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Experience vs. Education - a new twist

Mark Vedder
Ranch Hand

Joined: Dec 17, 2003
Posts: 624

I have a career decision to make, and would welcome some opinions.
First, some background...
I went through a career change a few years ago. I have a BS in Communication. After many years of unhappy jobs, and upon remembering my Commodore 64 days with great delight, I decided I wanted to get into programming. Knowing that I was making a dramatic change in fields, I researched the possibility of getting a Masters in Comp Sci. I found that, since my BS was in a non-tech field, it would be best to get some core courses under my belt first. I took 4 undergrad classes in OOP, some math, and some basic IT classes. As I was finishing this up trying to figure out how I would pay for grad school, I was very fortunate, to learn of (through a friend at the company) and land a Java Programming.
Overall, it�s a good job; and I�ve come to love Java and the programming field. Like most jobs, it has some Pros and Some Cons.
One of the major Cons is that although it is a development position doing J2EE & Web App development, I am one of only two developers tacked onto a Network Engineering group. I therefore get no professional or skill growth mentoring. And the other developer, despite being there for 6+ years, is happy with his �Java for Dummies� knowledge and is therefore no help as a mentor. I, however, am constantly trying to improve my skill set & knowledge (I think I personally have boosted O�Reilly�s stock price a few points) and can honestly and humbly say I have passed him in terms of knowledge & skills. As two additional cons, I have little to no chance of advancement, and I am underpaid for the position (which is why they hired someone like me with virtually no experience and limited education).
The one major Pro however, is that after 2 years with the company, I just qualified for Tuition Assistance. So I have a chance to work towards my Masters (at a rate of 1-2 class a semester). The one potential downside however is that I must stay with the company for 5 years after receiving the tuition assistance. If I voluntarily leave the company prior to that, I must pay back the benefit.
So, my conundrum is this: do I take advantage of the Tuition Assistance and get an education, but get minimal experience and end up locked into a job for the next ~8 (3 for school + 5) years ? Or, do I look for another job that would offer me the chance to get better experience/mentoring and improve my skill set, passing up the opportunity to go to school. Obviously, given today�s job market (and my minimal experience) the latter may not even be realistic.

So which is better: Education or Experience? What are people�s thoughts?
Thanks in advance for you consideration, time and advice.
-Mark
[ December 30, 2003: Message edited by: Mark Vender ]
[ December 30, 2003: Message edited by: Mark Vender ]
Tim Baker
Ranch Hand

Joined: Oct 04, 2003
Posts: 541
Whilst 'just graduated' positions would ask for a degree in a relevent field, experience based positions are generally looking for a number of years in the relevent field and technical competence. I would say a good 3 years commercial experience will open up more jobs to you than a masters. Of course continued self development cannot harm your career. I'm not sure I totally understand what sort of training you can qualify for, if it means taking time out of your work then I wouldn't think it's going to do you much good. If its something you can do aswell as your current job then it can help add to your skill set whilst your gaining valuable commercial experience.
This humble opinion has a monetary value of $0.02


Kim Jong II (North Korea's Dear Leader) said:Nuclear weapons don't kill people, people kill people.
Sat Vus
Greenhorn

Joined: Dec 23, 2003
Posts: 10
Hey Mark,
From what i experienced, I have a Master's in Computer Science and couple of years of experience so may my two cents might give you an idea....
When i tried to look for jobs nobody gave any extra importance to Master's , everybody was looking for number of years of experience (FYI : doesn't matter what you do in the job... ).
Since you gained experience already i would suggest to continue working
and at the same time look for better Oppurtunities which i guess Tim Specified too. Do study at your own and try implementing them at work even if they donot really require you to do so....

Mark Vedder
Ranch Hand

Joined: Dec 17, 2003
Posts: 624

Tim & Sat - thanks for your thoughts. Your comments are helpful.
-----
One thing I should point out: my thoughts about getting a Masters was not so much so that I have the Masters (i.e. I'm not thinking I need a Masters in order to compete), but so as to have a technical degree (since my BS is in Communications). I could obviously get a second BS so as to have one in Comp Sci. But I figured it made more sense that if I do go back to school, to get the MS. Kill two birds with one stone so to speak - getting a tech degree and a Masters degree.
So the main theme of my question is "Tech degree vs. Experience", not necessarily "Masters vs. Experience".
Any additional thoughts and/or opinions are appreciated...
Mark Herschberg
Sheriff

Joined: Dec 04, 2000
Posts: 6037
It sounds like you've got a good sense of direction, which is probably a stronger asset than any particular knowledge.
Questions for consideration:
1) Are there other opportunities in the company?
2) Have you spoken with your manager abour career development opportunities? What have they said?
3) So if you take one class, you have to stay for 5 years? How about if you get laid off?
Personally, I'd be hesitant to be locked in to a company for 5 years. I know a number of employeers who have either a lockout period (not eligible before 2-3 years), but then ask for no obligation, or have much shorter committments.
Why not try discretely floating your resume and see how you stand right now. Maybe you can find other companies with less of a comittment.
--Mark
Tony Collins
Ranch Hand

Joined: Jul 03, 2003
Posts: 435
Why don't do a distance learning course in your spare time, with the OU, or American equivalent, there very good.
Tony
Mark Vedder
Ranch Hand

Joined: Dec 17, 2003
Posts: 624

Thanks very much for the feedback.
Mark, although your three questions were mostly rhetorical, here are some response to them
1) Are there other opportunities in the company?
Unfortunately my company, like so many these days, are laying people off left & right - mostly in other departments. By all indications, my job is (and should be for some time) safe (based on our contracts with clients, etc). There are few programming positions within the company.

2) Have you spoken with your manager about career development opportunities? What have they said?
I have talked to him repeatedly. While he tries to be helpful, it is minimal and mostly company rhetoric. He does spring for the purchasing a book from time to time, but the company has eliminated nearly all training budgets. And even though my job function is that of a programmer, my job code is that of a network engineer, so the corporate office considers programming classes as extraneous and not directly job related. (Who ever said anything about common sense in corporate America). The company line is "that I should take an online CBT"; the company subscribes to an online CBT site and we can take classes there. Unfortunately they are "How to do Mail Merge in Word" type of classes. The few programming classes they do have are elementary to say the least.

3) So if you take one class, you have to stay for 5 years?
Yup - the company tends to pay on the low end (or below) industry averages. From my understanding, during the IT job wave, they use to have a large problem of people coming in, using the Tuition Assistance program to get a degree and then immediately leaving the company for greener pastures. They therefore introduced the 2 years of service eligibility requirement and the post-benefit 5-year commitment. Repayment is prorated by 15% a year. So if I left one year after taking a class, I would have to pay back 85% of the benefit. I�m still trying to find out if that repayment is COD (Cash on Departure ) or if you are given some time to repay it.
How about if you get laid off?
Then you are free from having to pay it back. However, if you are terminated with cause, you�re suppose to repay it.
Personally, I'd be hesitant to be locked in to a company for 5 years.
My concerns exactly. They were good to me to give me a job with no experience and I am grateful for that, but not permanently indebted to them for it. And 5 years is a hefty �thank you� for assisting with a degree.
I know a number of employers who have either a lockout period (not eligible before 2-3 years), but then ask for no obligation, or have much shorter commitments.
True. Then again comes the frustration of having to wait another 2-3 years. But if I can get into an environment with some decent in-house training and mentoring (and more "meaningful" (for the lack of a better word) experience), it would probably be worth it.
Why not try discretely floating your resume and see how you stand right now. Maybe you can find other companies with less of a commitment.
That is the direction I am leaning. I just worry that with the way the current job market is and my minimal experience, doing such will be a big uphill battle. But I guess it can�t hurt to try. I think you mentioned the key word though: discretely.
From Tony: Why don't do a distance learning course in your spare time, with the OU, or American equivalent, there very good.
I�ve looked at that option. Unfortunately any classes worth taking (i.e. ones with real substance) are costly enough that it would be difficult foe me to undertake given my current finances. I do, however, continue to explore that option.
----
So far I�m hearing the opinion that my current 2 years experience is worth more then I am aware. And that it may be enough to get me into a different company where I can continue to gain experience, and then perhaps eventually get the technical degree as well. Other opinions?
I appreciate the feedback thus far as well as any further opinions. Obviously career decisions must be made with care and thoughtfulness rather than via rash choices. The counsel that I have received so far speaks volumes about the professionalism and caring nature of the members of this community. I am sincerely grateful.
Regards,
Mark
Jon McDonald
Ranch Hand

Joined: Sep 02, 2001
Posts: 167
Hmm,
A 5 year obligation after degree completion is the same as the bank I used to work for. You may want to look into the cost of student loans for your degree. Not recomending getting them, just doing a cost bennefit analysis of both. Also, find out what the repayment terms are if you leave before 5 years. If you can make payments, then you are basicly getting an interest free loan . However, if they want it in one lump sum you could have problems.
The not having the technical degree could definately cause problems (it did for me), even later down the line. I have a few friends who are the top coders for the firms they work for, but because they don't have the technical degree they feel locked into the company. A buddy of mine who works at a major corporation told me that even if a person has been working for this corporation for 10 years doing coding if they do not have the degree they are considered "non-technical" and thus more likely to be laid off. It might not make sense but that is the way it is at that company.
If you want to stay in IT, it would probably be in your best interest to get the degree, but then again, I am not you and do not know your full situation.
A buddy of mine once made this analogy:
" Employers treat experience and education in an employee the way women treat a good personality and good looks in a man. They all say they the former is most important, but the later is an implicit prerequisite .
Jon


SCJP<br/>
"I study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy in order to give their children a right to study painting poetry and music."<br />--John Adams
Sam Tilley
Ranch Hand

Joined: Dec 05, 2001
Posts: 160
Originally posted by Jon McDonald:

A buddy of mine once made this analogy:
" Employers treat experience and education in an employee the way women treat a good personality and good looks in a man. They all say they the former is most important, but the later is an implicit prerequisite .
Jon

I like it I would agree with this in both senses. Mark well done for getting off your bum and deciding to do something about it, often thats the hardest part. It is often the case, certainly in the City in London, that while several years experience are necessecary and are very important often the first thing employers look at is your education level, and use this as a benchmark by which to rid themselves of plenty of their CV's, regardless of the skill level and experience of the potential employees. In London because of the relentless dumbing down of A'levels and GSCE's you are almost expected to have straight A's and a 2:1 or a 1st at University before they will even consider you. I know good developers with lots of experience being knocked back because of a poor education background.
This was the same reason that i decided to take an online Masters degree which i am halfway through, so that i could add some beef to the academic side of my degree as well as still getting experience, and i haven't regretted it once. I think you need a healthly blend of both to succeed in the ruthless job market. You might find if you can get a job somewhere else they also might help you with your education, even if it means taking a step back it may well benefit you in the long term.
As Jon said there are various interest-free loans available and the investment of time and money is probably worth it in the long term. Have a good look at online degrees, they are growing in popularity, are relatively cheap and still work you very hard, and in time i think they will become a more popular and even more respected way of getting an education.
At least i hope so anyway


Sam Tilley SCJP, SCWCD
Tony Collins
Ranch Hand

Joined: Jul 03, 2003
Posts: 435
I took a MSc in Computing for Commerce and Industry with the Open University, it was a fantastic course, I highly reccommend it.
My problem is that I pissed away my first degree and didn't get the 2.1 required for the London job market.
Tony
Tim Baker
Ranch Hand

Joined: Oct 04, 2003
Posts: 541
Originally posted by Sam Tilley:

In London because of the relentless dumbing down of A'levels and GSCE's you are almost expected to have straight A's and a 2:1 or a 1st at University before they will even consider you.

A lot of them also stipulate that you muts have at least a 2:1 from a 'red brick' university. This in my view is pure snobbery. I went to one of the 'new' univerities because it was the one that most interested me and seemed most suited to me. I had no idea that when I came out people would be such snobs about this sort of thing. The fact that they want straight As at a levels is almost like requiring them to be from a private school, when A grades are par for the course, but in my College I don't know anyone who got straight As. I graduated top of my year with a 1st, but when I was at college I got the equiv of AAC. Those stupid strict academic requirements are blatant social discrimination
Sam Tilley
Ranch Hand

Joined: Dec 05, 2001
Posts: 160
Originally posted by Tim Baker:

A lot of them also stipulate that you muts have at least a 2:1 from a 'red brick' university. Those stupid strict academic requirements are blatant social discrimination

I hear ya Tim, i am in the same position, my first degree was at a farming college doing a degree in Agricultural Business Management, i got a 2:1 but because it was not red-brick, and my A'levels sucked i found it hard to get a decent job. Hence why i am doing an online masters at the University of Liverpool, which so far is fantastic but hard work. Only another year go to, then i will hopefully be in a better position in terms of academics to match my peers. I also find that there is no allowing for the dumbing down of school exams. My dog could get a pass in A'levels nowadays and almost everyone has several A grades. Back in my day (10 years ago) only the brightest of the bright got an A, but its treated as the norm by employers.
Viva la revolution
Tony Collins
Ranch Hand

Joined: Jul 03, 2003
Posts: 435
I finished a Postgrad course at Liverpool University in March, it was very good.
Career prospects in Liverpool aren't though, I had to move out of the city I'd lived in for 10 years.
Tony
Sam Tilley
Ranch Hand

Joined: Dec 05, 2001
Posts: 160
Originally posted by Tony Collins:
I finished a Postgrad course at Liverpool University in March, it was very good.
Career prospects in Liverpool aren't though, I had to move out of the city I'd lived in for 10 years.
Tony

Thats the good thing about doing the online Masters, i can take it 100% from my living room in London along with class mates from China, Canada, US, South Africa, Europe etc. and have a tutor from the US or wherever. They still make you work as dang hard though, its a loooonnng 2-years
HS Thomas
Ranch Hand

Joined: May 15, 2002
Posts: 3404
You will find birds of a feather flocking together especially on projects starting new, IMHO.
2.1 graduates , Certified folk (separated even up to the score they hold),
Experienced Architects, folk with experience in certain industries.
Finding a group to work with once hired can be just as difficult as finding that first job. In a way it makes sense to hire University graduates with good scores first. Everyone else will have to top that depending what you want to do.. Coding/Designing/Architecting/Managing
People who can do all four tend to be the most successful.And success breeds success.
Projects are/were finding it difficult to find a balance. A technically brilliant Architect straight from Uni - 2 years experience at a major consultancy but couldn't quite cut it at the Business level so back into research he went.
Technical Architect - seveal years good M$ old technical and business experience at Major Company with several billions worth of turnover but excellent/good "new" technical people were leaving in droves even to sit at home even though offered a continuation.
Cutting the cloth.. And outsourcing doesn't help...
[ January 06, 2004: Message edited by: HS Thomas ]
james airey
Ranch Hand

Joined: Dec 15, 2003
Posts: 41
I wouldn't lock myself in for 5 years, but you may be able to negotiate a sliging scale.
eg Stay for 4 years, and pay back 20%, 3 years 40%, ...
 
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