A Better Approach Towards Training 'Fresh-Out-Of-College Grads'

13 April, 2012

It was about 65F when we walked into the large auditorium at the west end of the college campus. Since it was late autumn, the leaves were turning yellow and the evening was turning dark earlier. You could see the street lights from the top-end of the glass enclosures of the room. It was the start of our winter quarter.

He shuffled slightly first and then picked up his pace as he made his way to the lectern. But it was not the fleece that he wore over his pale yellow shirt that struck me as odd; it was more his shoes, or lack of them. They seem out of place in the nippy air, I thought.

As Dr Lomanoco made his way to the podium, it was clear that he intended to waste little time introducing either himself or the course, to 29 eager computer science graduates. After distributing the course schedule, his office hours (times and days) and grading system, he proceeded to outline the homework for the next week. What, I thought, homework? Even before we were taught anything? What kind of a system is that?

It was the 'learn on your own' system, aka 'figure it out yourself.'

Having finished my undergrad from India, I thought it would be customary for specific topics to be covered in the class by the professor, and then we'd proceed to review the same at home, do a homework piece and finally, prepare for exams. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

Nope. That was not the case either for us at UMBC at the Master's or for the undergrads in the Bachelor of Sciences programme.

You were to read and learn on your own. If you had questions, you'd either ask them during the professor's 'office hours' or ask the teaching assistant during their sessions.

The thing that it teaches is the 'way to learn' on your own. By searching for it on your own, or researching with your study group. By digging for more information, either online or hitting the books at the library.

So when I joined Cisco after graduating, it was second nature to research practically everything yourself to get things done. Sometimes we'd RTFM. Most times we'd try, fail and learn. I never went to a Perl programming course, neither did I attend an Apache configuration class. We just tried stuff, broke stuff, learnt stuff.

But that's not what I find with the folks being hired from many good colleges and schools in India. It is mandatory to go through 3-6 months of training. What? I thought they did just that for the last four years. I had five candidates whom we interviewed a year ago and they wanted to know what our start-up's "training programmes for PHP and Java" were. Code and learn was my answer. They looked at me with disbelief. One young lady's parents (who came for the interview to ensure we are a legitimate company) asked us how we could expect fresh graduates to do any work without training them. If we wanted to train graduates, we'd be running a college, was my reply. Wrong answer. She did not join us.

I am hoping there are colleges which are trying to teach students how to learn, where to find stuff to learn and how to research topics. I would love to think this style of learning is limited to engineering programmes. No, that's not the case. My chartered accountant spends 2-3 hours daily with the intern teaching him some of the most basic things in accounting. He's a commerce graduate from a very good college.

There has to be a better approach than the hand-holding we do in most undergraduate programmes. Even if we undertake a single class on teaching folks 'how to learn,' we'd be doing an enormous service to them. So, this is an appeal to college professors in any college. Please teach your students 'how to learn.'

So how do people 'learn to learn?'

1. By example: I believe this is the number 1 way to learn anything. Looking at lots of examples. Sample code. Example blueprints. Creating balance sheets of real companies without looking at their details.

2. By trying: Sharad Sharma calls it 'being a hobbyist.' Try stuff. Break stuff. That's when you learn stuff.

3. By teaching: If you learn something, I would encourage you to share it with your team in a small lunch-and-learn session. It is not for them to learn. It is for you to reinforce your learning.

Now, did you figure out how to learn?

P.S. As you can see from the first paragraph, I was hoping I'd be a best-selling novelist. I'm glad I took up working with technology instead.


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A Better Approach Towards Training 'Fresh-Out-Of-College Grads'

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