Should You Go Back to School?

Courtesy of Network Computing When I decided I wanted to advance to the C-level of the IT profession, I knew I'd need a master's degree. Like many IT professionals, I have quite a few vendor certifications and a bachelor's degree in the technology field, but most of the CIOs I know have advanced degrees. I chose an MBA program that blended technical and management coursework. Overall, it was a good decision, but I didn't account for the enormity of the challenge. I assumed my practical knowledge and experience would make the technical courses a breeze. I was in for a surprise. The school required you to take two courses just to apply for formal acceptance in the program. When I saw they had a Network Communications & Protocols course, I thought it would be easy and familiar. In fact, it was daunting, both in terms of workload and technical depth. Remember when you were a kid and your mom would say, "No TV until your homework is done"? Suddenly I found myself back in that very same position. Every two weeks we had to hand in 10 homework questions: Compare and contrast different router protocols, describe in detail the use of a collision domain, diagram all components needed for VoIP service .... Ten questions may not sound like much, but the instructor required such extraordinarily detailed answers that I found myself going beyond the three required texts to my own stack of technology books to write satisfactory answers. Each homework set took anywhere from six to eight hours to complete--that was on top of attending lectures and studying for exams, plus completing the workload from the second course, which was on e-commerce. And I am no longer a 20-something student, so I found it difficult to balance work, school and family. Many nights I was completing assignments or studying for tests into the early hours of the morning. My son thought it was funny that Dad had homework to do. The network staff also found my struggles amusing, though they, too, were astounded at the level of technical detail the networking course demanded. What's more, I couldn't help but take issue with some of the networking course content. Much of the information in the text was based on theory, not reality. A test question about IP subnetting, for instance, had public IPs on all workstations on a domain, but nobody I know would put public IPs on all the user workstations. Several homework questions also emphasized the theoretical over the practical. In one scenario, you had a hub and a switch each with 12 ports, and the question was about hooking up 20 computers. The "course" answer was to leave several of the switch ports open for growth. My reply was that you could always just change cross-connects and buy yourself another dang switch, since they're so inexpensive now anyway. Sometimes my professional knowledge didn't seem to count for much, though. The professor and teaching assistants could quote chapter and verse from the text to justify their answers compared with the ones I gave based on real-world experience. Despite all that, I found the networking course content quite useful overall. I immersed myself in the nitty-gritty details of IP, UDP, TCP, NAT, WANs and more, and I came away with a deeper knowledge of key technologies and protocols, which will certainly be helpful on the job. And I also got full entry into the master's degree program, which I hope will help my climb up the corporat ladder. It can't hurt--unless you count the homework. Hunter Metatek is an enterprise IT director with 15 years' experience in network engineering and management. The events chronicled in this column are based in fact--only the names are fiction.