Imagine being able to create anything you want, using only your mind as a tool.
Just about everything that utilizes electricity – from space ships, to washing machines, to the Internet – is dependent upon, and has been built using, some sort of computer program. And if you can learn how to read and write them, the world around you changes from something you experience, to something you can create.
Anyone who can write a simple list of instructions can write a program, as that’s all programming is: writing a precise set of instructions for a machine that cannot intuit anything. Knowledge of mathematics is definitely not necessary. In fact, I can’t think of a pre-requisite skill you’d need beyond basic knowledge of how to operate a computer (if you can turn it on and open an application, you’re probably fine).
If I was starting again from scratch here’s what I’d do:
- Start by learning the Python programming language. It’s a beautifully simple language that’s really easy to learn, and just as powerful as any other language. I’d recommend taking the CS101 course on Udacity (it’s free and wonderful), then reading through the Python language reference to see all the cool stuff you can do with it, and then taking CS253 to learn about building things for the web. It really doesn’t matter what language you start with; what matters is that there are no obstacles that get in the way of jumping right in (Python comes pre-installed on your Mac), and that you have a good set of materials that are both well made and interesting.
- Learn how to use your computer’s command line. It feels very primitive when you start – typing ‘cd’ and the name of a folder is a command to move you into that folder – but knowing how to use it is extremely handy if you ever want to run your applications, or install and work with stuff other people have created. Also, it’s kind of fun to interact with your computer on such a deep level! (On macs, the command line is accessed via the ‘terminal’ app, which by default uses an interface called ‘BASH’ – the Bourne-Again SHell). You can google around for ‘bash commands’ and material about VIM - the command line’s built-in text-editor – to learn the basics, or just read the reference.
- Understand how the Internet works, and learn HTML and CSS. HTML is a ‘markup language’ that tells web browsers (like Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer) how to format content that’s published on the Internet. To specify that a block of text is a paragraph, you would surround your text in ‘<p>’ tags, which tell the browser to present that text as a paragraph. Then you would use CSS – a language for styling web pages that you’ve formatted in HTML – to tell the browser that paragraphs should be bold and use the Times New Roman typeface.
- Learn about databases (a popular one being MySQL). Databases are how information is stored online and offline, and they have their own simple language that allows you to interact with them (to store, retrieve, and delete data). Google uses databases to store their index of the Internet, Amazon uses them to store their catalogs of products, and Facebook uses them to store information about their users. A command to pull a user’s data from a database might look something like this: SELECT * FROM users WHERE first_name = Justin AND last_name = Wohlstadter.
Programming is a craft, just like woodworking. While it takes years to become a master craftsman, it doesn’t take long at all to figure out how to use nails and wood to make something simple and useable. If you give it a shot, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can create real things, and just how incredibly fulfilling that experience is.
I strongly believe that today, business school – even at the best institutions – is a complete waste of time and money for anyone with a bit of self-motivation. It’s not that the material is totally useless – though it has changed little in the past 100 years and is now largely available for free online –, but relative to the significant cost it’s just not worth it.
Here are some of the common arguments for business school:
- It’s a great networking opportunity. Yes, if you attend a prestigious business school you will meet and bond with lots of other people interested in business who managed to get high scores on their entrance exams. Sweet! But there are plenty of other great ways to meet amazing people (who didn’t just pass a test and write a good essay). They include: joining a group / club or similar in an area that you’re interested in, going to local events, cold-emailing / tweeting / messaging people you admire to ask if you can take them out for a coffee, etc. I don’t believe the GMAT – or any standardized test for that matter – is at all a good indicator of intelligence or future probability of success. And it is definitely not an indicator that someone will be fun to hang out with. A majority of the most incredible people I’ve met have come from just being involved with the startup community.
- I want to learn from the best professors. Read their books. Most of the professors at these schools – especially the best ones – have published their insights long ago. Ever heard of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen? How about anything by Michael Porter? Google any famous b-school professor and you’ll find most everything you need.
- I want to learn finance, excel, [fill in the blank]. Read a book, use Investopedia, or some other online resource. It’s much cheaper, you can go at your own pace, and most of the classes in business school will just have you read them anyway.
- The ‘case method’ teaches you about tons of businesses in a short period of time. I’m sorry, but reading and discussing a situation is no where close to actually learning about these situations, businesses, and industries, and how to make decisions in a constantly-shifting, pressure-filled environment. The only way to do that is by actually doing it. If you want exposure to a lot of different business models or sectors, start or join a company that will give you that level of exposure. Also, do you really think that a former CEO, when being interviewed for a b-school case, is going to tell the interviewer the real reason he made the decision to sell the company was because he was cheating on his wife and he wanted to bury the returns offshore before the divorce?
- It’s a signal for my current / future employer. Why not try to accomplish something that actually proves you’re intelligent / competent / hard-working, etc? If you’re in sales, show how amazing you are by selling! If you’re an engineer or designer, make something beautiful and post it online for all to see. Putting an ‘MBA’ on your resume is a poor replacement for accomplishment.
- I want to change jobs. This is the most acceptable reason in my mind, but do you really need to spend that kind of money for a certificate and a job fair? Why not spend the time learning about the space, attending local events you care about, and reaching out to people at companies you’re interested to grab a coffee and chat. If they’re not interested in you, try making yourself interesting by learning everything you can about the space and publishing your thoughts on what you’ve learned online (in a blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, etc).
- I want to learn from / work with bright people (my classmates). This, I respect.If you’re not already at a company where this is possible, consider changing jobs. There are many incredible startups hiring right now. If you think a masters program is the best / easiest way to do this though, consider doing a program where a) you’re learning real skills, and b) you’re collaborating with people very different from yourself, who really bring unique / new ideas to the table. If I ever do another degree, it will probably be at a design school where I get to actually make stuff and learn things from others that I can’t simply by reading an article online or in conversation with a friend.
- It’s free (my company is paying for it / I have a scholarship). If you have a scholarship with no strings attached, great. But be sure to consider whether this is the best way to spend the next year or two of your life. If your company is paying, there are generally pretty significant strings attached (a commitment to work for them for the next few years). Be careful about this. It may sound great, but I think the gain is tiny relative to what you’re giving up in personal freedom.
- It’s fun! I can think of many better ways to spend that kind of money on a fun experience. Why not travel? Or pay someone incredible to apprentice under them for some period of time?
To be clear, I’m not stating that business school is inherently evil, I just think people should be more aware of what they’re getting for the time and money spent. And I think there are definitely better ways to spend both.
comments. 9 notes.
For the past nine months I’ve spent most of my time in Oxford, researching social policy and the Internet’s impact on access to higher education. While I’ve technically been working at Penny Black and BOLDstart full time as well, I’ve spent most of my time disconnected; reading, thinking, and wandering through the countryside. Here are a few of the more important takeaways:
- There’s no such thing as a generalist. At least not a useful one. Many people who go into consulting or similar fields believe they can study a bunch of different businesses and solve any problem once they have the right set of tools. While I’m sure they can help bring clarity to many problems, there’s nothing like immersing oneself in a space – enough to intimately understand all of the players, issues, and interests. In the startup world this kind of experience gives entrepreneurs a big leg up against others with a similar idea, and it’s for this reason that venture firms put so much weight on a team’s domain knowledge.
- Detach completely for quality thought. I took for granted the importance of having time/space to think clearly, and didn’t realize how hard this is to do in New York. You get used to being bombarded every few minutes with emails, texts, phone calls, meetings, and other distractions. Living in a big city affects your clarity of thought. Being antisocial every once in a while – perferably in a beautiful place –, and taking the time to think, digest, and reflect, leads to amazing results. Simply reacting all the time to the social stimulus around us makes for dull (and stressed) people.
- Diversity of people = diversity of thought. 99% of the people I hung out with in Oxford did not know what an API was, had not integrated Rapportive into Gmail (yet), and were slightly offended when I told them that Klout could predict how influential they are online. Generally we think of diversity as people of the opposite view, but the best diversity is people who are not even on the same plane of thought. Innovation happens between, not within disciplines, and it’s important to expose yourself to that every so often.
I frequently take up issue with the costs of higher education and the general worthlessness of many degrees. But if for whatever reason you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do a one year independent study program, it can be an incredible and valuable experience. If you do have the opportunity, don’t go straight out of undergrad, find a program that lets you explore before diving in, in a beautiful place, and in an environment where you’ll be forced to surround yourself with people much smarter and very different from yourself.
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There’s no reason why 30 students should sit in a classroom and be lectured on the same thing at the same time at the same pace when everyone learns differently. There’s no reason why the tens of thousands of algebra classes are each being reinvented right now across the country by teachers of variable skill levels. There’s no reason why college students should go into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for courses and a diploma that may not take them where they want to go. And there’s no reason why teachers should waste time conveying materials that can easily be found online, when instead they could be inspiring students to be curious, discover themselves, and apply what they learn.
Despite how huge the education market is (estimated at $750b in the US alone), many VCs are afraid to invest in ed-tech because there was a lot of ‘road kill’ in the space after the dot-com bust. But much has changed in the past decade: the addressable market has expanded dramatically (10x more people are online, have 10x as fast connections, and are connected at least 10x as much), and we’ve recently seen a proliferation of internet-enabled mobile devices, data storage and processing innovations, and the spread of open source content that have brought about great efficiencies in content distribution, consumption, and production.
The importance of the Internet in changing education is more relevant than ever: we continue to move from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based economy at a rapid pace, yet our school system is still stuck in the Industrial Revolution.
There are a great diversity of opportunities to innovate in the education realm. On the learning side, we need to create new ways to make it:
- Fun. All physics lessons should be as fun as Angry Birds.
- Ubiquitous. I should be able learn anywhere and everywhere, taking full courses on my iPhone or any other device.
- Adaptive / Customized. Machines should learn how I learn and teach in a way that works best for me.
And on the accreditation side we need to find ways to get people credit (/certified) for practical skills they enjoy in a much faster, cheaper, and more accessible way than is provided by the accreditation bodies who hold a monopoly on the education system today.
I’m not arguing that we should try to overhaul the current system and force schools to adopt new technology and ideas, but rather that if we create compelling learning and teaching products outside of the school system we can push change from the outside, in.
- Fred Wilson and Brad Burnham on hacking education (especially the comments)
- Khan Academy (watch the videos!)
- Sir Ken Robinson & Jane McGonigal’s TED talks
- A Mathematician’s Lament (PDF)
- Turning Learning Right Side Up
- And many others (ask me!)
comments. 23 notes.
I hope this is obvious: forcing students to answer a series of questions under the clock is probably the stupidest way to test proficiency in a subject area. The ultimate goal of teaching is not fact memorization, it’s application. Exams under intense time pressure are useless: they are not at all a representation of the depth/breadth of a person’s knowledge in a subject area, nor how capable they are in applying it. And worse, they encourage short-term memorization of information that becomes useless a month after the test. How much information do you remember from the last exam you took?
I admit that there are some professions where memorization-based, timed exams are more relevant – such as emergency medicine –, where the need to recall random facts under time pressure is actually a skill in and of itself. Though I would argue that even this skill will soon change as on-demand medical data is more easily accessible.
Thanks to the Internet and the relatively powerful mobile devices we now carry around, we have moved from having a ‘local’ to a ‘networked’ brain, where data is now able to be stored and accessed not just from our own head, but from society’s collective mind. These devices have literally become an extension of our brains: they help us navigate complex terrain, recall detailed information from years ago, and give us access to billions of pages of data covering almost every subject thinkable.
This model is obviously not without costs in terms of human independence, but we have always been social creatures, and this is simply the evolution of that capability to communicate and work together. Given this incredible new model then, how we use that information becomes so much more important. Exams should be structured to reflect this, and focus on data-rich application and creativity.
comments. 4 notes.
Juventas Fugit is designed and written by Justin Wohlstadter, who, when not writing in the third person, can be found in a coffee shop talking about startups, thinking about the future of education, and generally procrastinating something important.
- Passions: startups that positively affect the world, education innovation, good design, learning, and meeting those with an equally insatiable curiosity.
- Play: working on something really neat....
- Previously: was director of product design at Enterproid. Before that I built the early-stage venture arm of Penny Black and co-founded BOLDstart Ventures, where I was lucky enough to invest in some awesome startups including Rapportive (sold to Linkedin), Blaze (sold to Akamai), GoInstant (sold to Salesforce), Klout, Indiegogo, Enterproid, ShowMe, LocalResponse, and many more. And before all of this I was involved in a bunch of other crazy, less successful startup ventures involving fire extinguishers, measuring philanthropic impact, and creative spaces.
- Pedantry: most of the important stuff I taught myself or learned from friends, but I’m fortunate to have also (barely received) degrees from Harvard and Oxford. At Oxford I wrote my dissertation on how internet innovation will disrupt access to higher education.
- Procrastination: can be found on Twitter, Linkedin, AngelList and other web spaces, and be reached via email at my first name at this domain.