April 13, 2015

Why NOT to Go to College: A Controversial Opinion

Today, we have a guest post from Oren Ellenbogen, a good friend of mine who never finished college. He's the author of Leading Snowflakes: An Engineering Manager's Handbook, the founder and curator of Software Lead Weekly, and the Head of Engineering at Forter, a company that helps online merchants prevent fraud.

He also co-founded and sold a startup called Commerce Sciences. You can follow him on Twitter.

Here's Oren on why he ended up doing fine without going to college:

Let me start with saying that I didn't complete my B.A degree. I should say degrees, as I started twice: once during my army service, and again, 7 years later, while working full-time job as a Director of Engineering. However, I can't say I did badly during that time.

I was just passionate about doing different things, that's all.

Failure is bad only if you don't learn anything from it - I started to get paid for building software at the age of 15, working from home every day after school. Over the years, I've worked for small companies and big ones. I even started my own startup and managed to fuck it up. I had my fair share of successes and failures. Each time I failed, I learned a few things about myself, such as answers to the following questions:

What am I really passionate about?

What could I have done to learn faster that I wasn't on the right track?

Who could I bring to the team to help me succeed?

Failure is hard, but it's also the safest way to make us versatile and open to change. Learning something new about ourselves is extremely important. After all, how many of us really know what we want to be "when we grow up"?

In college, people are measured by their grades, not their effort. In the real world, this is a dangerous approach. I consistently improve because I allow myself to fail and learn from the experience.

Determine your strengths. They don't have to be what you do in your everyday work – I used to work with "old people" (this is what a 15 y/o calls someone who's 28) a lot. I've seen them write code that blew my mind, while mine was horrible. So I worked hard, reading books alongside my regular high-school work to practice my engineering skills, and I got better. Still, looking back, I knew there were better engineers out there.

Many years later, I figured out I'm pretty good at inspiring others, and helping them become better at what they do. I also found out I'm pretty good at evaluating people, not only for their technical skills, but also for their personalities. I recruited great people and managed to build talented teams at various companies. I found my true passion – it was people, culture and leadership. These days, I'm fortunate enough to lecture and write about it. It took me many years to figure it out.

My advice to you is to experiment until you find your passion. Try to apply your education to real world problems. Use the Internet to teach others as you learn something new. Offer your services for free until you've got 2 or 3 people who can vouch for you. Work crazy hours if you can work for someone who's amazingly talented and willing to teach you.

Go out there and learn about yourself. Have faith in your abilities and don't be afraid to find your own path. Take others' advice with a grain of salt. As long as you're trying new things and learning from your mistakes, you'll figure it out.

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