UK classes killing kids’ interest in tech

So says The Register.

It’s been my experience that most of the nerd-for-pay careers they highlight in school can be incredibly boring. The world of IT is so incredibly vast that it is hard to gain exposure to all of it in high school or university.

When I was a wee tadpole our school computing classes were light years behind the times. They taught us how to use old, blue-screened, DOS-based WordPerfect at a time when more intuitive GUIs like MS Word (at that time, Word for Windows) had already gained prominence.

Later they put us to sleep with lectures on Alan Turing and focused heavily on programming—which was fine if one wanted to be buried in code for the rest of his or her life. We were taught to program in Pascal, a language which gets almost entirely jettisoned in post-secondary education in favour of those more widely used in defense and commercial applications. It’s like being required to learn French, only to find out you really needed to learn Japanese.

Back then they didn’t even bother to teach the things I would have wanted to learn—such as network architecture and theory. Most of the interesting and commercially useful IT skills I have are a result of a company paying to send me on expensive, hundred-thousand-dollar courses which your average high school student simply will not be able to afford.

The most intellectually rewarding work I have done revolves around building and optimising server and network architectures. Taking a bunch of requirements and turning them into a working, smoothly-functioning system that has enough juice to do what the client wants today, has room to grow for tomorrow, and is as automated as possible to avoid boring, repetitive tasks for the maintainers. To see a system like that in action, the offspring of your own ingenuity and reasoning, that’s fun.

The downside of the trade is that you occasionally get hired to merely maintain (and not rebuild) somebody else’s broken-down architecture. One should stay far, far away from those kinds of engagements, even if they are extremely well-paid. It’s like being a plumber who is paid to apply a daily patch of duct-tape to a leaky pipe, but you’re not allowed to rip out the damaged pipe and replace it. It might be lucrative but it doesn’t teach you anything new, and your skills atrophy.

In later years I got to figure out how to integrate wireless devices and applications with the corporate mail and application platforms. That too is fascinating during the conceptual and construction phases, but not so much fun if you’re merely maintaining something already built. In that field of endeavour, be prepared to be disappointed often.

Companies will buy these wonderful toys for executives, who will use them as fancy day-timers. Unless you are extremely lucky, most will not bother to put the money into the best possible investment—developing full-blown integration with mission-critical backend applications; which would allow line staff in the field to perform all the core functions of their job on a BlackBerry or an iPhone without ever having to crack open a laptop. Mobile workers in most companies would love that capability, but most companies never get out of the email-plus-day-timer mentality. Most never develop their desktop mail applications into full-blown workflow tools either, even though the framework has been there (from multiple platforms and vendors!) for at least fifteen years. They balk at spending a couple million on things that will save them hundreds of millions over the lifetime of the system.

The other fun stuff I learned as a youngster was, to be blunt, mostly a result of ill-gotten gains. Pirating software, teaching myself to use it, and then seeing what I could do with it. Most of the fun graphics you see on this webpage are there because twenty years ago I nicked copies of CorelDRAW and Adobe Photoshop using a slow modem (though it was high speed, for the time) and built pointless—but pretty—web pages on local ISPs (and, of course, GeoCities).

If you’d asked me then if I wanted to spend a career designing websites, I would have said no, because sites of the time were mostly dull, blue-hyperlink-on-grey background affairs. I was the kind of guy that wanted to cram it full of tasteful, arresting (but bandwidth-appropriate) imagery. To craft a brand, as it were.

Few companies had even heard of the World Wide Web, and those that knew of it did not consider it vital that they establish any kind of presence there. I can still remember the CIO of Canadian Tire telling me in 1995 that they saw no future in the web and no point in giving employees email addresses. They had other priorities at the time, most notably building hundreds of new stores and improving their logistics chain so as to be able to compete with Wal-Mart. Their priorities were correct, but it was only a year or two later when the Tire did actually start thinking seriously about the Web.

In the grand scheme of things, schools are going to focus on what educators and trustees feel are the most commercially viable skills. This does not necessarily correlate with what students will find interesting or appealing. And most businesses will be five to ten years behind the truly interesting trends and ideas. If you want to find out about the truly interesting junk today, you’ll probably have to do it the way we did back then; hang around in IRC and listservs where nerds congregate.

But I can guarantee you’re not going to find out about it in school.

Category: Web/Tech
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
One Response
  1. Nathan B. says:

    A great post. Your technical skills, on which you’ve built a career, dwarf mine, but my experience of school was similar. I enjoyed programming in BASIC on Apple IIs in junior high school, but my grade 11 course in Pascal was boring as hell–and I don’t think I really “got” anything from it, aside from a decent grade.

    Just before I moved to Korea two years after finishing my M.A., I learned bits of (X)HTML from writing comments with bold, underlined, and italics effects on a very popular blog that I am now embarrassed to have followed. Later, I started my own blog on Blogger when much that is now done visually had to be hand-coded. Still later, I moved to WordPress, and now I can tinker with things enough to do what I have done on my two current blogs.

    I’ve always enjoyed learning new skills, from replacing my own internal hard drive myself,* to choosing a decent computer, to tinkering with php to produce effects that I wanted, but I don’t have the time that I would like to devote to it.

    *As a non-technical person who is not at all good with his hands, this gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction!