A better approach towards training “fresh out of college grads”

It was about 65 F, 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 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, then picked up his pace as he made his way to the lectern. 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 next week. What, I thought, homework? Before we were even 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, program.

You were to read and learn on your own. If you had questions, you’d either ask them during the professors “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 aprogramming course”, neither did I attend an Apache configuration class. We just tried stuff, broke stuff, learned stuff.

That’s not what I find with the folks being hired from many good colleges and schools though in India. It is mandatory to go through 3-6 months of training. What? I thought they did just that for the last 4 years. I had 5 candidates who we interviewed a year ago who wanted to know what our startups “training program 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 can 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 that 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 programs. No. My Chartered Accountant spends 2-3 hours daily with her 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 programs. 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 is “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.

How did you figure out how to learn?

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


2 thoughts on “A better approach towards training “fresh out of college grads””

  1. Great post and well said… the blame equally lies with the IT industry, who hire freshers by the dozen, throw them into training camps and spoon feed each and every single line of code. And the other problem is Indian society regards failure as something really bad, which prevents many youngsters from experimenting and learning.

  2. Good post Mukund. I remember from our college times, for most subjects we had no choice except to learn on our own. Of course, this was further cemented in the US.
    I interview people regularly for my company and I have actually been told exactly what you wrote about training many times. It no longer surprises me to hear this type of response.

    On a different level:
    People will spend the time to learn something only if they are interested in it, most engineering students in India are studying engineering not because of interest but because there are jobs to be had and it shows very clearly in the attitude.

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