Many years ago, while enrolled in a professional MBA program, I started a brand new job at a company. The new boss told me the MBA program would be a waste of my time and that I would learn much more from him than I would in school. Excited about the professional opportunity, I withdrew from the MBA program. While it turned out to be a great job and a tremendous learning experience, that advice was horribly misguided and only half-true. The company did not promote, and even discouraged, continuing education. I blissfully enjoyed that "school of hard knocks" approach but have recently realized how incredibly rewarding continuing education can be. Therefore, my advice to young professionals, and more importantly to their bosses, is to invest as much time as possible in formal learning.
My enlightenment occurred while obtaining CTFL (Certified Tester-Foundation Level) certification. CTFL assures the individual has mastered a curriculum encompassing several software testing and quality assurance management and execution. Quality assurance is not my specialty. In fact, my testing experience has primarily been complimentary to management and analysis roles. While navigating this learning experience, I realized I intuitively knew most of the information, but the crystallization of that information was invaluable. Putting what I already knew into words and graphics made so much sense, and I knew this improved understanding would make me a better project manager, leader, coach, analyst, writer, and even tester.
While on-the-job learning provides some of the greatest growth opportunities available, a tremendous amount of this education is the result of mistakes and bad experiences. This sort of education is invaluable, and the lessons stay with us as long as the scars they inflict. However, some of the pain inflicted by one-the-job learning is easily avoidable when preempted by a structured and vetted body-of-knowledge. Do you want your airline pilot to learn how to restart a stalled engine in a classroom, trainer, and flight simulator, or when you are 30,000 feet above the ground?
I mentioned earlier that my boss' advice was only half-true. I am positive I learned more from him than I would have learned in an MBA program. Notwithstanding my experience, the MBA program would have, in no way, been a waste of time. Formal education is complimentary to on-the-job-learning and worthy of every second invested. One cannot learn to be an airline pilot or a project manager simply by reading a book or taking classes, but one does not become a great airline pilot or a great project manager without the formal education.
My children have received two key pieces of advice concerning their professional lives. First, always max-out your 401(k) investment. Second, unless someone is dead or has cancer, never cry at work. Considering my recent enlightenment, I am adding a third long-winded piece of advice: To be great at whatever you do, read the manuals, take the classes, and obtain the certifications. Additionally, soak up information about topics you think you already know and topics that are completely foreign to you. Now excuse me while I go start learning what an Organizational Change Manager really does.