Posts Tagged ‘Learning’
It’s the start of a new year, and I have a lot of things to look forward to, a lot of demands to satisfy and a few interesting projects in mind. I don’t want to bore you with the details, or risk turning this into a Family Holiday letter, and this isn’t really about the things I will be doing, it’s about what I need to remember as I am doing them. I am stealing the 8-things format from someone I admire, even though I’m told there was no magic reason for choosing 8 things instead of 7 or 9. Hopefully you might find some of these reminders useful as you plow through 2013.
People Change – The only people who remain the same throughout your life are the ones you eventually find boring or annoying. The rest of the people in your life continue to grow, learn, expand in some areas and draw a sharper focus in other areas. As long as they remain true to the core person you like, love or admire, all of those changes are good things.
Encourage vs. Prescribe – I have numerous opportunities to mentor people this year. Fortunately, I have been mentored by some of the best leaders in the business. As I look back and around (I am still being mentored) I see that the people who made the biggest contributions to my life were the ones who encouraged me to follow their general course, but not necessarily walk in their footsteps. They have urged me to rely on my strengths and to trust and be guided by my intuition.
Avoid a “phew” Moment – The last thing I want is for any group with which I am currently involved to start a meeting the day after I leave with the phrase “ok, now that he’s gone…”
Remain Relevant – Looking back on accomplishments is fun, but there has to be more to life. I am at the age where friends are retiring, but most are working to start something new, finish something previously abandoned or turn a lifelong hobby into a near fulltime pursuit. From college educations to new businesses to creative endeavors, the goal is to stay active and to contribute something of value to something that needs it.
Rear-view Mirror – Amazon returns 119,618 Results when searching on “leadership”. You can spend endless hours testing your leadership skills by asking “are you doing the things good leaders do?” While there are lessons to be learned from great people throughout history, most of that study will be a waste of precious time. If you want to know if you are an effective leader, the simplest test is to see if anyone is following you.
You’re Here for a Reason – At some point, the jobs we have, the associations we belong to, the families we are part of all give us the opportunity to coast to the finish line. Avoid that temptation! Accept the responsibility that you have been given and do the job that is expected. You might be asking, “How is this different from remaining relevant?” Remaining relevant was meant to be a personal challenge; doing your job is meeting an obligation – you need to do both.
You Are Your Best Resource – In an age where we are surrounded by so much content from so many channels across so many mediums, it is tempting to simply accept what others are saying as gospel. Recognize that we are also in an age where you can check the facts on statements very quickly, where you can do the research behind outrageous claims and where you can call-out (or at least ignore) liars and cheats. You have a brain, you can ask questions and you can get answers and form your own opinions. You don’t have to accept everything your family, your friends, your church or your political party says is true.
Relax – In between doing your job and remaining relevant, take some time to enjoy life. Once again, be your own guide, you don’t have to enjoy the things that are popular with or “normal” for your age group. Also, relaxing doesn’t have to be an event. I’ll share one personal thing here for those who don’t know me well; I frequently stop at Great River Park on my way to work. Sometimes I stay a few minutes, sometimes I take the time to try and get an interesting picture of Hartford. Regardless of what I do while there, a few minutes alongside the Connecticut River helps me keep my day in perspective.
I have always been of the opinion that everybody needs to slog their way through Algebra, Trigonometry, Geometry, Chemistry and Physics on their way to a high school degree. Recently, Andrew Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, wrote in the NY Times that this is not the case, at least for math. His article is well reasoned, but some of his opinions are 180° opposed to the reasons I believe these subjects are so important today.
Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.”
This statement gets a big “so what?” from me. Should we only be learning the things we can memorize? The point is that math and science are cumulative; studying these subjects help us learn how to learn and how to apply what we have already learned to new situations. That is critical because the workplace is constantly changing. These subjects are sometimes difficult, but there is some benefit to successfully completing a difficult task.
One of the professor’s other points is the one that really bothers me:
What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.
Maybe there is no benefit in being able to make that proof, but there is an incredible benefit in knowing that some things can be proven. Despite the fact that we routinely treat laws (yielding, hands free cell phone use, giving cyclists 3 feet when passing) as if they are mere guidelines, some things are subject to scientific laws. During the recent heat wave that gripped the Mid-Atlantic States, a plane sunk into the tarmac at a Washington D.C. airport. People were inconvenienced, and people complained about the inadequate planning. Somebody, well a group of somebodies, made the decision at some point to save money by using asphalt instead of concrete pads at the gate positions. That wasn’t a place for opinion to rule the day. That was a case were a careful examination of the facts would have been a better choice, because at a certain temperature, a heavy plane is going to sink into asphalt. Still, it was public opinion that set the financial limits on airport construction.
I once attended a public meeting held by our local school board where we ended up debating whether or not to cut the annual maintenance program for the gymnasium partition doors. These doors are largest, heaviest moving objects owned by our town, and we were thinking of saving money by not oiling the hinges or repairing the worn fasteners. People actually said things like: “I think it’s just a scam for the door manufactures to make money” and “they [doors] shouldn’t need to be oiled every year”. Gravity and friction were never mentioned, the number of openings and closings were not discussed; we were acting out of impulse and emotion. A similar discussion ensued around the $1,000 maintenance contract on the panic bars throughout our four school buildings. Statements like “it seems like a lot of money for something unrelated to the core mission of the school system” were winning over the fact that there are laws that say that if these mechanisms break, the school has to close or post someone at the door at all times. People were unswayed by the sheer number of panic bars in the system, the historic frequency of repairs, and the fact that the replacement cost of a panic bar was over $1,100 at the time. I would guess that similar discussions have resulted in the gradual but continuing decline of our roads and bridges, as if corrosion, wear and tear, stress cracks and freeze-thaw cycles will be influenced by our opinions, or yield to the pressure of a bad economy.
Our planet is a life-sustaining system that is subject to known, proven and unwavering scientific laws. We can’t change them; we can only ignore them at our peril. The greater the degree to which people understand these laws, and are able to make decisions based on the gathering of facts and application of principle, the better off we will be as a society.
The night before I started writing this, I Sound Hounded “Kind and Generous” as it was playing in my favorite bar. I didn’t need the information, I am a Natalie Merchant fan, but I wanted to see how much things had really changed in 18 years. Back in the mid-90’s, I asked my administrative assistant who was singing the song that was playing on her radio. My assistant was young, hadn’t worked very long for me, and apparently felt that I have given her a direct order. She called the radio station in a mild panic, telling them “my boss needs to know who was singing in that last song…” The answer was Natalie Merchant, and the song, “These Are Days” from MTV Unplugged is still one of my favorites. Who knew that in less than 20 years, I would be able to point my phone toward the speakers and get all that information delivered wirelessly?
This isn’t one of those “back in my day” kind of posts. This is more a lament about the lack of, and suppression of imagination. I chose the example above to lead into this post, because I wonder if I would have that option on my phone if it hadn’t been for Steve Jobs. I wonder how long it would have taken for the plodding stream of product development in other companies to bring us to this point, if Apple hadn’t raised the bar by an order of magnitude. Businesses like the modern day Microsoft seem to look at product lines like a bus route. Maybe they have an idea where all the stops are, but they aren’t in any hurry to get to them. Artists and scientists tend to think more in terms of the bus jumping a 50’ gap in the freeway like the one driven/piloted by Sandra Bullock in the movie Speed.
John Mancini, President of AIIM, wrote a really good piece on The Future of Work, in which he ponders a number of very valid questions about the disconnect between business and anything close to the leading edge of technology. I worry more about the question raised in one of the comments, the fact that we are witnessing a dramatic shortage of software developers to take advantage of this technology. I think that part of the problem is the lack of imagination among parents and the suppression of imagination in children. If you’re looking for the data behind that claim, you can stop reading, the best I have is anecdotal evidence collected, well, by me. I have plenty of stories, but I’ll offer just one:
When my daughter was very young, we let her join a play-group after church service. It was a nice group, run by sweet well-intentioned women, but Faith didn’t like it. It seems when they were allowed to take a toy, Faith took the “stacking cups” and began to play with them as she did at home, where they were among her favorite toys. The woman in charge admonished her for “doing it wrong” – the cups were meant to be stacked or nested, nothing else. Faith knew how they worked, but would often stack those cups in inelegant ways, hide things under them or use them for support structures with blocks and other “building” toys. Years later, she dug them out of a toy box to use as trestle supports for her Lego Train.
We didn’t object to Faith breaking the rules because the rules seemed stupid. My parents had never been strict enforcers of the rules of play, whether I was using Army Men on a chess board, randomly assembling Erector Set components or using Chick Peas as ammo in my slingshot. My father seemed to enjoy it when we would think beyond the obvious, except when it came to tools; he was rather anal about the proper use of tools. I remember though that he encouraged us to read, frequently reminding us that “if you can read, you can do anything.” I remember when I asked him if I could take a computer programming course in summer school between 8th and 9th grade. It wasn’t going to be an easy thing to coordinate, but he said “it looks like computers will be important in your lifetime” and he made the arrangements. That was 1967, and I have worked with computers ever since. I was amazed that I could dial-into a computer at the University of Pittsburgh from our Junior High School. I couldn’t imagine then that one day I would be sitting in my family room with a more powerful computer on my lap, but I actually think my father could imagine that. He was a mailman, and he would tell people who would ask me if I wanted to be a mailman, that he didn’t think that people would still be walking/driving around delivering mail in the future.
As technology becomes more advanced and as science unlocks more mysteries, it becomes more important for parents to help keep their children’s minds open to endless possibilities. Parents need to demand more challenging activities in public schools, not just for the high school kids on the FIRST team, but for every child, as early as kindergarten. Stop checking off the boxes on the bucket list of today’s college application. Let your kids explore, experiment and play and prepare for the tomorrow that you can’t imagine is coming.
MS-DOS turned 30 today. I am old enough to remember when the popular saying was “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and although people are still fighting over who actually said that (Jerry Rubin or Jack Weinberg) it hardly matters. 30 is only a milestone until you’re 40. On the other hand, 1981 was a milestone year for me. I arrived in Hartford, CT from Seattle, WA a few days before DOS was born and I started working for Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co a few days after. I met my best friend, my barber and the woman who would eventually become my wife in the first hour of that first day of work. Perhaps leaving Seattle, just as Microsoft was learning to stand upright wasn’t the best career move I ever made, but I like the way my life has gone on the east coast. Suffice it to say, DOS, Microsoft and I have managed to share some time together.
What I stop and think about as DOS turns 30, is how less than five years out of college, a career path opened up for me that didn’t exist when I was a student. I was given the opportunity to learn something new that would form the basis for the remainder of my career (and I hadn’t yet reached the untrustworthy age of 30). All I had to do to get on that bandwagon was to learn something new. The scary thing about DOS’ 30th, isn’t that I remember DOS during its infancy, it’s that so many people my age ignored DOS and the PC it supported. I met a man two days ago, only slightly older than me who says he has never had a computer. I know many people who have computers but who understand them less well than they understand their DVR. I recently sat in a meeting at our local high school, where the administration was defending their decision to drop a basic computer skills class they had offered. It seems the State of CT dropped its meager 0.5 credit in technology graduation requirement, and the school can no longer justify retaining the only teacher they had who was certified to teach that class.
There are so many things wrong with that last run-on sentence that I get spun-up reading it as I try to make it shorter. How can anyone in state government think that exposure to technology shouldn’t be required? How could they ever have thought that 0.5 credit hours was enough exposure? How could there only be one teacher in 2011 who is certified to teach an Introduction to Technology class? Worse yet – at least for someone like myself who works in this industry – is that the course that they canceled was a review of Microsoft Office!
I took my first computer science course in summer school between 8th and 9th grade. We wrote exactly 2 programs: an algorithm to calculate the Square Root of a number and a program that called that algorithm as a function. The rest of the six weeks was spent learning about input, output, storage, communication, bits, bytes, and binary and hexadecimal math. Consider for yourself, how many of those concepts from more than 30 years ago, remain relevant in computer science today. That we would substitute a primer on a Word Processor and Baby’s First Spreadsheet as being equivalent to that summer school course is laughable.
Even worse than all of that, why is there no outrage over this decision? Are the parents in this town so unaware of technology to not see its impact on EVERY career? Are the students so impressed with their own ability to navigate Facebook and their Xbox that they feel they don’t need formal instruction? Is everybody happy being the user of technology, confident that in the future every technical thing will be as easy to use as their iPhone? Doesn’t anyone want to learn how to program their iPhone? Sigh… I am learning how to program my iPhone. When I think back on my summer school class, I was one of three students out of an eventual graduating class of 750+ that took that course. We were nerds, we remained nerds in high school and I would guess we all have nerdy careers. Maybe it’s only us nerds who are wishing DOS a happy 30th today and lamenting the fact that very few of our neighbors can even make a connection between the IBM PC and the technology they rely upon today. It is today, as it always has been, their loss. Happy Birthday DOS!