Sunday, May 28, 2017

Digital Native = Tech Literacy? Oh, Puh-Leeez, Says this Old Codger...

Suppose you have two friends.  One of them spends an hour, (1:30 in traffic!) in his car each way on his commute to work.  The other walks to the train station, then takes the commuter rail to North Station, and walks from there to his office.  Once in a while, he drives if he has errands to run on the way home, and he also drives occasionally on the weekends, though not always.

That first friend must be "better with cars" right?  He can probably change his own oil, check other fluids, get the tires to the right level of air pressure, right?  If not, he's at least better than the other friend at that stuff?  "No, of course not," I would expect you to say. That's preposterous, right?

Let's imagine two other friends.  One is in sales, and she spends anywhere from 4 to 8 hours each day on the phone.  Your other friend, by contrast, rarely uses her phone.  (she is a site surveyor for an alternative energy company, and she rarely needs to use the phone during the workday).  Maybe, once in a while, she needs to call someone on a site before she arrives, and sometimes while on site she needs to call back to the main office to coordinate something, but even then the chats are pretty much short, sweet, and to the point.

That first friend must be "better with phones," right?  She must know all about RF waves, about the relative merits of 3G and 4G (LTE), and about pulse modulation?  Or, failing that, she must at least be a better user, right?  She must have a little more savoir-faire about how to answer, how to advance a conversation, and when to wrap things up and get off the line?   "No, of course not," I would expect you to say. That's preposterous, right?

Yet, we do this all the time with technology.  The conventional wisdom on this is so dominant that the prevailing theme (that age is inversely proportional with tech know-how, simply because younger people have grown up around technology and use it more) goes more or less unchallenged in most uses/instances.  Yet, this is so very utterly wrong.  Here are some ways in which this Big Myth is often manifested:

(1):  Wow, these kids today are incredible!  My two year-old nephew Timmy just picked up an iPad and started using it out of the blue.  Amazing!  Timmy is the next Bill Gates, I'm sure.  Our Grandpa hasn't even heard of an iPad and when we asked Grandma about whether she'd like an iPad for Christmas she just said, "no thanks, I haven't needed one of those in years!" and we just left that right there.  Yuck!

Well, the speaker might not have stopped to notice this, but the iPad comes without an instruction manual.  That's right.  It's literally so intuitive that there is no need for that extra paper insert that either a) goes straight to the trash anyway or b) goes straight to the 'screwdrivers, rulers, pens, old Chinese food menus, and things that I'll never look at but am not quite ready to throw away yet drawer.'  Monkeys (yes, monkeys!) have been given iPads and have actually manipulated them successively.  iPads have been taken to remote villages in Peru that are completely free of modern technology and -- wait for it...okay, you already guessed it, people are almost instantly able to use them.

If Little Timmy is running pre-school or daycare workshops about iOS app development, then that's really pretty Gatesian or Zuckerbergian, or whatever you want to call it.  But if Little Timmy is swiping around and opening and closing things left and right on an iPad, well, that's pretty much par for the course.  Show me a two year-old *not* able to do that, and *that's* when I'll do a double-take.

(2):  Teenagers are AMAZING with technology.  I mean, they're always on their phones.  How can we ever keep up?  I mean, they're sending 1000s of text messages and tweets a day, and my mom is so out of it, she thinks that Tumblr is spelled with an 'e.'  As IF!  They laugh at us for still using e-mail...and it's so true...we're just dinosaurs!!

I pretty much covered the way I'd respond to this w/my intro portion -- since when does using something a lot imply some sort of mastery?  It shouldn't.

Furthermore, how often do you see teenagers getting into trouble -- sometimes severely so -- for things that they write or post to social media sites?  If they're somehow so much "better" or "savvier" than the 35-and-up crowd, how could that be the case?

I've had a great vantage point to see this, by the way.  I've now taught dozens of Computer Science and/or CS "related" courses over the past four years that have ranged from basic computer applications for undergrads up to graduate-level Java Programming.  I've done this with wildly varying 'types' of students, too, in the sense of age, backgrounds, abilities, etc.  Many of these so-called digital natives are completely baffled by something like "just save that to your desktop," (and no, hahaha, this isn't about the efficiency of doing so, the showstopper was the actual act of doing so). Most use the Web every day of their lives but are completely baffled by even a few lines of HTML (not that that's a bad thing!!  I use the, uhh..facilities every day and know virtually nothing about plumbing) -- the only point I'm making here is that the conventional narrative is just bass ackwards.

The list goes on from there, but suffice to say, there is enough smoke there for me to say there's fire.

Okay, so why do I care so much about this?  Why even bother to point this out?  

Is this all just a bunch of reflexive millennial-bashing?  Maybe.

But maybe I also think there's something very dangerous about this.  The more adults feed into it, and the more it pumps young people up, the more of a head of steam this myth takes on.  And if your little Aidan, Jayden, Brayden, or Madison thinks that it's somehow "amazing" or "brilliant" that he or she set up a Twitter account, or posted a video to Snapchat, or figured out how to prevent Dad from being able to see his Facebook posts, and if you feed into that, then you're not ultimately doing that child any favors.

Look at what today's job market requires.  Look at the jobs that go unfilled.  Look at Silicon Valley's pleas for more H-1B visas.

Go there.   Run towards that need!

Become awesome at database management.  Start with some SQL, and then branch out.  Think it's amazing that your kid uses Dropbox?  Have Aidan get an Amazon Web  Server credential.  Did Jayden help Aunt Brenda get on to your home Wi-Fi network?  Okay, great, now let's get that guy a Cisco cert and a job.  Madison can reset the cookies and then get you 10 more free articles from some news site?  That's a nice start, but that's not *technically* harder than any other question that might involve a Google search and then following steps 1 through 3.  Maybe when she masters HTML5 she'll be able to help some company put together animations for its website.

At the end of the day (how's that for a cliche?), there are admittedly many ways to define tech literacy, none necessarily right or wrong.  But pumping kids up with lots of hot air with a label that they don't necessarily deserve isn't merely wrong, it's's a path towards overconfidence and an even worse mismatch with respect to the job market that they will someday have to enter.  

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Difficult vs. Complicated: Don't Get it Twisted!

So I'm in a real, honest-to-goodness work lull right now.  I've got exactly 1 class that I'm teaching at the moment, and exactly one student that I'm tutoring.  Yes, this feels weird.

For the last few years, I've been doing that whole Gig Economy thing.  I've been tutoring, adjunct teaching, doing my Reserve drills, and then slowly but surely building a dividend income stream alongside those other incomes.  This whole state of being sort of came about accidentally/incidentally, as the 'side gigs' were originally intended to support a main effort involving a business that I started in b-school.  (Looking back, it's easy to see that I was "all thrust and no vector" but hey, sometimes lessons need to be learned the hard way).  If you add up all my income sources, it basically comes out to be pretty much what you'd expect from someone a couple years out of an MBA program.  On the bright side, it's been more independent...on the not-so-bright side, it's led to the state of 'perma-work' that I've described in some of the sporadic blog posts from that period.  If you currently hold a full-time, salaried, steady job with benefits and vacation time, then becoming a Gig Economy perma-worker is just about the LAST thing I would ever wish upon you. As my friend Rick would say, it's "no way to run a railroad."

I don't want to jinx anything but it looks like I *might* be starting something more traditionally full-time (and salaried!) in the near future, final details pending.  That means I'll put those reindeer games behind me...I'll miss some parts of that at times, but I'll also enjoy not taking the 9:45 p.m. train from North Station each night (really? Yes, really), and it'll be better on the family front, too.

Now that I've caught you up on all that, I want to share just one observation (more will be forthcoming) that I learned over the past 4+ years as a GMAT tutor:  Many answers in life are difficult, but not complicated.  But many people don't *want* difficulty, so they fall back on 'complicated' as a crutch.  

Let me explain:  I can tell you exactly what you need to do in order to get a great GMAT score. Believe me, believe me, believe me, believe me -- this, I know.   Of course, there's a bit more to it, but in a nutshell, there's a huge body of material that you need to work your way through, and you need to closely examine every single error you make.  You can't just casually brush mistakes off under the guise of 'yeah, yeah, yeah, that's what I meant to say' after seeing the right answer, and you can't just dismiss all your mistakes as 'careless.' You need to painstakingly do this, and your process needs to be repetitive to the point that it almost physically hurts.  You need to determine what it was that you missed in the statement, what math rule you didn't know, or what strategy you didn't employ in order to tighten the wiring between here and there.  And then you need to make that flashcard, and review it so many times that you curse it, and that you curse my name for making you do it.

Simple enough, right?  No.

Here's the rub:  That process absolutely sucks.  It's a huge pain.  EVERYONE nods along during our first session together and earnestly tells me they're quaffing my Kool-Aid, but NOT everyone really does.  Those who embrace it?  770s, 740s, 750s, name it, my students have scored it.  My proudest 'jump' ever came from an international student who started sub-500 but wound up with a 660 through a combination of equal parts brainpower and willpower.  Not every story, however, ended with the Rocky theme music playing, along with text messages that had twenty exclamation points following each short sentence.

So when it went wrong, what went wrong?  Most people don't want to do things that completely suck. As Kevin Hart would say, "Everybody wants to be famous...nobody wants to do the work."  

Maybe that's obvious, though -- what male ever made it through adolescence without a behind-the-woodshed talk about work ethic from Dad?  Maybe saying that people avoid hard things is like saying water is wet.  A slightly more interesting spin on it, methinks, is this:  Sometimes, as a way of shirking away from the World of Difficult, people seek solace in ComplicatedLand.  In other words, to specifically avoid doing something difficult, we convince ourselves that some clever way forward -- if only revealed to us -- would get us to the desired pot of gold, sans the sturm und drang along the way.

"But isn't there something you can do...with data?  I mean, can't you analyze one of my practice tests and then just tell me what I need to do, and then I can just ace this thing?"

"No, actually.  All I can analyze from your test is what you did well, and what you missed.  As for the things you missed, I can show you the very best ways to turn those 0s to 1s, so to speak.  And I can't predict exactly what you'll see on GameDay -- no one can.  So you need to cover ALL of the Official Guide material -- I can't just cherry pick 30 out of the 300 problems and tell you, in good faith, to *just* study those. I'll help you unpack each miss, and as we systematically do that -- rinse, repeat -- you'll continually get better."

"Yeah, yeah, right...I can just look the answers up myself...but back to my question -- can't you just tell me exactly what I need to study in order to go north of 700?   What you're describing doesn't sound very efficient, or personalized to me."

"Well, yes, and no.  You need to know this huge body of material..." And so it begins anew.

I imagine this to be no different from a patient, thirty pounds overweight, who goes to see his doctor.

"Hey Doc...whaddaya got?  I'm trying to lose a few.  What can I do?"

"Well, have you considered exercising more?  Taking the stairs instead of the elevator?  Walking to your office from a different T station?  What about just going from two donuts to one in the morning, or starting your day by eating a banana instead?"

"Whoa,, no, that's not what I meant.  I mean, all those years of medical school, all those years in practice, and all you've got is 'diet and exercise.'  That's what got you all that sheepskin on your wall, doc?  C'mon...can't you figure out what's up with my glands, and just prescribe something for it?  Can't you just give me something topical to apply to my stomach that will give me washboard abs after a few weeks?"

Here, the doctor's initial Rx -- more exercise, healthier diet -- is not only time-honored, but it's essentially 'free' and it's more effective than literally any medication under the Sun.  But it's difficult. It requires sacrifice...and lifestyle changes.  Someone not ready to do either of those things can either: a) come to grips with that and try to find a way past it [by the way, the answer is incrementalism!! And I could, and probably will, write entire post(s) on that topic later on] or b) spurn it entirely, opting instead to believe in something much more complicated but far less difficult (some sort of advanced scientific solution that delivers the same solution, minus the burden on the patient).

I would suspect that much of this applies to nearly any common life goal.  Look at, for instance, people's New Year's Resolutions -- learning a new language, reading the Great Works canon, writing a novel, losing weight, learning how to play a new instrument, gaining new tech skills, improving their Army Physical Fitness Test two-mile run time, staying in touch with relatives, etc.  All of those goals are only met with a considerable level of difficulty, but are any of them really that complicated?