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The Disorderly March III

September 17, 2009

A break from the heavy lifting today, thanks to a book excerpt at the Daily BeastJames Marcus Bach has an 8th grade education, and his book, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success, is about how he nevertheless ended up a software testing manager at Apple.  Originally titled School Sucks, Bach’s path of self-education seems, at least from info from an Amazon reviewer, to be a little Aspergerian (as a kid he memorized 41 digits of Pi for fun and admits he doesn’t “know how to talk about things that don’t matter”).  But the excerpt rang a lot of bells for me, although I readily admit that my own wide net would never have caught journal articles on “Anthropometry of Algerian Women and Optimum Handle Height for a Push-Pull Type Manually Operated Dryland Weeder.” 

Bach started at Apple at the age of 20, back in the day when computers were a wild frontier and people with PC skills had already outpaced the university CS programs, which were still using mainframes and teaching FORTRAN. (I got my first jobs in SF in the mid-80’s training secretaries on Lotus and WordPerfect, migrating their docs from DisplayWriter, and converting military specs to WordPerfect and auto-numbered format – a huge deal with specs like “ – Toilets. – The toilet shall be white.”) 

Hired to manage software testers, Bach managed to make a lot of time to read while on the clock.  He was acutely aware that he was one of the few at Apple who didn’t have a college degree, and like many self-educated people, the combination of voracious curiosity  and social insecurity (especially in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, where a lack of higher education is often treated the way a horrible deformity would be viewed in Redneckistan) drove him to make up for it.

Having worked his way through the available oeuvre on software testing, he was surprised to discover his comprehensive, perhaps obsessive, desire to know everything on the subject was not matched by his co-workers.  His reaction to discovering that, out of 400 testers, only 10 were reading books on testing was that “nobody cared…the rest muddled through without much ambition to master their craft.”  This seems a bit harsh; I’ve done software testing myself and it’s not exactly the most exciting field – go to the freezer, get the box, open the box, put the pizza in the microwave, set it to nuke for 30 minutes, watch and see if the pizza catches fire, create a work item in VSTF.  I’m sure many of the other 390 employees were reading Russian novels or Renaissance history or something else intellectually stimulating that had nothing to do with work.  But his observation on the Orderly March rings true [emphasis mine]:

The pattern I experienced at Apple would be confirmed almost everywhere I traveled in the computer industry: Most people have put themselves on intellectual autopilot. Most don’t study on their own initiative, but only when they are forced to do so. Even when they study, they choose to study the obvious and conventional subjects. This has the effect of making them more alike instead of more unique. It’s an educational herd mentality.

I talked to coworkers who wanted to further their education, but they typically spoke in terms of getting a new piece of paper, such as a bachelor’s degree, a master’s, or a Ph.D. For them, education was about the doors they believed would open because of how they were labeled by institutions, not about making themselves truly better as thinkers.

Computers are still the last frontier, the “Go West” destination of the self-educated.  There are plenty of jobs (say, Marketing) where the piece of paper is necessary given the amount of bullshit you can spew before you get caught out as incompetent (“We’ll form a study group to review your proposal that I be fired for inadequate leveraging of Total Quality Excellence in the formulation matrix of strategies for our Pepsi Clear ad campaign”).  Bad decisions can be delayed, or made by a group to diffuse the blame for failure; you can get credit for participation, just like you’re still in class, by offering the suggestion that you Rastafy Poochie by oh say 10% or so.  Of course these things can happen in technology settings, but there’s always a hard stop on incompetence – did you write this and create this bug; did you test this and find this bug; did you resolve this bug.  To be a chemist or a doctor or an engineer, you need access to massive university resources, but a computer and an internet connection is all that’s required to learn how to code, and it’s fairly easy for an employer/interviewer to judge competence on the spot, rather than having to rely on the certification of a higher authority that you’ve sat through enough lectures to make your selection less risky. 

The more I collect these people in my readings from both ends of the spectrum, from Transcriptarians like Jim Collins and Marissa Mayer who demand not only formal education but a spotless line of straight A’s in every subject, to cowboys like Bach, people who find failure interesting like Wil Wright, thinkers like Richard Sennett who write about how craft is developed through error, the more I think I should write a “think piece” on the subject.  FSM only knows where I’d submit it, but I certainly have an interest in the subject, and it definitely lights a little fire in me when I find these people, pro and con. 

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