Monday, April 30, 2012

Address the great engineering shortage of 2012 by promoting calligraphy (or something like it)

I ran across an interesting argument that was sabotaged by a really bad example.

Mari Thomas was among those who shared a TechCrunch post by Jon Bischke. The title of the post? "They Ain’t Making Any More of Them: The Great Engineering Shortage of 2012."

This is one of those posts that you'll see in tech publications that talk about the United States' need for engineers. These posts usually talk about modifying the foreign visa requirements or modifying the American educational system. Bischke looks at the latter, and quotes from Alex Tabarrok:

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

So what wisdom does Bischke derive from this information?

We are raising a generation of American Idols and So You Think You Can Dancers when what we really need is a generation of Gateses and Zuckerbergs.

And with that one sentence, Bischke pretty much invalidated every single thought in his post about engineering education.

Why? Because the underlying thought behind the sentence is that college students, instead of majoring in the visual and performing arts, should instead major in computer science.

But let's look at the two examples he cited. What type of degree did Bill Gates earn?

Um...he never graduated from college.

What type of degree did Mark Zuckerberg earn?

Um...he never graduated from college.

Let's throw a third name in there. What type of degree did Steve Jobs earn?

Um...he never graduated from college.

Now all three of these people went to college, and derived some knowledge out of college. But they all left before they got that college degree that everyone is talking about so much.

Why? Because they wanted to "make stuff" - something that Tom Scott discussed recently (see the postscript to this Empoprise-BI post).

If Gates, Zuckerberg, and Jobs had graduated, they could have gotten their degrees in computer science or physics or interpretive dance or even (horrors) economics. Wouldn't have made a bit of difference.

Actually, the stuff that you study in college can make a huge difference. Steve Jobs didn't spend a lot of time at Reed College, but he did learn one thing at Reed that literally changed the world of computing forever, shaping the destiny of not only Apple but also Microsoft and just about every other computer company out there.

So what am I talking about? Pascal programming? Reed's nuclear reactor? Laser experimentation?

Nope. I'm talking about something that I blogged about last August, just before Steve Jobs passed away. At the time, a lot of people were understandably drawn to Jobs' 2005 speech at Stanford University - a speech that I blogged about in 2006 - and in that speech Jobs talked about one thing that he learned about at Reed College.

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

So don't come arguing that we're going to produce the next Jobs, Gates, or Zuckerberg by increasing the number of college graduates in the hard sciences. Perhaps you can get some skilled people who can crank out code for you, but you're not going to get a Jobs, Gates, or Zuckerberg.

And before you start slamming the irrelevance of "So You Think You Can Dance" and those types of shows, don't forget this dancer:

He travels the world, dances on TV, tinkers with hardware—oh, and designed the Apple I & II personal computers. Steve Wozniak answers our questions and shares his hacker-ish means of getting things done.

Now unlike Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg, Steve Wozniak actually has a degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences...which he completed in 1986. Needless to say, his lack of a degree didn't hinder him in the preceding years.
blog comments powered by Disqus