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What is the Liberal Arts? April 26, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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My B.A. degree is in the liberal arts. The diploma says psychology, but I also took substantial coursework in chemistry, biology, and physics.  Conversely, I took no English courses.

(To be fair, I wanted to take an English course, specifically, a writing course. My university required that I take an English placement test prior to doing so.  I did so, and placed out of the course that I wanted to take, and out of the next course, and was awarded six credits for my investment of an hour.  I never looked back.)

Today, liberal arts and humanities are on the proverbial ropes. This article in Wall Street Journal (paywall) describes how liberal arts programs in some schools are being expanded to include courses in mathematics and data analytics, in an effort to bolster the liberal arts with career learning.

Frankly, those courses, and other science topics should always have been there. In the dawn of the liberal arts education, the goal was to deliver a well-rounded individual who could opine and even work in a wide variety of different fields.  It led to a person who could be described as a “natural philosopher” who is educated and cultivated on a wide variety of topics, which relate to both social and science areas.

It’s only in more modern times that liberal arts curricula came to mean that the individual only had to study psychology, sociology, English, and political science. And that is wrong.  The liberal arts education has always been defined by a broad education without the depth of specialization.  Its intent is to drive rigor across traditional academic boundaries to enable its possessor to become a truly educated person.

But we got away from that at some point, with higher education permitted to define liberal arts as a much narrower take on a limited number of softer topics. Today’s so-called liberal arts is actually a bastardization of what it was intended to be.

The WSJ article positions the addition of math and science courses as a nod toward career training over life training. Ah, no.  Chosen well, what the math and science courses really do is round out a liberal arts education.  I understand that people need to get jobs, and such to get jobs, and such courses may help, but science and math are very much a part of life experience, no matter what field you may ultimately pursue.


About Licenses, Certifications, and Tech Jobs April 14, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Software development, Technology and Culture.
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As an academic, 25 years ago, I postulated to my students that software developers would require certifications and licenses at some point in time to pursue their craft. I was widely ridiculed at the time, so I would like to revisit that position today.

First, I want people to understand that I have no particular qualifications to write on this topic (that is ironic, based on the sentiment of this post).

We are facing two forces here. One is that innovation comes from at least partly those who have breakthrough ideas, from any field, without necessarily having formal training in that field.  While certainly true in software, I would imagine it true in other professional fields as well.

The second is that we as a society are increasingly depending upon software, and in particular software working correctly. This means we are vitally interested in having people who are working in that field are in some way qualified to do what they do.

And what does that mean? As in other professional fields, it means that we have studied formally, taken tests, and achieved a level of competence that is quantitatively identifiable and measureable.  In other words, we have a degree in the field, and we have passed one or more tests.

In the late 1980s, I worked for a defense contractor who was required to assure the DOD that its employees all had technical degrees. At that time, my MS in applied math qualified in that regard, so I passed muster.  Other long-time employees did not.  Did that make me better than them?  I don’t think so, but it made me more credentialed.

It has gotten worse since then. As we have self-driving cars, high-speed financial trading systems, fly-by-wire aircraft, and a myriad of other essential and safety-critical systems, we feel the need to have a level of confidence in the professionals behind them.  That confidence may be misplaced, but it is backed by a degree and/or certification.

In The Complacent Class, economist Tyler Cowen notes that in the 1950s, five percent of workers required a government-issued license in order to do their jobs, but by 2008, 29 percent did.  At many of the software conferences that I participate in, smart and serious professionals compare professional qualifications and job requirements.  It seems increasingly difficult to obtain employment without these certifications; in fact, I met many mid-career people who feel they need to become certified to continue their careers at a high level.

I don’t know the answer to this. I would like to think that some mixture of educated, certified professionals and unqualified-on-paper but passionate and self-educated people are essential in software.

But. Employers are increasingly looking for people who have credentials, usually those provided by a professional society (at least in software), that say they have studied and passed a test.  The problem is that such a thing may or may not have anything to do with their competence, knowledge, dedication, or ability to deliver on a project or task.

Increasingly, we as a society are not allowing for the mixture of qualified-on-paper and passionate-by-nature. I do believe that is wrong, but we are not willing to take the time and effort to identify those who can seriously contribute from those who have passed a test.

The Joys of Flying April 10, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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First, let me say that I am a longtime Delta/Northwest frequent flyer. Three years ago, I attended the QUEST conference in Chicago, which was inundated by flooding rains.  The early morning before my flight, my phone went off with a severe flood warning.  Getting to the airport (Midway), I picked up my boarding passes, only to discover that they had rebooked me for late afternoon, rather than early morning.  It got worse, and long story short, I got home around 2AM.

So, this time, same conference, Delta claimed that tornados in Atlanta interrupted their schedule.  For four days.  Ah, no.  Someone in the C-suite really needs to be fired, but of course that won’t happen.  But the individual Delta people on the ground were great, patient, helpful to the extent that they could be, and sympathetic.  I actively managed my alternatives, leveraged my status, and got home only a few hours late (but still about 3AM).

Despite the Delta debacle, United can’t hold a candle to it. I have told my corporate travel office that I only want to travel on United in the future, because I want to be beaten up, knocked unconscious, and dragged bleeding from the plane.  Is this what as a corporate identify we have come to?

And the “apology” from United CEO Oscar Munoz?  I hope the board of directors realizes that they don’t want him leading their global company.  “I am sorry that we had to re-accommodate passengers.”  I would like to call him some very obscene names; he has no business heading an airline.  At the very least, he needs to stand down from saying anything else right now.  As do his PR flacks.

I hope that the FAA pulls their airworthiness certificate for a few days. I’m sure that won’t happen, and I’m sure that Munoz will get a bonus.  But it’s so very wrong.

And I’m sorry, I hate to swear, but I do have to say it. Assholes.  And I’m sorry again.  Motherfuckers.  As Dave Carroll said, “I might fly them if I have to save the world, but probably not.” (which also occurred at O’Hare).

Update:  A longtime friend said to me, “That’s what happens when you don’t do what they tell you on a plane.”  Well, perhaps, but it could have been handled much differently.  I told him, “What if you were on a United flight, and they told you that you had to give up your seat?  And you said, My son was in an auto accident, and is in the hospital (this really happened, although he was home at the time).  I have to get home.  And they said, Not on this flight you don’t.”  I told him I bet he would fight back.