One of the things that hasn’t changed much since the mid-70s when I graduated from college is the notion that college is an artificial environment and that college graduates don’t understand the “real world” in which they are trying to / being asked to work. I’m not talking about the pay-your-own-way real world or the don’t-be-late-for-things real world. I’m talking about when you start to realize that your job depends on a bunch of skills that they didn’t teach you in school.
I don’t know if I ever had a job where I was hired for what I learned in college. It didn’t help that my undergraduate degree is in chemistry, but that’s another story. My graduate degree was in business, specifically Operations Research, however I was hired to be a programmer/analyst. I talked my way into my first job, and from there, I was hired for my experience, not my education. I guess that’s the way it works.
As I look back on the courses that I took in college, the courses that served me for the shortest period of time were the ones that were specific to my major. I took courses on planning and managing information services based on the centralized data center model of business in the 70s. Less than five years after I graduated from graduate school, IBM started selling the PC and my work-a-day world was changed forever. Within a few years, speakers at conferences were openly mocking the “obsolete notions” that I had worked so hard to learn in school.
I’m pretty sure it’s harder for graduates today. I enjoyed five years of “business as usual” or “business as I understood business to be” before IBM planted the seeds of change, and those seeds took several years to really sprout into fundamental change. Today’s graduates are watching the workplace change as if someone hit the fast-forward button.
What students might not understand about the real world, is that there are some fundamental skills or work practices that never become obsolete. When I asked one of my early employers why he hired me, he said: “I want people in my department who work hard. Getting a degree in chemistry requires hard work.” I had been hoping that he was impressed that I had studied Operations Research in graduate school, but they actually only had a very small need for those skills, and a coworker of mine was handling it pretty well.
Hard work is a timeless quality that is appreciated in the workplace. The ability to manage a project, manage your own time, work well in a group and communicate with other human beings are skills that are also valued. We all have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate how we got that ‘A’ in Managerial Finance, but thousands of people also got an ‘A’ in that course. Success is built on the fundamentals beneath those A’s.
Last week, I had the honor of presenting a guest lecture in a technology class at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). The subject was Big Data but I don’t want you rolling your eyes, so I’m not going to talk about that. Actually, I didn’t talk much about Big Data in that classroom.
I shared with this class of hoping-to-be information workers a bit of reality. A few things they should keep in mind if they want to have a less frustrating and more rewarding career.
I talked to them about the need to focus on adding value to the business process in which they are or will soon be involved. I also told them that as they grow in their career, they need to expand that focus. “Will the project you are proposing add value?” “Is the data you are collecting really useful? Can it be made to be useful? Or, are you doing something just because you can?”
I gave examples of projects that I’ve been involved with that were best characterized as “technology for technology’s sake” – something that cost more money or took more time than the resulting system would ever save.
Mentoring is the act of sharing some of the real world experience you’ve accumulated with the people who are going to follow you into the workplace. For the students that I work with, I can’t add anything to their technical education, but I think I can add to their understanding of the workplaces they are about to enter.
Finding opportunities to mentor is easy. It’s even easier if you don’t get hung up on the word. You may be asked to serve as a mentor to a high school or college class, group project or team effort. You may be asked to tutor individual students who are struggling with math or science or writing or public speaking. You may be invited to present a guest lecture. You may be asked to serve on a committee where your experience/expertise could help them make better decisions and recommendations. The company you work for might hire an intern and you might be asked to work with him/her. Oh, and you don’t have to wait to be asked, schools and colleges are always looking for people who are willing to volunteer.