Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Real World Experience

Have you ever noticed how the term "real world experience" comes up quite a bit in the IT world? Employers aren't just looking for someone with a college degree or with professional certifications - they want someone with real world experience. Trainers who have worked "in the trenches" always go out of their way to say so when talking with potential clients. Savvy students who are looking for quality training try to make sure that the trainer delivering the courses they attend have "been there and done that."

But why? What does this "real world experience" deliver?

Before I answer that question, let me first say that I do not mean to disparage classroom learning in any way. As a long-time trainer (and before that, a long-time student) I truly believe in the value of that traditional learning experience. And as someone with far too many Microsoft and Oracle certifications I obviously believe in the value of using certification to validate knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge to solve problems.

So what does real world experience give us that nothing else does?

Pain. Real world experience gives you pain.

How is this a good thing, you ask?

Simply put, there is nothing quite like pain, be it physical, mental or emotional, to drive home lessons in the human brain. The lessons you learn through pain are the ones that stay with you the longest.

Here's an example:

Many years ago, before I got a desk job and started getting softer and softer with every passing year, I was involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism, fighting in various competitions with sword and shield.[1] Since I was coming from a competitive fencing background, I went with very minimal armor and a small shield, and focused on speed and agility instead of brute strength.

This was both good and bad. The good part was that I was able to apply many of the techniques I had learned (learned the hard way, I might add) through years of fencing. The bad part was that I tended to bleed a lot. There was this one spot on my left leg, above the top of my leg armor that I could not seem to guard. People kept hitting this undefended spot, and for some reason the sweatpants I wore under my armor (and which were the only thing covering this part of me) kept not protecting me.[2]

So after a few weeks of this some kind soul pulled me aside and, after praising my stubborn dedication, told me that I would do one of these three things.

1) Give up.
2) Get a bigger shield or heavier leg armor.
3) Move faster.

Of course, option one was no option at all. Option two was also unrealistic (remember - this was before I got the job that pays well but conspires to keep me out of armor and out of shape) because I couldn't afford new equipment. So option three was what remained. And yes, I did learn to move faster (and to effectively punch-block, but that's probably another story) and to guard that spot very well, because the pain kept motivating me to do it right.

Of course, it's rare that you're going to suffer physical pain when working an IT job in the real world, but the pain of working all weekend, or explaining to your client that it was you who brought down the production server... Those pains are real too, and are also excellent motivators.

So why is real world experience important and unique? Because once someone has felt that pain himself, he's never going to forget it, and he is going to be able to avoid that pitfall when it shows up in his path again. And if you put that person in the right position at the right time, he can help the other members of the team avoid those pitfalls too. At least for the time being; until they feel the pain themselves, nobody else is really going to understand...

So at this point you're probably wondering what inspired me to go off on this tangent. You see, my wife has bitten her cheek several times over the past few days. As you know, once you bit your cheek (or lip, or tongue, or whatever) once, it's much easier to do it again (and again) because it's all swollen from the last bite. So when she bit it again this morning I pulled her aside and told her she would do one of these three things...

...and hopefully I suffered enough pain that I'll never make that same mistake again. ;-)

[1] Yes, I'm a nerd in many aspects of my life, I know...
[2] My wife took a few photos of the bruises I earned this way - I've never seen anyone but Barney with more purple skin...

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