Hitting the books

One item that comes up in my conversations with other technology professionals is the relative importance of formal education in one's career.

          One item that comes up in my conversations with other technology professionals is the relative importance of formal education in one's career.

          In retracing my steps to the CTO job at InfoWorld, some key moments stand out in my mind: building gargantuan websites for media companies, sleeping on the floor of a datacentre with a wad of Ethernet cables as a pillow, managing groups of people to the successful completion of projects, and gaining a clear focus on education via long nights spent studying computer science texts and systems administration manuals.

          The interesting thing is that those nights poring over textbooks were not at the behest of a computer science professor or as part of any formal degree programme, but they were part of a priceless education nonetheless.

          When I first got into technology, I had already graduated from college with an English degree and wasn't interested in getting another degree; I was ready to jump out of academia and into the "real world." The internet era was dawning, and I just wanted to know how it all worked, so I gathered book recommendations from people I trusted (some with computer science degrees) and began my course of study.

          Within six months, I was building real applications used by real people in a real company that made real money, and making the jobs of those people easier by my work. Did I need a technical degree to do that? No. Do I wish I had pursued a more formal education in computer science while still in college? Sometimes I think it would have saved me some time stumbling around certain concepts, but lessons learned the hard way are sometimes the best. Just ask Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Bill Gates, all of whom dropped out of college altogether and are doing reasonably well.

          A college degree, technical or nontechnical, is a wonderful thing, but I think the keys to educational growth in the technology field often lie in other areas.

          Mentorship

          In one of my previous columns, I wrote about my experience with Dan Woods, the key mentor in my early career. As technology and business continue to converge in many different ways, I think it's important for technical staff to seek out not only technology mentors, but people in other areas of the business, such as sales or finance. Learning how a business really works can only inform the building of systems and software to drive the business.

          Formal advanced studies

          If I were to go back to school now, I would choose something such as the unique programme that Georgia Tech offers called the Executive Masters of Science in Management of Technology -- essentially a technology MBA. University of California, Berkeley also offers a Management of Technology Programme jointly offered by its Haas Business School and College of Engineering. These high-profile programmes focus on the increasingly meaningful intersections of business and technology.

          Books

          I can't overstate the importance of reading. At least 95% of the time someone asks me about a particular technology or business issue, I recommend a book on the subject. This is perhaps the most democratic form of advanced education, since the price of admission to the hallowed halls of books is the occasional $US30 at your local bookstore. In many ways, the book approach is the most solid, since you can tailor the program to your particular needs and enjoy the benefits of self-pacing.

          As your parents said, studying is important, but it is more important to focus on the education and not just the degree.

          How do you advance your "studies" in the technology field? Write to Chad Dickerson.

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