Thursday, July 15, 2010

The value of an education

For some reason Americans seem to believe education is something people receive. People go to college to "receive an education". This implies that students are simply receptacles. The professor opens up their heads and drops knowledge in, then sews them back up. This worries me when I'm looking at the quality of the young people entering the computer science field today, because while they've had exposure to a lot of technology, by and large it's been as users, not as participants. The actual technology is something they don't even think about -- it's transparent, just a part of their world, not something they actually see and think about.

The problem is that education isn't something you receive. Education is something you do. I graduated from a middle-tier university. Which means nothing at all, actually, because I knew my **** when I left there, I'd actually designed bit-slice CPU's and microcode for them and built hardware and written programs in microprocessor assembly language *for fun* while the guy across the street with the 4.0 GPA knew nothing except what was on the test, I mean, he'd been writing software on Unix minicomputers for four years and he didn't even know what 'nroff' was or that he was using Unix! So yeah, it's all about what use you make of the experience. I spent as much time in professor's offices talking about my latest projects as I spent studying, which hurt my GPA, but (shrug). I'm still employed in the computer field today. The guy across the street? Nope.

That is one reason why Open Source is exciting to me, and why people who have a background in the Open Source community interest me far more than people who have a 4.0 average from Big Name University. I'm looking for doers, not regurgitators. What gets software shoved over the transom isn't the ability to memorize what's going to be on tests, it's what, for lack of a better term, I call "get'r'done". The problem I see is that the technology has become so capable, so complex, so difficult to grasp, that the number of people who could learn the basics of some simple technology like a Commodore 64 then build up to writing significant Linux kernel subsystems has basically slowed to a dribble. Simple and relatively open technology like the Commodore 64 where you could grasp the entire design all by your lonesome (the programming manual came with a schematic of the computer in it!) simply doesn't exist anymore. For good reason in most cases, today's computers have far better functionality, but how are we going to get the people with the "big picture" today when there's no "little picture" like a Commodore 64 to build up from?

So anyhow: That's a problem. It's a problem I find with a lot of the younger software engineers. I've managed some very bright youngsters, but that lack of what I'll call big picture thinking hinders them greatly. They simply don't understand why a busy loop waiting for input is not acceptable unless there is no alternative and why it should have a timer to put the process to sleep between samples, or what the hardware looks like and how to program the front panel that's driven by a PIC processor. They're like ferrets, it's all "oooh, shiney!" to them, with no rhyme or reason or understanding of what's actually happening under the surface. And I have no idea at all what's going to happen when all us older farts get put out to pasture either via corporate executives calling us "too old and expensive" or simply getting too tired and retired... there just isn't enough of the young folks who have the slightest clue. Not that we were the majority even when I was 21, but at least there was a sizable number who *did* have a clue then... and you can find a lot of their names looking at the early Linux kernel patch sets. But even the Linux kernel crowd is graying today... and what happens when we're no longer around, given that the number of young people today who understand technology at the same comprehensive level we do -- or that we did at age 21 -- is essentially zero?


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