25 Stories About Work – Training and Learning on the Job

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

The Midwest, early 1990s

When I started out as an auditor I actually had to attend a 2 week class to learn how to create audit work papers.  This was my first “real” job out of college and I was very motivated to do well.

Looking back, the “teachers” were mainly auditors with a few years of experience.   This worked out fine because they were still immersed in the details while the top executives had long since forgotten about the details of day to day existence.

I shared a room on their “campus” with another first year auditor.  I was astonished when he brought two pairs of work shoes (wingtips) – he said if you switched every day, your shoes lasted longer.  I never had considered something like that.

The training was very stressful and I had “dreams” about how to create work papers.  Many of the other students had been interns previously so this was old hat to them but for me it was difficult because it was meticulous and seemingly pointless work.

At various points we went into formal classes on specific industries; I was in the regulated practice so I attended a one week course on how utilities set their rates and recover their costs. The class was good and I will never forget when I walked up to the guy teaching it afterwards and introduced myself and said my name and he said

“Who gives a f&ck about who you are?”

It was a good lesson because from his perspective (and the client’s perspective) we were just low level auditors there to do a job and we should put our heads down, fill out the paperwork, go through the same tests as last year, and get the heck out (and on to the next job).

That was about it for training for me; the accounting firm that I was with took all the costs of employee training for all of the offices, averaged it together, and charged a standard rate back to each office based on days attended.  Thus foreign auditors came over all the time because it was essentially subsidized, and although I attended the Chicago office (and training was in Chicago) we never went again because if the Chicago employees never attended the training then their office wouldn’t be charged back the average rate per day.  The partners took this sort of thing seriously because it impacted their profitability and take home pay.

In all my years with all my other employers I don’t think I took more than a week or so combined training over the next 20+ years.  All I learned was either on the job, at night, or on weekends.  This included industries, programming, operations research, financial metrics, and everything else.  All of my training has always been self directed and on my own time.

On the other hand, if you remember, Motorola was written up for having a cohesive corporate training campus.  There was some sort of Harvard Case Review and many companies seemed envious of the type of training and immersion that Motorola was able to provide.

Another good friend of mine worked for one of the Bell companies and they had a similar comprehensive training program for new staff.  These sorts of experiences are formative and you can respect the power and vision of a company that (once) seemed to think in terms of decades and invest in employees on that sort of basis.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way for companies to approach training but it certainly seems that the long term programs of firms like Motorola, the Bell companies, and the big audit firms are definitely the exceptions and not the rule.  Employees are going to have to be self directed (like me) if they want to get ahead.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

5 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Training and Learning on the Job”

  1. Yep, the Big Nerd Ranch (Bell-Northern Research) and Northen Telecom (later Nortel, then Nortel Networks, then bankrupt) used to train the new hires that way.

    Of course, since the DMS switch used a custom OS, a custom programming language, and a custom version control system there was no other place for someone to learn about them.

  2. This is a good addition to an outstanding series, Carl.

    I hope you don’t stop at 25.

    Don’t stop until you are out of stories. Which hopefully won’t be soon.

    This is classic:

    “Who gives a f&ck about who you are?”

    I have never had it put that bluntly to me, but I have had the same message conveyed.

    God bless America.

    Your Mom will always love you. Everybody else wants to know what you can do for them, whether what you are doing is worth whatever they are paying you, and how they can make money by dealing with you at all.

    It is about the job. It is not about your feelings.

    If you run into any genuine human kindness, and sometimes you do, consider it a bonus.

    “All I learned was either on the job, at night, or on weekends.”

    This is going to be more and more true for everybody.

    We should learn to like it.

    The quality of materials to teach ourselves will get better and better as the demand increases and the technology improves, which will be cool.

    This article, The Demand For Autodidacts – The Self-Taught in an Age of Shrinking Budgets, addresses this issue. The article is focused on military and law enforcement, but the message is pertinent to all lines of work.

    You can’t outsource the sequencing and programming for your professional development or simply hope that your organization provides you with the training you need. You have to take control over it. You have to determine what gaps you have, what mental models you want to expand upon and who has the information that you need.

    This article really deserves its own post.


  3. Hi Lexington Green

    I’m sure you didn’t mean it the way it came across but your throw away line of “God Bless America” as though these kinds of bureaucratic nightmares are somehow a unique result of the American experience is something that I find difficult. I live in Massachusetts and I’m always hearing the groan line “only in America.” Not that any of them could survive any where else. Just saying. I always learn from your postings. No offense meant.

  4. No offense taken, Gina.

    What I meant by God Bless America is that our system of capitalism has been very good for us, but it can be very tough on people. Providing excellent service and products at competitive prices is difficult and demanding. People in authority, who have to make that happen, who have to deliver, every day, without fail, or lose their jobs or their investment, often do not sugar coat things. You have to have thick skin. This system has worked of us, but it is demanding.

    I had a post twelve years ago (it does not seem that long) on this topic. It may be of interest.

  5. “So, according to Schumpeter, or whoever it was, these losers need to be given busy work and an income out of the social surplus of the productive part of society.”

    This type of thing came to mind when I found out about the bike desk. All those people at Starbucks doing whatever it is they do all day long can actually produce something to justify their time on the premises.

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