Like many in IT I’m self taught, starting with DOS and batch files, then proceeding through QuickBasic, Visual Basic in assorted flavors, Access, and of course SQL Server. I’ve learned what I needed and/or wanted to know about various technologies at various times, which is a practical approach with the downside of leaving gaps that I might not recognize. Overall it’s been an approach that has worked for me, and probably for most that are self directed and were able to get past the initial – and tough – learning curve.
For many though, they prefer the structure and surety that comes with taking the formal education path. Employers understand it, families understand it, and it has a lot of ancillary benefits – career counseling, a network, and the ground work for more learning further along if an MBA seems like the right course.
The third option is what at least used to be called vo-tech. It’s something that has tended to have a negative connotation, but I think it’s a valid way to acquire technical skills in a very focused way. It won’t teach you history or literature, it won’t do as good a job getting you ready for the MBA track, but I think it does represent the middle ground between time to market and making money.
Of course, there’s nothing that says you can’t combine them. If I were coaching a high school graduate that had made the decision to go into IT nine times out of ten I’d recommend the vo-tech route. Get some hard skills in 12-24 months, get a job, and start learning the work place lessons. Then decide what additional education is needed, which might well include a four year degree or more, once they’ve confirmed their choice of career, and have the comfort of making a decent salary.
It’s not a simple choice. I’ve long had on my list of things I might do someday is to pursue a Phd. That’s a long road to start in mid-career and one I think I’d find rewarding personally, but in terms of compensation the odds are it would not increase what I can make.
One size doesn’t fit all. If you get the chance to mentor someone that is at the very beginning of their journey make sure you show them options and talk through how your own path has worked out.