We are all faced with difficult decisions in our life, and one of the toughest I’ve faced so far is to decide between education and experience. I finished my degree in July 2011, with an offer to return to uni to do my masters in computer security. However, at the same time the company that I was working at part time was expanding, looking to take on more developers, and with that came an offer to come on full time working as a senior software developer, with greater responsibility; including leading a team of junior developers, project management, and more client interaction.
I loved uni, not because of the student lifestyle – that never really did it for me – but because I could dedicate my time to learning. My degree was strongly geared towards artificial intelligence – machine learning, optimisation and search techniques, etc. – and I ate up all of the new knowledge I could. I, like so many other programmers have, decided to teach myself a new programming language every month; not because these languages would ever really be useful to me, but because I wanted a broader knowledge of programming and computer science as a whole.
What I had never considered, however, was the breadth of knowledge learned on the job – all the really useful stuff that they never tell you about at uni. My first month at work was a whirlwind, learning about new program architectures and patterns, object relational mappers; even source control systems and working effectively in a team were was pretty new to me!
I decided to take the job. It would have been nuts really to pass up an opportunity like that; I figured that my experiences with more managerial responsibility were far more valuable than another certification. And hey, if I was wrong, I could always go back to university later on.
I’ve since come to decide that there were flaws in my learning ethos. I was so keen to learn that I failed to realise that I was really only learning for the sake of learning. Sure I’d familiarise myself with a new language, but that was never really that hard a task – I knew the foundation of a wide variety of languages already from uni – but since I never really had a reason to use them again what was the point? I already knew that I could pick up a language if I ever needed to. Although it seems that there is value in gaining a well-rounded knowledge of your chosen subject, I’ve begun to wonder if that’s really so true. While I don’t believe that you can truly be great at what you do by taking a completely narrow minded approach to learning, why not dig a little deeper into subjects that will be of value?
I’ve been at my new job for just over three months now, and cannot believe how profoundly it has helped to shape my views on learning. I still strive to learn at every available opportunity, but with an emphasis on spending my time learning what I believe will be of most use to me. Did I make the right decision to work rather than to continue down the educational track? It’s early days yet, and it may be a long time until I’m really able to answer that question, if ever. But right now it feels like one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.