Why Johnny is not a Tech

Nick Corcodilos, "Ask the Headhunter" is one of my favorite IT pundits;  he’s an executive recruiter who loves to puncture the job-hunting myths I suffered through early in my career.  You know the ones, "send resumes everywhere" (now, "live on Monster.com"), have the "right" resume, and the "right" answers.

He had a great blog post a few months ago that I’m just now getting to, Why Johnny doesn’t work.  He asks:

The dominant explanation for why students aren’t graduating with technical degrees is H-1B and outsourcing. It goes like this: Because American companies send technical jobs overseas, and because they hire foreign nationals under the H-1B visa program, (both supposedly at lower cost than hiring Americans), students regard technical careers (in electronics engineering, software development, information technology) as undesirable. They believe they won’t get healthy salaries or enjoy any reasonable job security. They may be right.

But I see another trend that’s far more disturbing than the behavior of companies and students. K-12 schools seem to be de-emphasizing the fundamentals of technology. They seem to be teaching kids how to be technology consumers rather than designers. A case in point is my local school district, which recently spent over $30M to build a state-of-the-art middle school. Every classroom is wired for sound, video, and computers. Every teacher has a laptop, and big LCD displays dot the facility. The auditorium is state-of-the-art; the soundboard alone blows away what you’d find in most commercial theaters. The school is equipped with a video production facility that kids use to produce what’s described as professional-quality videos. The computer lab lets kids use sound samples to produce their own music CD’s. It’s all really great.

The trouble is, no one is teaching the kids how all this technology works, and how they can build their own.

I grew up reading.  When I got my first jack-in-the-box, I took it apart.  (Mom wasn’t happy…then!)  I played with electronic stuff from an early age.  I read the old Lafayette and Radio Shack catalogs and I was fascinated!  I could tell you how a TV worked when I was in fourth grade.  During college, I had a very tiny side business taking TV’s and electronics from dumpsters and fixing them for family and friends.

A lot of people like me, in my generation, went into IT through their fascination with electronics and computers.  Like Nick, I’ve seen people become mere consumers of technology and I’m worried.

A story from SATV:  We have three rack-mount Windows 2000 machines that handle our entire on-air operation;  one machine is the master machine with the database and Channel 16 display (Government channel), and the other two handle the displays for Channel 3 (Public Access) and Channel 15 (Education).

One day, during a routine Windows update, Channel 3 went down, and very hard.  The CPU fan would not spin up, even after it was swapped for a known good one.  We pouted on that one for a day, waiting to hear from the vendor’s tech support (they were turnkey systems.)

Next day, I have a bright idea.  A few years ago when those systems were new, we had one we thought was unstable due to hardware (it turned out to be a Windows bug, another story).  We got a replacement machine but never returned the old machine for some reason.

Why not use the old machine?  I took the hard drive from the dead machine and swapped it into the old, supposedly unstable machine.

It worked.  It ran for many hours.  Success!  If I had had that idea the day before…

The fun came when we explained this to the vendor!  The poor tech support guy was floored when Sal, our executive director, explained everything that transpired.  He just could not conceive of someone doing what I did to get a machine going.  We asked him to check with his boss–the vendor has a long, involved, but mostly pleasant history with us.  His boss called us back, "Oh, it’s SATV, I know all about you!"  (We’re trading in those systems towards a forklift upgrade from them including a video server so this’ll be all out in the wash soon.)

Even in the computer industry, most people don’t seem to realize computers are made up of components.  Even Macs.  The modern education that Nick talks about seems to make kids incurious.  Why do you need to know how your iPod works?  The Chinese will make more!  They can handle the science and engineering, don’t worry about science, just buy stuff!

One commenter on Nick’s post made me think of an even sadder example:

Third, technology has radically changed the methods of “making stuff.” If you want a state-of-the art shop, it better have a CNC mill, laser cutter, and CAD workstations. I experienced this kind of obsolecense first-hand in high school. I was on the school newspaper, and spent two years learning all the skills of offset printing: photo screening, making full-size (11×17 inch) negatives of page folios, burning printing plates, and running the offset press. Then the district office bought an 11×17 photocopy machine. In that instant, all that equipment and skills were worthless. But our time from layout to finished product went from 3 days to 2 hours, and at lower cost.

A few years ago, I volunteered to be the technical person for the Salem Commission on Disabilities (before I joined them).  There was a contest among elementary school students to design a logo for the Commission and a winning logo was picked.  Now we needed to get that on our letterhead.

I had volunteered to scan the logo in on my computer, but the commissioners were adamant that it be done "professionally" and several of us went to someone we knew at North Shore Vocational Technical School;  this guy was teaching the graphics arts class.

We met the guy and asked if they had a high-end scanner.  He did not.  It was all film and plates.  This was only a few years ago, and by then, digital press was very well established;  I’d attended enough Seybold trade shows to see that.   Digital press should have been available even at that school’s budget, and I was very sad for him and his students.

In the end I scanned it myself and the results were good enough.  If that teacher, or more likely, his department head had just been more curious, his students would not have been sent out dead on arrival in obsolete technologies.

Don’t fear.  If you’re a student all you need to do is get your MBA or law degree, Make Money and Make Deals!  Engineering, science and curiosity is for the Indians and the Chinese.

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