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I am very busy in my current job which is nice but I feel it isn't leaving me enough time for the training I'd like to take. So I am considering a new job with a different blend of technologies from what I am using now.

I'm finding it hard to choose between learning on the job and taking time off to learn before entering the job. I entered IT through a non-traditional route, i.e. through business, rather than from a formal computer science background, and this plus the fact that the technologies I did learn are now largely obsolete as I have a few years under my belt, leads me to think that I need to spend some immersion time doing catch-up.

Aside from money, which factor(s) should be considered to make this decision? Answers should be based on experience and external references, not just opinions.

[Update - I took three months off and worked on ruby and js. I was easily able to get a job at the end. This worked well me for and it's possible that I'd do it again in a few years time. That said, I'm still learning a ton in my job!]

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migrated from programmers.stackexchange.com Jun 8 '13 at 21:10

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Hmm. Are you sure you'll get the (a) job when you take the time off? –  Thomas Jun 8 '13 at 13:35
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An idea: Could you find a part-time job related to what you want to learn, and learn during the remaining time? You will have enough time to learn, and you will also have realistic problems. –  Viliam Búr Jun 12 '13 at 15:37
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Your edited question brought in to much personal detail that did not belong in the question here. I have edited it and I think consolidated the important parts. How much time to devote is probably a different question for a different forum. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jun 12 '13 at 18:46

7 Answers 7

I have quit my job without a new one in order to change the mix of technologies I use. Although I don't have a job lined up, I believe I could find one using my current mix of skills fairly easily, so there is a reasonable similarity with your question (of course I want to find a new job with a different mix of skills). I have some time to go and so far haven't decided whether to try to line up another job before I finish or to take some time out to learn. Factors I think are significant include:

  • how much time can I realistically fit in to learn new skills when working full time, vs taking time out and doing it 9 to 5? To this end, it helps to have a plan of all things you want to do, when you think you will achieve them, and monitor this plan, just as you would in a commercial project. By doing this, I discovered that I was making much less progress than I'd hoped and needed to accept staying where I was for a long time, or to bite the bullet and quit.

  • in a new job I'd have the motivation of working on real-world problems with colleagues who are motivated to help me succeed, vs working on my own at home without a team around me and with limited external support.

  • what specific training support is available at work vs at home? E.g. does the new job run seminars, pay for training, set aside 20% time, and so on? At home, are there meetups running locally, courses available at local colleges or on the web, open source projects to join, etc?

  • in a job I'd be constrained to work on projects valuable to my current employer's short term goals, whereas at home I could pick a project primarily to learn new area I found exiting. On the other hand, the employer's choice is more likely to be commercially valuable than mine!

  • in a job any learning that isn't job-specific has to be done in evenings and weekends, meaning that I have less time for family, friends etc, whereas if I quit my job, I can learn without compromising the rest of my life.

  • your own level of seniority. The more senior you are, the more an employer expects you to be productive and a leader from day one, and it's harder to justify your employer investing heavily in training you, and so taking time out is perhaps the best way to change course. If you are more junior, there is more chance of coming into a role where you're expected to have potential but not experience, and so less need to take time out.

  • is taking time out actually going to make any difference? Are you going to get a better position in your new job as a result? Or (and this is a better scenario), do you value and enjoy taking the time out and learning just for the sake of it?

  • taking time out to learn offers the opportunity to try other new things during the day, such as voluntary work in the local community. There are plenty of ways someone who's technically talented can help out (e.g. with local schools).

  • finally this isn't an issue for your hypothetical situation, but it is for me: it's usually easier to find another job when you already have one.

For me the situation has been chicken and egg. Stuck in my current job I can't invest enough time in learning to the get new skills I need and get another job, but to get another job I need the new skills. Your situation sounds different, but I hope this helps.

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+1 I too have quit jobs to free up time to learn something new. –  Mathew Foscarini Jun 8 '13 at 16:55

I don't see why you present this choice as exclusive. I've spent most my life working, and learned a lot in "worktime". Also I spent a ton of time off-work to learning.

If you're a curious kind of person like me, you do the latter anyway, and likely select job place where the former is possible. Or leave one as soon as you exhaust possibilities.

The rest of the question is even more weird (didn't stop me to +1 it, as it is way too important). Do you really expect other people tell you what to consider in extremely fundamental choices regarding your one and only life? Come on now.

You have to know your own preferences. AAMOF I bet you know them alright. Is your real question about whether you should pursue them actually, or rather look for excuses, and/or take some "pragmatic" choice that fit others or some "average person"? If so be aware that it is a very much unfair question to ask. As answers carry implicit responsibility, and can send you off a road that turns out bad. At least in some examination timeframes.

What I keep suggesting everyone it to keep forging their life the best they can -- and my experience shows the best outcome form that. (in a properly long timeframe at least, setbacks are quite expected.)

As a bottom line, IF you want to learn, and it is important to you, just go ahead and do it. Scrap whatever is in the way. While if it's more like a "nice to have", figure out what your top priority really is, and stop hiding from it.

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Any time you have a gap in your employment, you have some explaining to do. There is something to be said for someone willing to make an effort to learn the skills required, but where do you draw the line? Are you always going to need time off for new things. Does working at a full-time job render you so exhausted at the end of the day that you can't take a couple extra hours for self-study. Don't confuse this with expecting anyone to put in 60 hr worke weeks.

From the perspective of hiring, I don't think taking time off is a positive sign that you are able to pick up new things quickly. The key is a few weeks (not really noticable on a CV.) for a few months. That is not a big deal for hiring jr/unexperienced people, but if someone has the foundations in programming they should have the mental horsepower to learn new things and apply them to their job pretty quickly. I've studied for certifications without taking any time off and it wasn't really a technology that was closely related to my day to day work.

Many people are able to obtain college degrees while working full-time. I'm afraid the technology industry is notorious for thinking people eat, sleep and breath programming, so they may not look at your sabatical in a positive way.

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I made the commitment to myself that Sunday afternoon is devoted to career development. I get out of the house and go to a coffee shop or library so nothing distracts me from studying. Then I hunker down with the old tablet, laptop, and dead tree for at least four hours.

While unemployed I've taken classes through vendors and studied for certifications in things that interest me and appear repeatedly in job postings. Taking time off for training is a legitimate strategy to cover a gap in employment.

I recently took an on-line class that my current employer wouldn't pay for, but it was work related so they let me do it from home without burning PTO time.

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Coming at it from a managerial side, I'd be asking:

  • How different? Plenty of times, I see someone take time off for serious education that can't possibly be done on the job - changes of professions, big jumps subject areas, transition from military life to civilian life - when it's big, it often needs some transition time.

  • Why no time on the job? the big negative factor would be the definition of "big" - most of the times, I hire people who WILL have to learn on the job. For something big I'll be offering week long training and expecting some degree of self-education. My companies will also support money for grad and undergrad work - but on the employee's own time. So I know that I'll have an expectation that the employee be able to learn and do work. If the reason someone took time off was to do something I'd expect my existing folks to do on the job, I'd have doubts.

  • The sell - Every case is unique, the challenge would be to make it clear that you are working like a dog and just have absolutely no time. And the transition from stuff you know to stuff you needed to learn WAS too big to pick up quickly. It's always easy with a simple objective (I had to do my PhD Thesis, I took 3 additional networking courses after leaving the military to cover cases where I used legacy equipment) - it's harder if it's "do a self driven project to learn a similar but different technology suite" - but in that case, both the complexity of the project and the technology shift play a big factor.

IMO - it's a mix. Self driven learning is always a plus and the willingness to sacrifice to improve your skills is a definite plus.

As a hiring manager, I just want to know that if you situate in my team, you will be able to balance ongoing learning demands.

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A component that you are missing here is how does the new company use the technologies that you don't know. For example, if you don't know C# there are more than a few components within the .Net framework, especially given the more recent versions that expanded how broad it can be now, that you could spend years trying to learn only to realize that you'll never master all of them to get into the job. I've had more than a few times in my life where I had to learn some new technology on the job and at times it can be frustrating though this is part of what the company understands in offering you the position.

Another interpretation here is to consider what subset of the technology is used as well as with what kinds of conventions, standards, and practices. These are likely only to be known on the job and can change quite quickly. If the company is implementing a new Enterprise Service Bus that could replace the hooks for other systems thus making what you thought you'd have to know be no longer required. I did work at a place that was putting in an ESB and had to make decisions about where would we tie the Web site code into the ERP directly as the ESB components here wouldn't be in place for a year or more. Thus, while there is something to be said for what is currently being used, how long is that on the future road map is another point here. Perhaps they'll use some of the technologies for legacy systems that may mean you'll not touch it ever.

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In my personal experience, learning ON the job is always much more effective, because you get to obtain number of skills in the various situations you'll surely encounter in the process.

You also learn tricks & tips for different scenarios, that aren't necessarily shown in the textbooks (and with IT and programming this is almost always the case).

If you can find a new employer who is OK with your level of experience in the field - and employers usually tolerate candidates who are eager to learn and improve their skills, even if their current level isn't that great - I'd say go for it.

You can always polish those new skills on the weekends. Or by developing a personal project using a new technology (like Node.js, MongoDB, a framework) when you don't have any other task to do in the office - the company would definitely benefit from this.

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