Tuesday, November 01, 2011

"If Only Everybody Were Like Bill Gates and Me"

Under the headline, "Will Dropouts Save America?", Michael Ellsberg suggests that college is overrated.
I typed these words on a computer designed by Apple, co-founded by the college dropout Steve Jobs. The program I used to write it was created by Microsoft, started by the college dropouts Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

And as soon as it is published, I will share it with my friends via Twitter, co-founded by the college dropouts Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams and Biz Stone, and Facebook — invented, among others, by the college dropouts Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, and nurtured by the degreeless Sean Parker.
Ellsberg complains,
American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians. It is also good at producing professionals with degrees. But we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. America has a shortage of job creators. And the people who create jobs aren’t traditional professionals, but start-up entrepreneurs.
I'm all for having schools teach kids to be more entrepreneurial, and to prepare themselves for a more complex job market in which there will likely be a rising expectation that top performers will stay at the top of their game throughout their careers. But let's be honest. Most people aren't interested in starting businesses, working slavishly around the clock during a building phase, postponing reward and risking failure. Most people are content with 9-5 and a salary. It's true, as Ellsberg argues, that K-12 education (and, for that matter, college education), including business school, does little to teach "skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business". Historically, though, there was no reason to believe that employers wanted those skills taught - to the contrary, the basic structure of K-12 education is designed to turn out quiet, compliant, orderly factory workers who can sit in rows for hour after hour and quietly follow instructions.

It is also fair to note that if you met Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or no doubt most or all of the other people Ellsberg mentions, back when they were thirteen years old you would have noticed that they were different from their peers. At thirteen, Jobs was corresponding with David Packard, head of HP, to try to get free computer parts and was sufficiently impressive that he got both the parts and a job. Mark Zuckerberg's interest and aptitude in programming was sufficiently manifest by the time he was eleven years old that his parents hired a tutor for him. As high schoolers, Bill Gates and Paul Allen started a company that ultimately built and sold a computer to the City of Seattle to count vehicles. If you find a kid like Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg, you have a decent chance of turning that kid into a high-performing member of the tech world. But if you find a kid who is not like Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg, while you might be able to shape him for a different field or career, you're not going to turn a kid who "hates math" into a kid who will literally fall asleep on his keyboard while writing high level computer programs. Personality factors in. It's difficult to imagine Bill Gates being happy working for somebody else. And even if you recognized his brilliance and contribution, it's difficult to imagine being an employer responsible for the care and feeding of a Steve Jobs. Odds are, a lot of tech world geniuses and giants used to bring home report cards lamenting, "Doesn't play well with others."

Also, while people like Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg highlight that it is possible to learn high level skills and even to lead a field without a college degree, or that with sufficient interest and opportunity (particularly in relation to an emerging technology) it's possible to enter college knowing more about your field than a lot of the grad assistants and professors who will be teaching you, that's not something we can hope to accomplish on a wholesale basis. We can shift the argument a bit, and make it about how a college degree shouldn't be treated by employers as a baseline qualification, and how they and many of their employees will be better off if they can identify and foster young workers who have tremendous aptitude but lack a formal qualification. But that argument is not so much about what is taught in schools and colleges as it is about how employers could benefit by changing their approach to recruiting, hiring and training employees. And if that's the argument, you can expect employers to resist your message - most employers prefer having employees come, trained, experienced and ready to 'produce', not excited kids with "great potential" but no objectively measurable qualification or experience.

I also don't want to take away from the companies that Ellsberg mentions, but there is a dramatic difference in the contribution of a company like Apple or Microsoft to the economy, job market and the way our society has evolved as compared to a Facebook or Twitter. Neither company employees a great many people, neither has particularly unique or special features or technology, and if either disappeared they would barely register in a monthly unemployment report - Twitter's 300 employees could be lost in a rounding error. It's also fair to note that those companies are comprised largely of employees - there's only so much room at the top. It's not that Twitter and Facebook can't flourish in our economy, or that the proposed valuation of Facebook isn't extremely impressive. But ten years from now talk of "Twitter and Facebook" may sound a lot like a present discussion of "MySpace and ICQ". Small business create a huge number of jobs each year, but huge numbers of jobs are also lost every year through their failure.

I very much agree with Ellsberg that we can do a lot more to support entrepreneurship, to help small business grow and succeed, and to help even those who prefer "a normal job" to adapt to the changing world. I agree that the value of a college degree is exaggerate by the fact that a lot of people who go to college would find ways to become higher-than-average earners without attending college or after dropping out. I agree that we could benefit from teaching students the value of failure, and how to draw appropriate lessons from failure. I also agree that it might be better for the government to find ways to help fund entrepreneurial ventures with some of the money that is presently expended on grants and subsidies for college education. But I think we need to be realistic both in terms of how many students we can expect to transform into entrepreneurs, and how many small companies we can expect to blossom or explode into large companies, as opposed to ultimately failing, remaining small, or selling their technologies or operations to a larger entity.

1 comment:

  1. And of the three, only Jobs grew up in circumstances akin to the average persons. It's a lot easier to drop out of college when your family has enormous personal wealth to support you, should your super new enterprise go south on you.


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