By Herb Bowie
I came across a couple of things recently that got me thinking about the value of technology education, and what that training should look like.
As an English major who gained his first job in Information Technology by taking an aptitude test given at a job interview – and then having to swear to my future boss that I wouldn’t quit in a few months to become an English teacher – I feel I may be qualified to add something to the conversation.
The first item that caught my attention was Kirk McElhearn’s blog post about “The Tech Industry’s Tunnel Vision about Coding and Language.”
McElhearn starts by quoting Apple CEO Tim Cook, repeating a statement that appeared in a recent article in The Guardian.
I think if you had to make a choice, it’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language. I know people who disagree with me on that. But coding is a global language; it’s the way you can converse with 7 billion people.
McElhearn proceeds to take exception to Mr. Cook’s statement, with comments like “Mr. Cook assumes that everyone in the world wants to become technical drones….”
And then, just to provoke my thoughts a little further, I came across this video satirizing a Millennial job interview.
All of these pieces make valuable points, but none of them exactly hit the nail on the head, so I thought I might take a whack at it myself.
When my father was growing up in the first half of the 20th century, he began to learn about mechanical things by working on the cars that he owned. And this was a good preparation for his career in mechanical engineering. And, of course, his experience was similar to those of many of his peers from that era.
Moving closer to our present day, though, this wouldn’t be an educational path I’d recommend for a whole lot of kids. Learning something about computer technology might be a bit more useful these days. And many households already have a computer available that can be used for software tinkering (whereas I would no longer recommend that children go out in the garage and attempt to work on the engines they’ll find in modern cars). And so I think Tim Cook gets his hammer closest to the nail on this one.
As Steve Jobs and Wayne Gretzky have both pointed out, you want to “skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
I think McElhearn gets closest to this one when he says “I’ve always felt that the most important advantage of learning a foreign language is that you learn that things can be different….”
And so here, while I feel sorry for the Millennial who thinks that a command of technology consists of knowing how to use Snapchat and Twitter, I feel as much pity for the bearded Boomer who thinks that the most important technology subjects to master are Excel and PowerPoint.
What McElhearn fails to recognize, though, is that learning how to build multiple technology products for yourself is akin to learning a foreign language or two. Learning how to use one programming language may be valuable in and of itself, but even more important is to learn a couple of different technology stacks, so you can begin to see how they are different, and how new ones might be built.
To quote Steve Jobs once again, you want kids to learn this important truth: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”
Yes, careers change over time, and people need to learn up-and-coming skills. And yes, computer technology is likely to be an important part of our future, and it’s important to learn that. But here’s one more Steve Jobs thought for you to mull over.
Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.
McElhearn comes closest here, talking about “…other elements needed in tech – art and design, empathy and understanding,” but I think he does not go far enough. For if you look at any of the notable successes in technology that have come about since the days of Microsoft Office – the iPhone, Wikipedia, Facebook, Craig’s List, Google, Twitter, Amazon, Uber – you will find that what people are building today – what young people need to know how to build in the future – are what I would call techno-cultural stacks. For when you look at any of these large and recent achievements, these are not just chunks of computer technology, but chunks of tech creatively combined with chunks of human culture – software engineering combined with social engineering – and just as they have succeeded by combining proven tech components with new and innovative bits, their success has been equally dependent on combining proven elements of human culture with new and novel ways for society to function.
And so, if we want our children to succeed in the future – to grow up to be creative contributors and not just “drones” – we should give them a broad understanding of technology, but also a broad understanding of human culture.
So how’d I do applying these lessons to the education of my own son?
Well, he was going to elementary and middle school back in Apple’s darkest days, when schools and parents were arguing that children should be given PCs and not Macs, because when they grew up they would need to know how to use Windows, Excel and PowerPoint in order to survive in the business world.
My own son’s first computer, I’m proud to say, was a Bondi Blue iMac. He did end up learning Excel and PowerPoint before learning to code, despite my best efforts to influence him. But he got that solid grounding in the humanities at the University of Michigan’s school of Literature, Science & the Arts, and today he is both happily and gainfully employed working for a young tech company in Chicago, and when he goes to work every morning he finds waiting for him a Mac that he uses for coding in Python and SQL, with nary a copy of Excel in sight.
So I’m going to count this as a win.