Save your money, and learn instead.

Gabe Newell: I learned more in three months at Microsoft than entire time at Harvard

Back in 1997 I experienced the culmination of all the educational, peer and parental pressure of the traditional mantra about a need to go to college… by dropping out. Growing up it was all I heard, that in order to have a successful career, I needed to go to college. My parents said it. Other parents said it. My school peers said it. My teachers said it.

Looking back, I realize that while my life could have gone in an entirely different direction had I embraced college as a concept and invested in the opportunity to get my feet wet in computer science, that was not the route I took. School guidance counselors were completely useless (and IMHO they still are, sorry folks). I was a nerd. I built and played with computers.

I loved the challenge. I adored troubleshooting. I fully embraced new technology. They had me sign up for Computer Science 101 at SUNY Albany. Lesson 1? How to use a mouse. For the math requirement? I aced high school level pre-calculus, so they had me sign up for college level Calculus. That is the first course in my life I ever got a 0 average in.

Now while I thrived in my Astronomy and Poetry courses (and slept through the slog that was my “cultural geography” class) – from a career standpoint I had a less than zero desire to be an astronomer, poet, or whatever the heck a cultural geographer does. I wanted to get into the guts of computers, troubleshoot, repair, build! That was not taught there.

I tried to get into CompSci 201, which delved into coding (something that I have found enjoyment in only in the past year or so), but was unable to. I had no desire to waste my time for easy credits for 101 so I dropped the course. Now my problems with college were not limited to the courses I was taking, but also the drastic change in lifestyle.

At home I had a great job. I was 17 and making roughly $12 an hour doing tech support. I paid for my car, my food, my insurance. I was not wealthy, but I enjoyed the freedom that a good job in an industry doing work I enjoyed, provided. At home I had my friends. At home I had a girlfriend, and my cat named Samantha. All that was familiar was there.

College was an absolute culture shock. I skipped all the orientation events, choosing to sit at my home-built PC and play Diablo while blaring music off my stereo that I had downloaded from Napster. Rammstein’s Du Hast echoed the hallowed halls of my dorm on a daily basis. I absolutely did not want to be there. Halfway through my first semester I decided to leave.

Now my folks always blamed my girlfriend for that decision – and while I did miss her terribly, it was not the reason. Well, it was not the only reason. The fact is – before I left I was learning, earning, saving, and investing in my future career. When I left for college, I ceased learning what I wanted to learn, and was forced to learn what the college required.

I found myself challenged in things I did not genuinely care for, and completely un-challenged in the concepts and ideas that had brought me there in the first place. I also had zero interest in drinking, smoking pot, hooking up, or meeting anyone new outside of the small circle in my dorm room. I did have quite a bit of fun there, but that is a story for another day.

I quit college because I wanted to learn, earn, and invest in a career. Now today, just about every college offers course work which covers exactly what I do for a living. Infrastructure, networking, Linux, scripting, you name it. If you want to do what I do, and get a head start – college *is* an option, however IMHO – it is the worst possible one.

I learned more in the 4 years after I left SUNY Albany than I could have learned while I was there – for my specific career. Instead of learning computer science, I was applying it. Instead of learning to code, I was writing small scripts and programs for my job. Nothing will ever replace real world experience. There are also numerous non-college options for learning.

Many colleges will offer undergraduate technical courses, and there are innumerable tech schools out there which offer both education – and certification – in the various technologies which comprise what I work with on a daily basis. My education over the past 25 years in IT has been a combination of both. The best part of technical education though?

It can be entirely free. Just Google it. Nobody has to go into debt anymore to live comfortably, and the only limit to professional development in IT is the desire of the individual who has undertaken a career in technology. That is it. If you desire it, and you work for it, you can have it. This is a simple truth of life that works out every single time it is tried!

By his own admission, Gabe Newell learned more in 3 months at Microsoft than he did at Harvard. I learned more after leaving college altogether. I’m not against college, there are many career paths which are best served by putting in the time and earning that degree – but for myself and many others in technology – save the money and learn instead.

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