just harder. Harder to get in the door to present yourself. Harder to win acceptance of your work. Harder in jus

    • by Sir_Sri ( 199544 )

      If this was the 1980's the suggestions would be very different.

      Back then finding anyone who knew anything about computers was a small miracle, and you could get your foot in the door and then experience matters. Today you're competing with people who are already a step above you, so you pretty much have to have demonstrable skills doing the job for someone, or you have to know someone that thinks you're competent enough to help you get a job.

      • My latest major project was 2010 -> 2011. I started back in the early 1980's. What I do is very specialized and the major companies in the field all know me. They call when they need something. I'm just lucky that I don't have to go out and sell myself any more. There is also snobbery. The team I lead, and had work on my designs all had Doctorates in CS. At first, they were taken back that this major company would give me carte blanche on running this project. Once we got going, everything was fine. They

        • by Sir_Sri ( 199544 )

          my fault, wasn't clear.

          I meant if you were starting now it would be very different. I know a lot of successful computer people (IT, CS etc.) who came in from somewhere else ages ago. But to get into the business from a completely unrelated field is very difficult now.

  • The best jobs - find someone already working there to skip you around most of the HR, dropdown list checking paperwork idiots. I've seen all too many people who could check off all the boxes, but who were idiots, and disruptive and entitled on top. Places where you can't get around that HR BS aren't worth working for - if HR is totally in CYA mode, so is the rest of the joint, in my experience. I skipped out of college (in '71) to take a good paying job. Not long after that, someone gave me a job with "
  • by JonySuede ( 1908576 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @06:11PM (#40263287) Journal

    He has a degree that's what is important to a lot of employer, now he just have to spin the logic part of the philosophy classes, if he took descriptive logic's even more so, emphasize his societal knowledge he should list his relevant experience, then provide a link to a demo. With that he should be quite ahead of the bottom of the classes CS grads, as far as the recruiter is concerned.

    For a monetary interesting UNIX admin position, a cert*1, from redhat or from oracle, is a fast-track to a corporate position as he already have the degree.

    1- CS major are not good at system administration usually

  • This isn't a huge issue. There are a lot of IT jobs with no requirement formal training or education. However, in addition to not having any training or education, he also apparently has no experience.

    Oh, I get it. He set up a server and has taught himself PHP. There can be a significant divide, though, between "someone who knows how to run a Linux server" and "someone who is qualified to be a Linux sysadmin." It's not all technical knowledge; it's also about understanding how businesses work, how to

    • by Sir_Sri ( 199544 )

      Ya, anyone who can read (which is, admittedly, a surprisingly high barrier when it comes to computing) can setup a linux box and hack out a PHP webpage. That's basically starting at the level of a highschool kid or a 1 year college course, so that's about where you'd expect to start employment wise.

  • Study part-time (you can fit one or two courses a semester around a full-time job without too much pain) for whatever degree fits best for high level system administration (it's not, or shouldn't, be Computer Science). Put that degree on your resume, with the projected completion date in the future--if you're worried, put a bullet point underneath stating that it's a degree in progress. This will get you past quick filter passes which throw out resumes that have no undergrad degree.

    Anyone who is looking at

  • It's so nice that the editors post this same question once a week. I might just look back at the last few times this question was asked so that I can get a few +5 mods.
  • Everyone already pointed out a bunch of things. The key is this - if you don't have a degree, what can you show? Is there a website? A blog? A job somewhere, be it nopay/littlepay/volunteer that shows what you did? What can you show a potential employer as something you can do?

    Second - show that you have a good attitude about learning. Show how you made mistakes, and then fixed them, and improved upon them.

    Next - network! Join local usergroups. Help others. Answer questions. But please don't give

  • My degree was in Manufacturing Engineering, but by the time I graduated there was no money and few opportunities in manufacturing in the UK where I lived compared to IT. So I went into IT. Started at the bottom of the ladder at PC support. I was able to talk my way into that job because I had a bit of CAD/CAM knowledge and some experience as a CAD draughtsman, but it actually didn't work out very well because it was in a small company where I was thrown in at the deep end and expected to learn a million

  • Does Slashdot have any advice on what my friend could do to build up his resume and find a job?

    If he has actual demonstrable knowledge and skills, then he needs to build contacts with people working in the field, specifically, people working in places with sufficiently non-bureaucratic hiring practices that a recommendation from a skilled current employee can help him get to an interview where he can demonstrate that to a hiring manager.

    At least, that's how I got my first technical job with a degree in the social sciences and minimal formal experience (e.g., coursework) in computer-related fields. (I didn't actually build connections for that purpose, they were preexisting.)

  • When I'm hiring for unix admin jobs, I don't give a fig about what degree you have. Just what you can do and how fast you can learn.
    Demonstrate that, and there will be no shortage of job offers.
  • Here's one idea that works really well. If you have a non-IT degree, consider getting an MBA with a concentration in MIS. That "Management Information Systems" bit is equivalent to "IT" for most recruiters.

    Do your MBA part time. Continue getting experience. Then you have both a degree *AND* experience when you're done.

  • As the IT admin with no CS degree that has a healthy job with decent pay...Allow me to elaborate on a couple small things:
    1. CS is not IT. So many newbies come out with a CS degree and think they're shit-hot at running a network. Then they dont even know how to swap the tapes out.
    2. Social Networking is EVERYTHING. It's not alllll what you know, but who you know -- you may be great with GPO's and cisco gear and write a mean shell script, but if you dont have the industry connections, you're not likely to
  • The degree's subject doesn't matter. Just having one will give him a leg up.

    As long as he knows what he's talking about, he should be able to find work at a hosting company which will have plenty of entry- to low-level sys admin type work. Some sort of volunteer work beforehand to prove that he's not totally inept would help, too.

  • I got a psychology degree 15 years ago, and in my last 3 jobs, I've been the highest technical person in the company (two jobs ago, that excepts the CIO, who was non technical). Start low, work hard, and get some certifications. I know Slashdot hates certs, but so many people doing hiring require some paper support for skills.
    • I did the same thing with my psychology degree 30 years ago, but without the certs. These days I design and code automated testing systems and manage the virtual machine environments. Certs might have helped. Hard to say. Never had time.

      • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
        Certs weren't as important 30 years ago, but in the late '90s, certs were everything. I had my MCSE and CCNA and got a really good job on the strength of those two alone.
  • I can't speak for any other workplace, but when I go through resumes I pay very little attention to the "Education" section. This is due to encountering so many people with Bachelor degrees in Computer Science that can barely write "Hello World" when asked to, and Masters degrees who can't write a simple recursive script to crawl a directory structure and do X to files with criteria Y. Putting it bluntly, college degrees have lost their credibility.

    The industry I am in is network performance; I'm in QA. W

  • I wouldn't notice if a resume I got for the positions we are advertizing didn't have a degree listed. And he would have one for the places that deal with HR requiring such a thing.

    Of course lack of experience is a harder nut to crack but having a degree in CS doesn't make up for that anyway.

  • Start with a simple tech support job which can be had anywhere. After 6 months or so you could spruce up your resume and get a better job. If he thinks he's good enough right now, look for local companies and start freelancing.

    After either option, you can pretty much get a job anywhere as a second level support or junior sysadmin.

  • Then work your way up and make contacts. Leave after 3-4 years using said contacts and get paid 2x more money. That's what I did with my History degree, and it is no longer an issue. Although I still regret not graduating with a CS degree, I now try to spin it as a good thing because it brings a different viewpoint to teams with all CS majors.
    • Make sure there is talent though. If you work under the wrong people you will learn to write crappy code. Find the right mentor and you can really learn some cool things. I learned more in 1 year under a good mentor than what I learned in the previous three years.
  • I don't have a degree. School bored me to death so I dropped out and took the GED. That's all the paper I have.

    I got some things on my resume by working on my own hobby projects that demonstrated that I could work on moderate-scale systems. I also got a bit of white-collar job experience working as a drafting monkey. Those two things demonstrated the two primary things that employers want to see: a) I'm capable of doing technical things; b) I'm capable of showing up for a job sober enough to not get fir

  • Have him put together a resume and get it online, he should at least be able to get a contract job.

    Then there's the big consulting firms like Accenture, they love guys with degrees other than CS.

    And as others have said, network.

    But do not take a job doing techsupport, it's a career limiting move and it won't actually be developing marketable job skills.

  • Open Source Fame (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @07:16PM (#40263985) Homepage Journal

    We hire people all the time who have talent/skills but no degree, CS or otherwise. We like to teach people how to do it our way. And no degree means they might think for themself, which can give us an advantage over the competition. We look for actual project experience, on project work like what we're hiring to do.

    This is a perfect use of time to work on an open source project. Get something real done, and tell us about it. You might use the project at the job where you're hired. If you're known in the community, their responses to our questions will be specific, meaningful ,and come with URLs and downloadable evidence.

    • by Greyfox ( 87712 )
      Yah I was going to suggest that too -- get on or start an open source project that interests you and start establishing a portfolio of code. It doesn't take much to do something pretty neat. Plus it gives both you and potential employers a way to see how your code and abilities evolve over time. A lot of professional programmers can't really point at code they've written because it's all in-house stuff. An employer has to take what they say in their resume on faith with whatever little testing they can get
  • Oregon State University now offers an online, one-year, computer science degree. The only requirement is that you have ANY bachelor's degree. This sounds perfect for this "friend." Do the time and work and you'll be employable by any company that wants to hire a CS grad. Reference: http://eecs.oregonstate.edu/new-online-post-baccalaureate-computer-science-degree [oregonstate.edu]
  • A degree can obviously help. Having a degree not in CS may be beneficial anyway. If he wants to do development he just needs to keep up on how to write good, secure software and show his stuff either through a online repo on bitbucket or github or just have an good person site. If he also has previous experience through voluntary means or paid work that will help and trying to get more will only help his cause.

    I didn't bother with university at all and haven't had any real problem finding work. In fact,
  • by Saija ( 1114681 )
    I have a friend who graduated with a degree in TI. He has been spending a lot of his spare time for the last couple years learning epistemology and metaphysics. He has set up lectures about skepticism, rationalism, empiricism and more. He has taught himself infinitism, foundationalism, and how to use coherentism on a daily basis without any formal education. I believe that if given the chance with an entry level position somewhere and a good mentor he could really be a great philosophy teacher, but the prob
  • Certificates are gilding the lily. And if you haven't skills, I don't care what certs you have. It's the skills and interest enough to pursue the skills that attract me as a hiring manager. I'm sick of spoon feeding new hires only to have them decide "this isn't really what I want to do".

  • The lack of a relevant degree may be a problem getting into very large corporate IT, but not elsewhere. Most people I know in the business didn't study anything related in school (I was a Japanese studies major) and it's more useful to have people who have learned on the job and worked their way up. The fact that my #2 has a CS degree has nothing to do with him getting his job - I never even asked about his education background, I just wanted to know about what he could do as a sysadmin. An IT guy with C

  • I studied Philosophy but have been in IT for 10 years plus all the years I was in college working side jobs and projects. I do a lot of tech interviews -- I am a consultant in a very rapidly growing cloud services field. I specifically look for people who have learned from their own side projects and hands-on experience. Find me on LinkedIn by going to my Slashdot profile page and checking my Journal.
  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Friday June 08, 2012 @10:38PM (#40265419)
    Get yourself a programming project. I do a plugin [mozilla.org] and I did a few projects at work. Those helped a lot. It's hard work (maintaining that plugin can be tough), but worth it.

    Also, keep an eye out for stuff at your job that adds value to the company but lets you learn. Let the rest of the guys around you do the easy rut stuff. Take on the challenging stuff so you can get paid to learn.
  • Have him apply at Verizon wireless. The only company I know where a person can have a completely unrelated degree and get into a high level position without any serious experience.

  • I've been in IT for about 20 years now, professionally... to this day I do not have a degree (of any sort actually), yet I'm highly-regarded and paid rather handsomely for my skills.

    They key to getting hired initially was to have a portfolio of work. I had done some independent consulting projects before that I could show, but mostly I was showing things I had done on my own. And, a lot of it, most of it even, wasn't remotely work-related: I showed a lot of intros I had written for BBS's years earlier, a

Things equal to nothing else are equal to each other.