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Education and Experience (Chicken and Egg)

I ran into an interesting situation yesterday, as a mentor for an intensive PM program. The session had just started this week, and I was face to face with a person that was adamant that she did not qualify for the program, while I saw things quite differently. This was quite the opposite of most situations of this type, where the candidate is overstating their qualifications to get into a program.

This is a full-time, 3-month program that covers the range of hard and soft PM skills. Unlike a PMP prep course that imprints the PMBOK into your brain and teaches you how to parse the exam questions, this program runs teams through the project lifecycle and involves significant interaction: our goal is to simulate the real world as best we can, while exploring the range of PM practices. I don't know of a more practical introduction to the world of project management.

The challenge here is that once the teams were put together, this person seemed to think she was way out of her league. This program literally attracts people from around the world, and many have significant experience with projects under their belts, quite a few as seasoned project managers. In contrast, our candidate came from the retail world, hadn't danced in corporate circles or worked on formal projects, hadn't even been on a sports team.

Those of us running the program saw all that as immaterial, as the program had been developed with no presumed experience in mind.

This is where the crazy chicken-and-egg relationship pops up. The candidate was adamant that prior experience was needed to keep up with her peers, and my view was that prior education would set the scene for a more fruitful and positive experience in the workplace. Actually, I have often seen that prior experience was often a source of reinforced bad habits that need to be corrected.

If we think about education and the workplace in general, it is almost exclusively the case that we are trained in how to do something before we apply these skills in the workforce. I don't think I'd be keen on someone tinkering on me with a scalpel so that they felt seasoned enough to not be overwhelmed by med-school. Air traffic controllers, architects, licensed plumbers and electricians all sit in a classroom to learn their trades before they are unleashed on the world. Why should it be different anywhere else?

Around the house, we forge ahead with projects with little or no training in a variety of projects, and as expected, our results can be hit and miss. Some of us are naturally adept with a hammer, while others can easily be punk'd into heading to the hardware store to ask for a box of south-facing nails.

The frightening thing is that this can-do attitude persists in mission-critical areas such as project management or business analysis, particularly on technology projects. The perception is that someone that can sling decent code will do well as a team lead, an analyst, or a project manager. While some have risen through the ranks with this progression and thrived, many more have tried and failed. The perception is that this is just the way it is, and that the low ratio of hit-to-miss is acceptable. The assumption that skills are readily transferrable and trades are best learned on the job leads many projects to be run with techniques that are akin to jiggling the handle on the toilet to stop that nagging noise of water running.

I strongly believe that if there is an opportunity to learn a trade or skill prior to applying it, you will be far better off. School-of-hard-knocks learning has that moniker for a reason, and no, I don't think it is a reasonable approach if you can at all avoid it. It doesn't prepare you with a foundation of knowledge required to do the job well, and it doesn't server your employer's best interests, either. There is a high likelihood you will learn many sub-optimal techniques from others who have kluged them together during their own rise to stardom.

Remember that experience in the field, as is required for a PMP designation, is no guarantee that this experience has been effective or successful. There is no question in my mind that in this case, the chicken (education) clearly should come before the egg (experience).

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