[FoRK] Re: Confessions of an Engineering Washout

Ian Andrew Bell FoRK fork
Tue Oct 11 11:14:45 PDT 2005

I was a kid who, after my parents refused to let my school advance me  
two grades, slalomed all through high school doing exactly the  
minimum required to get my A grades -- which wasn't much.  In the  
after hours I pursued computing and software development (and more  
nefarious interests) in my parents' basement, exploring and learning  
at exactly my own pace -- learning how to do something only because I  
needed to accomplish an objective.  Somehow at the end of it all I  
had learned how to write software.

When I got to Simon Fraser University a lot of my friends were geeks  
and I took some computing courses but found them to be strangely  
abstract.  In the early courses they also contained no "fourth  
estate" -- no detailed analysis of the impacts and influences of the  
work, no exploration of the technology, and no sense of play.  In  
essence, SFU's Computing Science school was a coder factory; which  
appeared to crank out an annual graduate list of factory workers.

I continued to take lower-level computing courses to boost my GPA as  
I pursued far more challenging and esoteric fields like Political  
Science, English Literature, History, and Communications.  The latter  
in particular had everything that computing science lacked -- and  
indulged my desire to be hands on and to demonstrate theories and  
ideas.  The Liberal Arts surely required less physical, hands-on  
work.  And from an educational standpoint you could surely have had  
it easy and skated through like I did high school.  But if you  
challenged yourself, pursued high concepts, argued difficult  
concepts, and pursued primary research you could come out of the  
place actually having learned something that goes far beyond who won  
the Battle of Hastings (William the Conqueror) by exploring WHY he  
won (the theory of Combined Arms).  Liberal Arts gets a bad rap  
because it is possible to scrape through without having done much,  
but that's not the preferred option for many of us.

My fear was (and this has been confirmed through the experiences of  
others) that I would hit burnout at a very early stage in my career  
because my education milked all of the real stimulation out of the  
exercise of creation (that is, software development).  At one point,  
by continuing to explore at my own pace, I was a credible software  
guy with a broad body of knowledge who could conjure and create stuff  
without assistance.  My current regret is that that is no longer the  
case, yet I'm still a pretty good contributor at my current level and  
the lessons I learned on my own will always be generally applicable  
to software and technologies that I work with (though the practical  
skills aren't).

Ideally in my case, Computing Science would have humanized their  
learning process and the core material.  Treating software  
development training like a linguistics course hierarchy was probably  
the major failing of that department, and as a result they turned  
away people like me in favour of cranking out a generation of  
faceless hordes of thoughtless, non-reflective Powerpoint-to-C++  
conversion engines.

Since many of us graduate from software development to product  
management, the executive level, or entrepreneurship anyway,  
abstracting ourselves from the process of actually coding, baking  
that understanding and reflection into us at an early stage seems to  
make sense.  There will always be off-shoring and warehouses filled  
with an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of  
typewriters (see Nietzsche) cranking out code.  If a society is to  
create a competitive advantage over those then they need to crank out  
coders who can think constructively, create, catalyze and  
instantiate.  Da Vinci was neither a particularly good engineer, nor  
was he a great artist -- it was the combination of those two skills  
that set him apart and, when combined with an explorative mind and a  
broad understanding of earth sciences, made him a brilliant  
conceptual inventor.

These days, there will be a thousand code monkeys to a single Da  
Vinci.  But even at a ratio of 1:10000 it is a far better investment  
of a society's collective wealth to produce the latter over the  
former (read "Running Money" to understand why) given the rest of the  
world's propensity to chase down the low-hanging fruit.   
Unfortunately, the ITU and IETF seem to be vastly populated by  
monkeys and a very short list of Da Vincis (many of whom are on this  
list) -- a likely explanation for why many of the standards emerging  
from those bodies are so riddled with opportunity for misuse and  
crippled by inadequacies.  Nobody asked WHY or HOW, because they  
didn't have the tools to do so.  By then it's much too late to start  
learning those skills for the first time.


On 11-Oct-05, at 10:09 AM, Justin Mason wrote:

> Hash: SHA1
> Totally agreed about the true story behind that screed.   It reads  
> even
> better as a tale of a smug kid with an overweening sense of
> pre-entitlement, encountering a level where he'd actually have to  
> do some
> work, and being unable to cope.  Some choice lines:
>   'Remember: Kern = real good at math and science.'
>   'I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong. She was as  
> American as I
>   am. Spoke perfect colloquial English.'
> These are the kids who threaten to sue my UCI TA friends, when they're
> caught cheating.
> Hmmm... I wonder how he thinks an engineering degree is taught in  
> China!

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