Formal Training vs Self-Taught

This thought is again sparked by the book Coders at Work by Peter Seibel. Right now, I am on the 11th programmer in the book. Of the 11 programmers, only 1 did not attend college — Jamie Zawinski. But when 11 were asked if it is necessary for a programmer to be great to have a formal education on computer programming — meaning to graduate college. Surprisingly, not one of them firmly replied that formal training is a must. But then they cite that education can give you the proper theoritical background of programming, correct terminologies, the scientific or more systematic ways of doing things. Plus, being in school gives you someone to bounce off your ideas who can be your peers, classmates, and teachers.

This formal training vs self-taught education kind of reminds me of my ‘writing skill.’ I never see myself as a writer since the time I failed the audition to be part of a school paper way back in high school. I majored psychology in college. The only writing training I have back in college was answering essay exams and writing term papers, and thesis.

Then, when I became a mother, I started scribbling my thoughts in my multiply account. Mostly, confusion and pent-up emotions about motherhood/parenthood are things that drive me to scribble my thoughts day to day. Along the way, I just learned to develop my ‘writing style’ — how to start a story, its flow, and how to end a story which I am still struggling at. Developing my ‘writing style’ was just mostly by trusting my intuition that this does not sound so right, this need to be changed, or there must be a better way to attack it and so on. Then, reading others’ writing, and pick up a thing or two or a lot from those not-boring writers also helped in shaping up my ‘writing skill.’

Then I got myself to be involved in a freelance writing by creating SEO articles. The SEO writing was the closest thing I have of formal training because I was forced to make a decent presentable writing.

So back to my point – formal academic training vs self-taught?

In Coders at Work by Peter Seibel, the programmers view on formal education is that it cannot be used as a definite measurement if one will become a great programmer.So what then?

One thing that exists in all of them is that they always start to learn programming for the fun of it and to satisfy a curiousity in them, until it leads them to dig deeper into the subject, which we can call now as ‘passion.’ When you have this natural curiosity for something, this will guide you on what to do to satisfy that — from sneaking into computer laboratories to getting a part-time or full-time job as computer assistants just to get close to a computer, and from reading calculator manuals to computer journals. This might come to a point that other people might find you weird.Quoting L Peter Deutsch, one of the programmers in the book, “There has something a little wrong with you for you to be a really good programmer.” This means, one thing common about great programmers is not really the formal education, but their over curiosity that turned into passion towards programming, and the fun that they get out of it.

Like me, who is a ‘self-taught writer,’ probably the lacking part of my being a ‘writer’ is that I have no formal training at how to handle correct sentence structures, or different types of writing form, or the correct flow of an article, or how to properly use semi-colons, parenthesis, colons and all those ‘special characters.’ All I have is the imagination and the intuition of right and wrong which are the only tools I rely on when I put up some post. Then, my great self love for my thoughts is another thing that drives me to just write and write (Ya, I know it sounds stupid.).

So is formal training important? I think humans by nature have the capability to teach and to learn by themselves. But to unleash the full capacity of that capability is that they must find something in them that they are extra passionate about, curious about or something that can give meaning to who they are. Knowing these is something that cannot be provided by the formal training/education. I do not think that you can find the meaning of your life inside the 4 walls of your classroom. The passion for something, the extra coriousity for something are some things that will naturally come out in you, which can only be achieved by ‘self-taught.’

So I guess formal training is only an icing in the cake. After you learn or know (by yourself) what you really like, then I guess that is the best time you go and seek formal training for that. Or, else you will be just wasting your time and money on a formal training that does not really provide you with an additional value to who you really are.

So how to know what you really really like, your passion? It is not an easy thing for most of us. The external factors — finances, culture, people’s expectations — can somehow sometimes lead a person to be confused and just end up with a safe choice. But I came across a question cited by Howard Behar in his book, It’s Not About the Coffee, which somehow helped me evaluate myself on what I really like. The question goes something like: 

“If there are no critics or praises, what do you really like to be?”

Let me add to that, “if money is not a question,what do you like to be now?” Try to think about this, and this can be your driving force and your guide on what you should learn — via self-taught and/or formal training. =)