On College and its relevance in the current tech industry

A friend recently asked the question, does a college degree still matter? What do you think? Does it? My answer was quite vague and ambiguous, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. There’s a reason a friend of mine decided I was the chief editor of Vague Magazine. Not because I don’t elaborate or expand, people who know me know this as well. Because questions like that are too complex for a concise, one sentence or 140 character response.

Does a college degree still matter?

“It depends.”

The consensus among those she was talking to when the question came up was, “maybe”, but maybe implies uncertainty on if it will matter when you finish, and I don’t think that’s the case. I think it depends not on the circumstances of life, but to how you approach college, what you put into college, what you get out of college, and what you do with it. It matters still, but it depends on you, not on whether others value you having done it.

This article, while mostly just my musings, is also a response to the following two articles:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-college-can-teach-the-aspiring-entrepreneur-1414965300

http://sarahbrownmarketing.com/2014/05/06/how-liberal-arts-college-prepares-you-to-work-for-startups/

Both are from different perspectives, different contexts. I present a third, through my eyes in Information Technology, System Administration, and Content Delivery, in both the public and private sectors, from tech startups, small businesses, and large corporate environments. And also some history and context of what college education has been and meant in the past.

Through much of history, even when there was formal education available, it mattered for what was learned, not the credentials. The first universities in Europe did not begin as general educational institutes, they began to confront ignorance among priests, to train the clergy, and to bring understanding to what was done and taught. The goal was a clergy that understood the Latin they were speaking to their congregations, to understand the meaning and church stances on the scriptures and various doctrines, and to read and write. To state it simple, universities were designed to educate, not stamp approval.

Look through history from that point forward.

The university in Paris, one of the first such, was founded sometime in the 1100’s, though formally established by the Church around 1200. It was already well established by that time, and a number of prominent church officials and at least one Pope had already been trained there before the official establishment in 1200. While theology was the reason the Church found it important, there were also art, medicine, and law faculties. As this university grew and other ones formed through the centuries between then and now, you will consistently find the universities mentioned in relation to innovation and new ideas, free thinking and rebellion, and leaders and influencers forming. When you educate people, they are introduced to ideas new to them, and new ideas make for a wider point of view and world view.

This means you are more likely to come to innovative or progressive ideas. Anyone who has worked with data in a computer science or statistical context knows that the more diverse and wide the data set, the more information can be pulled from it using the right algrithms or processing. Adding data doesn’t necessarily give you anything, because more noice does not create information. But analysis and ordering of the data does. The university system can provide not just more data, but an understanding of how to analyze it, how to turn it into information. Information can then be used to make decisions and to develop new ideas and processes. Literally, information means the act of informing. This flows both ways. Processing the data learned in college into information is the act of informing yourself from the raw data, and also is the act of using the result to inform your decisions. This is where the new ideas and innovations from the college system comes from, not from the institutionalized structure.

But if you can analyze facts and data provided in classes or other controlled sources, if you apply what you learned about analysis to the outside data, the things you see and hear and experience every day, and to the choices made by educators in what data they provide, you begin to realize what you’re being told, whether by educators, by politicians, by religious figures, by activists, by anyone, is not the whole picture. This is where the free thinking and rebellion comes in, and why we see the activists and rebels of the previous generation fairly constantly trying to restrict and squash new ideas in the next. Jeffrey Russell referred to this dynamic as the struggle between prophecy and order, with each “prophetic” movement becoming the established order in the next cycle, and a new group with a prophetic message rising to speak against that new order.

And this doesn’t just relate to religion and politics and the like. You see the same in technology. There’s a reason companies like Apple and Microsoft go up against younger tech companies that are doing the same thing they were at their conception. The tech market is by nature one driven by innovation and new ideas, yet innovation and new ideas are unpredictible. Business is easier to run with known facts and limits to unpredictable factors. When you’re doing something new out of a garage like Jobs and Wozniak, or are a tech startup in Silicon Valley, New York City, or Boulder, you are driven by innovation and new ideas. When you are successful enough to focus more on quarterly profit and sustainable revenue, innovation and new ideas, unless it’s controlled and restricted, with clear boundaries, becomes a threat rather than the fuel to your success.

Free thinking and rebellion often lead to new leaders and people who have great influence. This is because the less you accept and don’t question, either due to not enough data or information, or due to no ability to analyze and dissect what you do have, the more likely you are to be a follower, listening to the leaders. There isn’t inherently anything wrong with being a follower, but for a new leader to appear in any field or context, someone either needs to decide not to be a follower, or be pushing into it by someone who sees that person’s potential. You don’t choose not to follow, nor see a leader in someone else, without the ability to look past the current state of things, to analyze and process the data and information. Stopping being a follower is inherently rebellion, though context determines if others see it as bad rebellion. Rebellion and free thinking is needed in order to become a leader, and in order to lead.

Not all leaders lead from the front. A leader can also be the one who influences, the one who has the ideas that make something happen. In the context of the Russian Revolution and the years that followed, were Lenin or Stalin a leader? Both. Lenin lead with spoken words and ideas, influencing the hearts and minds of the people. His ability to lead on a strategic or logistic basis was much lacking, but he inspired people who could. Stalin was not one to inspire people and influence them with words and ideas, he lead by force, and was a powerful strategist and tactician. The strategic and logistical leadership was much more his comfort zone, so to speak. It should be noted that Lenin attended Kazan University and got involved in radical activism and the things that lead to the Revolution while he was there. Stalin attended an Orthodox religious seminary. Both were educated men.

It is a recent development for a college degree in and of itself to lead to employment and a successful career. And a short lived development. The argument on whether college is still important usually falls to a discussion of whether the degree will get you a job, or a higher paying job, on the credentials, not on what you learned.

Information Technology, Content Delivery, Software Development, and the rest of the High Tech Industry are odd places, as any who have worked in this industry can tell you. I have been working in the field for eighteen years now, no small time, especially when you realize that means since 1996, half my lifetime ago, and that private sector access to the Internet didn’t begin until the late 1980s. But many in the industry have been working in it since before I was born. Things change over time, but not as much as we think, and only in certain ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, people looking to hire people in this industry were looking either at people with mathematic or scientific backgrounds, or to electricians and other trade type workers. And often, just for someone who actually knew how to program or be a comptroller, regardless of education or background. Computer science college programs weren’t what they are now, or even what they were when I went to college.

But did that change? In some ways. But I’ll point to a friend who graduated from the University of Wyoming with a philosophy degree, a bachelor’s. Worthless degree, right? Never get a well paying job, right? Straight out of college he got a tech job paying $50K a year. Decent beginning job I’d say. In tech. With a philosophy degree. You might ask, well, that’s just proof a college degree no longer matters like it did a decade or two ago, right? This was in the mid to late 90s, two decades ago. Was his degree useless, as credentials, especially going into tech and having a degree in philosophy? No, actually. He got the interview because he had a college degree, they didn’t care what it was in. And it was entry level, so the lack of experience didn’t matter. The degree, the credentials, did its job, it got him the interview. What got him the job was reading a book on video streaming the night before, retaining it, and learning what it could teach him. That’s what college should teach, beyond data, beyond information. It should teach you how to learn, how to analyze and question, how to ask the right questions, how to think about things in a way you can gain from that thought.

I graduated half a decade later from the same university, over a decade ago now. My degree was in fact a computer degree, a bachelor in Computer Science. But does a computer degree always mean a relevant degree? Definitely not. Most of my in-degree college classes were programming classes or math classes, and most of my electives were medieval history or religious studies classes, because such things interested me. For math classes, if it hadn’t been for the requirement that math credits for minors can’t be ones required for the major, I would have had a math minor, but a dual major would have been easier with that requirement. And as I said, the rest were programming classes, except for a very small number of systems related classes.

How much have I used the math and programming skills I learned? Almost none. I very small amount. The amount of time I spent in programming classes verses systems classes is roughly inverse from the amount I’ve done in those areas in my career so far. The program was designed to train developers, not systems people. My classes haven’t been that much more relevant to my career than my friend’s philosophy degree.

What I did learn was how to research what I didn’t know, how to analyze and think critically, how to troubleshoot and problem solve, and how to look outside the box when you hit a roadblock. These skills are what college taught me, and what I use every day in and outside my job. I could completely change careers to something far afield from the tech industry, and, guess what, I could still use the same skills.

I got out of college what I needed from college. The rest was just paperwork, busywork, fun, and icing. And not everyone in the same classes I took learned this things. Especially those who approached college as a place to learn facts and data, and never moved past that, and of course those that approached college as a long ongoing party.

All this goes for any education or training, not just college. Be it a trade school, a weekend or week long training class, a pre-recorded corporate training class, a how to book, or a YouTube video showing how to do things. It isn’t the content or how it is presented that is most important, nor the certificate, certification, license, diploma, or checkbox it meets, though all those things might have importance and might mean the difference in getting or keeping a job. What matters is what you put into it, and, the direct result of that, what you get out of it. And the next step, what will you do with it?

So, does college still matter? It depends. It depends what you put into it and what you get out of it.

Many jobs, for someone determined enough with enough effort and time, could be done by someone with no formal education. And many who have college degrees, even relevant college degrees, wouldn’t be able to do as well as that self taught person. There are exceptions, of course, in the medical industry for instance, but in the tech industry, not so much.

A college degree isn’t necessary to succeed. People like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have proved that. But note that both made it into Harvard and spent some time there before leaving to leave their mark. Just like Lenin did. Just like many figures in history who have changed the world.

This interview might be interesting to some, in this context:

A college degree isn’t necessary to succeed, but the skills one can learn in college, if one approaches it right and pays attention and puts in the effort, those skills are necessary, and more easily learned there than elsewhere.

And I’m only talking from a technical point of view here. The social skills are equally important even in the tech industry. There are many benefits to college beyond the rubber stamp of the deploma.

So, does college still matter? It depends. It depends on you.

~Bethany Davis
Caer Illandria Enterprises

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