For those who have read the story of Bill Gates, we can begin to connect the dots to see how his technology education during his formative years helped create the right boundary conditions for Microsoft to launch, grow and make a meaningful impact globally. However, his educational journey was not simply because of money. Instead, Bill Gates learned to build with technology in an ideal way for that given time period.
Increasingly, programs are seeking to replicate Bill Gates and other technologists formative years without fully considering that the environment is completely different than when these pioneers were just getting started.
In fact, we find ourselves within a world that requires solutions to difficult problems that can’t simply be executed with programming knowledge alone. Success going forward will require generalist problem solving focus within the technology domain.
Coding is too limited
Technology skill development is an element that more and more parents would like integrated into their kids education. In fact, more than 90% of parents believe schools should offer this opportunity. To accommodate parents desires, many programs have developed a laser focus on coding.
When Bill Gates was coming of age, simply learning about programming would have been acceptable as the industry was just beginning to understand how to give machines a simple set of instructions that could be executed repeatedly.
In fact, the big insight of Microsoft is that there needed to be an easy to use operating system that would allow users to gain the efficiency benefits from computers. As Gates and his team learned and refined, they realized that the same way they simplified the operating system; they could also simplify word-processing (Word), spreadsheets (Excel) and internet browsing (Explorer).
Since that time, technology has continued to evolve and expand. We now understand that user interfaces and experiences are a key and necessary component of technology. In addition, we know that database design and structure impacts how quickly information may be accessed. And, this speed or lack thereof directly influences customer satisfaction.
Despite the rapid evolution of technology, most programs are still reverting to teaching specific languages like Bill Gates would have learned decades ago. This outdated approach will not best serve the next generation.
Instead, they need to have a working knowledge of all aspects of technology. From design to programming and everything in between; this expansive approach will best serve the next generation to take what the pioneers of technology built and improve upon it.
Build to learn
Often we get so focused on near term outcomes that we ignore the key steps needed to be successful over time. While it might be useful for your child to build a website or mobile app that she sells to Microsoft for millions of dollars, that short term goal may inhibit her from being a great technologist in the future.
The industry is filled with people who are trying to build the next best thing. Through small iterations and slight evolutions, they want to immediately monetize versus creating long term value.
Although it would be great to become a millionaire in middle school, high school or even college, the best likelihood for success is to build something people want. And, the proven path to building stuff that is wanted is to create an initial version and then refine/iterate based on customer feedback over time.
By shifting the focus from building to monetize to building to learn, you actually increase your likelihood of ultimate success. The structure of technology enables a large group of users to be served by new innovations. And, to grow a user base requires appealing and satisfying these users over a period of time.
While there are always going to be anomalies where someone launches a mobile application that immediately gets traction (these are the stories that will most often be written), it is more likely that if an emerging technologist builds something that people want and is able to maintain a user base over a period of time then that is where the true reward comes from.
Don’t specialize too soon
While learning specific languages may be useful, that may not prepare students for a future where new languages and specializations will be important. Although it is impossible to know exactly which languages are going to be most helpful for solving the difficult problems of the future, what we do know is that without an ability to learn, unlearn and relearn; it will be impossible for the next generation to be competitive over the long term.
In sports, we see a similar phenomenon. For prior generations, kids would play sports (soccer, baseball) on a seasonal basis. Now, we see kids specialize very early and then once the playing season is over, they practice until the next season starts. Emerging research is starting to show that because of the early specialization, the next generation is showing increased rates of injury and playing the equivalent of a decade before they ever reach the professional ranks (for those who are so fortunate).
Beyond the potential to hurt themselves by putting in so many hours, they are missing out on the opportunity to develop overlapping skills. For example, Kobe Bryant highlights the reason why his basketball footwork was so great is because he learned to move his feet by playing soccer.
Similarly for students who may choose to focus on programming or design or robotics early could miss out on the overlapping skill benefits that comes from developing skills across the technology domain. While this can be initially harder to push through an area that he may not be good. If he is able to overcome failure and challenges, ultimately those who have strong generalist skills are going to be best prepared for a wide variety of technical challenges.
Many great technologists had amazing educational journeys. However, we need to see their development within the appropriate context. How Bill Gates learned to build with technology was absolutely essential for the time that he as well as the broader industry was coming of age. For the next generation, the stakes have been raised and much more generalist skill development is required to be successful going forward. If we limit our kids to a narrow area of technology, coding, then we forestall their future potential for success. Instead, lets recognize that within our current environment, the challenges are great and the knowledge of technology has grown considerably. To prepare our kids to build the game changing solutions of tomorrow requires both a breadth and depth of creative problems solving skills within the domain of technology.