Category Archives: ideas

Learn How To Learn And Stop Blaming Your Education

I saw this whiny article in the Washington Post that was just begging for a response. The gist of the article is that the author got a Computer Science degree and wasn’t given his dream job out of the gate. This then becomes an indictment of the education system rather than the typical sniveling millennial i-wasn’t-given-the-world-without-having-to-work-for-it screech that it is. Let’s take a look at some quotes from the posting:

My college education left me totally unprepared to enter the real workforce. My degree was supposed to make me qualified as a programmer, but by the time I left school, all of the software and programming languages I’d learned had been obsolete for years.

The think this belies a misunderstanding of how higher education works – it is not what you are given, it is what you do with it (the whole learning how to learn thing). It is as if he expects to read a book on swimming but never gets into the pool; and ‘surprise’ he really can’t swim because he put no effort into applying the learnings. Also, if ‘all of the software and programming languages’ were obsolete, what were they teaching? FORTRAN?, RPG?, Visual Basic?

To find real work, I had to teach myself new technologies and skills outside of class, and it wasn’t easy.

Poor you. You should have been doing this all along. The Computer Science curriculum should be teaching you fundamental concepts in how computers work, programming concepts and techniques that can be applied across specific programing languages, databases and platforms. Actually, it is a bit shocking how many recent CS grads don’t have a grasp of fundamentals.

Businesses aren’t looking for college grads, they’re looking for employees who can actually do things – like build iPhone apps, manage ad campaigns and write convincing marketing copy. I wish I’d been taught how to do those things in school, but my college had something different in mind.

Businesses are indeed looking for those things, but they are looking for people who can learn and grow and apply what they have learned in the past. If you have a CS degree and can’t figure out how to write an iPhone app you either had a horrible curriculum or slept through most of your class time. The fact that you weren’t specifically trained for that is not a problem with your education. Rather it is a failure to apply what you should have learned.

At least 90 percent of my college education (and that of so many others) boiled down to pure terminology, or analysis of terminology. My success in any given class was almost wholly based on how well I could remember the definitions of countless terms – like the precise meaning of “computer science” or how to explain “project management” in paragraph form, or the all-too-subtle differences between marketing and advertising.

Wow. Ok. So, if that percentage is accurate, I can see why you can’t get a job. When I got my CS degree (many moons ago) that was maybe 1% of what we were taught.

To me, this is the root of our college problem: The average college student is paying $30,000 a year for the chance to learn valuable skills from professors who haven’t had the opportunity to learn those skills themselves. Maybe it’s a crazy idea, but if you’re going to spend all that money for a college education, shouldn’t you expect to learn real-world skills from people who know what they’re doing?

This seems excessively harsh and a bit misguided. If you want to be learning what is new and trendy, go to a conference, a user group, or actually talk with people who are doing interesting things. By the time those things get packaged up into an approved curriculum, the technology might be on the stale side. But, again, if you don’t understand the fundamentals, you are not going to be able to effectively apply new technology and concepts. No one can give that to you at any price.

Solving the issue of inexperienced teachers may be even simpler: have schools relax academic requirements for professors and focus far more on hiring effective businesspeople. With a little more leeway, academically-minded candidates will have more freedom to gain job experience, and schools may even attract more talent directly from the business world. Success in business and success in the classroom are certainly different things, but I’d wager that it’s a lot easier to show an accomplished businessperson how to teach than it is to show a teacher how to be an accomplished businessperson.

So it sounds like what you want is for all universities to be trade schools, focused on cranking out very specific skills and techniques rather than more broadly educating students and preparing them to apply a wide set of competencies to a range of problem domains. This sounds a bit like the certification trap from the 90s – go get a very narrow, often vendor specific certification but still have no practical experience in applying that knowledge. When that vendor falls out of favor, you are a bit stuck unless you can teach yourself the reasoning and abstraction skills you would have learned in college.

To steal the trite closing from the original article: But what do I know, I have been happily applying my Computer Science degree for nearly 30 years with technologies, programming languages and platforms that never even existed when I graduated.


Algorithm Maps The Most Beautiful Route To Where You’re Going

I would love to see (and use) this in more locations. Sadly, it will likely be quickly perverted to route visitors to/near shops and other unattractive locales.

If you want to find the most scenic route to get somewhere, there may soon be an app for that. Daniele Quercia and colleagues at Yahoo Labs in Barcelona have come up with a way to create a crowd-sourced measure of a city’s beauty, and made an algorithm to find the prettiest way to get from one point to another. “The goal of this work is to automatically suggest routes that are not only short but also emotionally pleasant,” the scientists told Technology Review:

Quercia and co begin by creating a database of images of various parts of the center of London taken from Google Street View and Geograph, both of which have reasonably consistent standards of images. They then crowd-sourced opinions about the beauty of each location using a website called
Each visitor to UrbanGems sees two photographs and chooses the one which shows the more beautiful location. That gives the team a crowd-sourced opinion about the beauty of each location. They then plot each of these locations and their beauty score on a map which they use to provide directions.


“Useful” Russian Words With No English Equivalent

I am not so sure how ‘useful’ these examples are. Is the fact that most of them have negative connotations a reflection of the person who curated them or of the Russian language?

This was one of my favorites:

переподвыподверт (‘per-e-pod-’voy-pod-’vert)
Reddit user deffun on /r/doesnottranslate defined this noun as “to do something in a complex, incomprehensible way.”

The word kind of embodies itself, as it has four prefixes including one that repeats itself twice.


Thoughts on APIStrat Panel on The Future of the Internet

About a month ago, I attended the API Strategy and Practice conference in San Francisco. Overall, a pretty good conference and, as always, much of the value was in connecting with people between and after sessions.

One panel discussion was concluded with the question ‘what is the future of the internet?’. The responses seemed to fall into two categories 1) code/APIs everywhere and/or 2) intelligent consumption and composition of the available APIs.

I wanted to point out that the first category of thought reflected the view of a (now defunct) little technology outfit just down the highway who voiced the credo of ‘the network is the computer’. They had a great spec/implementation for a technology called JINI that very much reflected the philosophy of ‘be a node and not a hub’ – inherently scalable and cluster-able running practically anywhere.

The second group reminded me of the great AI gold rush in the mid-90s, when ‘intelligent agents‘ were going to manage all our personal data and book travel and plan meetings based on all of the metadata that we surround ourselves with. Companies were funded and failed trying to deliver on this vision (General Magic anyone?). Perhaps it was an idea before it’s time and enough has changed and opened up that it might work this time. We shall see.


Women And Tech Events

Not even sure where to start with this psycho-babble rant I just read.

To me, the whole thing reads like an insecure individual trying to justify their warped world view by blaming it on everyone else. Sure, I know that there are bad things that happen to women at tech conferences (and elsewhere) and that is stupid and inexcusable. But, to use that as justification for the view that *all* men are rapist/gropers/whatever is also stupid and inexcusable. The simple fact is that if you are looking to be offended, you will find offense in everything and everybody around you. Especially, if you play both sides of a situation: if someone engages with you, it is for strictly sexual purposes and if they don’t then they are *obviously* denigrating you because you are a female. There is no good way out of that spiral other than recognizing that the premise is setup for self fulfilling distrust.

Being guilty of whatever darkness is in another person’s head is just raw prejudice with a unhealthy dose of over-generalization/labeling. Sure, lets play the game (fill in the blanks): All ______ are lazy. All _____ are cheap. All _____ are bad drivers. And all men at tech events are misogynistic predators. Right.

I have some recent evidence on this front. I was at a tech conference in San Francisco last month and had some fantastic conversations with some of the female attendees there (and the male ones as well). Topics ranged from privacy, genetic testing, pregnancy(!), hypermedia, security concerns for services, agile practices, gardening, coding standards and whisky. No one was groped or molested or talked down to. Oddly enough, at the drinks reception on the last night, I did have a woman approach me several times and try to invite herself back to my room (which I gently but firmly declined). Do I think all women at tech events are horn-dogs because of that? No, not for one minute.

For an excellent exploration of learning to be offended, see this article at NPR. The referenced article is coming at this topic from race rather than gender, but I think it resonates with many of the points I made.