I Went to a Top-10 University, Community College, and Took Free Classes - Here’s What I Learned about School

Fumbling My Way through School, Post-College

Being one of the first employees at a startup and spending the next six years there taught me so many things you can’t learn in school. For me, I learned at least as much there as I did in college – probably more. That said, I still felt the need to take classes now and then to extend my “formal” education. Even though I no longer wanted to go to grad school, watching many of my friends go back for MBAs and other postgrad degrees made me a little antsy. Plus I was worried about being too specialized too early in my career, and more knowledge and skills are a good hedge when you’re unsure of where you want to go in your career. As it turned out, my timing was fortunate, because I began looking for ways to keep learning at a time when the number of new learning outlets was starting to explode. When you consider how many options are available to you today, it’s never been a better time to learn something new.

My experimentation with different types of classes reflects both a change in philosophy for me about the value of school as well as the growth of good alternatives. I learned the basics of corporate finance by taking the Chartered Financial Analyst exam while in my first job (I stopped the program after Level 1). By mid-2008, it was easy to see that my future probably wasn’t in finance, and by chance I ended up interviewing with a tiny startup I’d never heard of that had an ugly office next to a mattress store (you can read how I got that job for free in the introduction to my book). With a mix of on-the-job learning and some self-study, I then got adept at working with databases because I needed to in order to do my new job. Not only did that knowledge make me a much better analyst, it was also the gateway drug for me to learn enough about how computer systems work to begin my product management career.

I felt emboldened by my career change, so I doubled down. I took a couple of classes at a community college to learn Java for less than a quarter of what similar classes would have cost at a private university. I went to community college because I wanted a real classroom structure, and it wasn’t bad at all, but if I could do it again I would have just done it all online on my own for free. The breadth of online courses you can take for free now are really amazing. I had good experiences with both Codecademy and Coursera, especially since (being free) I was able to switch out of classes I realized I wasn’t interested in as much as I thought I would be and trying something else quickly.

There are So Many Ways to Learn It’s Ridiculous

I’ve written before about knowing how much you value knowledge versus certification when it comes to learning, which I believe is the #1 question everyone considering postgrad studies should answer for themselves. Once you’ve figured that out and you know what you hope to gain, you need to ask yourself whether the cost, schedule demands, and class format will help you advance your career while still fitting with your life. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep the ultimate goal in mind when you invest your time and money in education. Education should never be the goal – the point is to use the knowledge you acquire to advance your career. There’s usually more than one way to acquire the knowledge you’re after, and you owe it to yourself to consider the pros and cons of each option.

My advice to anyone thinking about taking classes or going back to school is to approach any investment in education like a business decision. Don’t let vanity get in the way, and be honest about what you want. In the table below I’ve listed what I consider to be the options for continuing your education after you start working full-time if you already have an undergraduate degree:

A Few Notes and Words of Caution…

  1. If you’re interested in learning more about MOOCs, Rolin Moe at Seattle Pacific University writes the most interesting blog I’ve come across on the subject. He gives very even treatment to the MOOC phenomenon and has been covering it for a few years.
  2. In recent years, graduate certificate programs offered by traditional colleges and universities have proliferated across all manner of subjects. These are typically one-year programs with credits that can be applied to a more advanced degree in a related field. Although there is nothing wrong with these, be aware that you’re usually not buying the same prestige as a Master’s degree. If you enroll in one of these, I believe it should be for the education value more than the certification. I question the value for money of many certificate programs, because employers often don’t know what they mean and why it makes one job candidate more or less capable than another.
  3. If you’re thinking about starting at a community college, I recommend reading Isa Adney’s blog, which is the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen about succeeding at community college. Her post on going from community college to Harvard is powerful stuff.
  4. When investing in professional certifications, prioritize certifications that include real coursework and continuing professional education credits over certifications that you get from attending a simple webinar or similar program.
  5. If it seems too good to be true, it is. There is no such thing as a program that is highly respected, easy to complete, and intellectually rigorous. You will be trading off against at least one of those dimensions no matter what.
  6. In my experience, taking even one class on the side while working full time can quickly become a punishing schedule. But it CAN be done, and as a bonus you will earn the respect of others who have gone to school while working full time.