Is Technical Education Enough?

There’s a lot of energy in this country put into creating and providing technical education for underserved students towards the end of increasing the chances that these students will find careers in STEM. I care deeply about how this is handled and sit on boards of multiple organizations that address this issue for a range of students from pre k-12 programs to workforce development initiatives for adults who want to move into technical careers.

We need more diversity in the technology industry for at least two reasons:

  1. Technology Scales Really Well. This is important because when a technology is aimed to scale good things, it scales good things. And when it’s aimed to scale bad things, it scales bad things.
  2. More Diversity = Better Solutions. We need a diverse set of brain power with multiple perspectives to understand complex problems we face today and then invent, implement, and scale appropriate solutions.

But there are a few gaps between technical education and the diverse and inclusive workplace that we imagine. A technical education might be enough to increase diversity – that’s a measurable number like, “How many of our new hires identity as female?” But it won’t be enough to foster inclusion which is less measurable. Inclusion is the creation and ongoing improvement of systems and environments that help diverse talent succeed.

So a good technology education will get someone’s foot in the door. But that won’t be enough to help them succeed in an environment where they may be the “first, only, different” person at the firm. There are a few ways to address this and there isn’t complete agreement on the best path. However, I’ll list some ideas here on some non-technical content that a technical education might include:

  • History of technology, industry, and economics to paint the big picture of how technology and industry became homogenous in the first place
  • Role Models and success stories. It’s important to show students examples of innovators that look like they look like. Include guest speakers or news stories that highlight diverse talent. When making images for public consumption, chose images carefully.
  • Employee training on how to navigate work situations in which it’s hard to be seen, heard, or taken seriously because you don’t fit the status quo image of an engineer or programmer
  • Manager training for industry managers who don’t yet have experience managing and supporting diverse talent.

Technical Education isn’t enough. If the 21st century is going to be better and more equitable than the 2oth, we need to integrate history and social skills into the mix.



One Question at a Time

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I’m reading The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. The author lays out 7 questions that coaches can use to effectively communicate with the people they manage. In addition to the 7 questions, another important point that the author makes is this: Ask one question at a time.

Even if you think you know the next five questions that need to be asked, the act of slowing down and asking one at a time is an act of awareness and empathy and generosity. It allows you and your employees time to get on the same page, to articulate problems and to find solutions together.

When You’re the Product and Not the Customer

You don’t have rights on facebook and twitter. That’s because you’re not their customer. You are their product.

And if you switch from facebook to instagram as many of the kids are doing these days, you’re still on facebook. Facebook owns instagram. They are still capturing and selling the data that you give them for free when you upload, comment on, or “like” content.

It’s pretty weird. But ever weirder is how little we understand or do about it.

But there are things you can do:

  • You can opt out. I’ve tried that a few times over the years. It’s hard. And FOMO wins every time. Facebook knows this, of course. It’s their leverage.
  • You can take some of your conversations elsewhere – join a discussion group via listserv or slack or a discuss group.
  • You can engage more with blogs! Start one and read more. The platform I use for this blog, Wordpress, has a great tagline: “Own Your Content.”

With all of these options, you still don’t have privacy. But you are taking more control of your content and not just handing it over to the man.

Yes, if you make some or all of these changes you will feel the “pain” of a smaller network. But you’ll also feel the rewards of engaging with a group that is speaking and listening with much more care and intention.


Take it Further:


Seen and Not Heard

We all get confusing messages growing up. I grew up in the 1970s and was raised on Sesame Street and Anti-Coloring Books and tofu. It was great. But there were also messages from my parents’ postwar upbringing that found their way into our home. More conservative lessons. One such lesson was, “Children are to be seen and not heard.”

What a crazy lesson! It teaches you to keep quiet and be compliant and that if you do speak up, you are breaking the rules!

So we learn that keeping quiet is the safe way to go. If you don’t speak up, then you don’t get criticised. Then you don’t get judged. Easy Breezy.

Speaking up is harder. And there are painful consequences.

What a waste of energy it is to have to sort it all out. How much emotional labor do we spend on keeping quiet or beating ourselves up when we don’t? And I wonder why it is that these lessons are absorbed by some children and not other children? Who grows up thinking that speaking up is a good thing and who grows up thinking that it’s wrong? And what are the consequences of that?


You Belong at a Hackathon

From two recent conversations I’ve had with Engineering students, I’ve come to suspect that they think hackathons are only for Computer Science students. This is a problem for a few reasons that I’ll list out here:

  • With the rise of sensors and big data, engineers are now required to code. So they had might as well get good at it. Hackathons are a rich informal learning environment for this
  • Hackathons build confidence. Conceiving an idea and building a prototype of it in 24-48 hours is worthy accomplishment
  • Hackathons are a great place to meet and work with people outside of your discipline. They encourage silo-busting
  • Many great solutions to problems emerge from hackathons. And we need a diverse set of people participating in this problem solving
  • Hackathons often put you on the path to bigger and better things: entrepreneurship, grants, competitions, accelerators

So the next time you hear about a hackathon with a cool theme, Push through the habitual response of, “That’s for other people and not for me.” If you can code, even at a beginner level, then you ought to try it out.


Awesome:WiC at RIT

A Growth Mindset: Work Smart, Not Hard?

In 2006, Stanford Psychology Professor Carol Dweck published the first edition of her book, Mindset: A New Psychology for Success. In the book, she defines two types of mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

Dweck describes a fixed mindset as, “students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.”

And she describes a growth mindset as, “students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

Dweck claims that the growth mindset is the mindset that we need to succeed. She then gives us tips on how to nurture a growth mindset in children and adults who exhibit fixed mindset ways of working.

If you reward a child by telling them, “You are just so talented,” you may be, according to Dweck, reinforcing a fixed mindset which reinforces values like “talent is innate” and “change is impossible.” But if you reward children with comments like, “You worked so hard on that problem,” you reinforce messages like, “If you work hard, then you can tackle seemingly impossible problems.”

All of this is great. It gets tricky when Dweck’s thesis gets oversimplified. Dweck addresses these problematic interpretations of her work in a 2015 article in Education Week called “Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset.”

Rewarding effort alone isn’t the right way to go. The quality of effort is important too. We all know the phrase, “Work Smart, Not Hard.” Well, there’s some truth in that. “Hard work” often gets conflated with the number of hours someone puts into solving a problem. But smart work is a little more complex, Dweck argues. To work smart, not only do you have to put the hours in, but you have to be agile, try multiple approaches to solving a problem, and ask for feedback from other people.

Misinterpretation aside, if you work with kids or manage adults, then you should check out the book. The problems that are articulated and solutions that Dweck offers are useful.

On Generosity

Yesterday was a good day. A friend who I haven’t seen in ten years gave me focused feedback on a document that I’ve been working on. And a stranger whom I’ve never met shared her expert insights into a problem that I’m exploring. My waking thought this morning was gratefulness for their generosity.

A few years back I prototyped and tested a card game called Generosity. In the game, players were assigned roles in a community like “car mechanic” or “vegetable farmer.” With each role, each player had value that they could offer and needs that they could ask for help with. The main game mechanic was bartering. But the most interesting part of the game was the conversation that emerged about motivation and rewards and valuing one’s value and how hard it is to ask for help. (See “Testing Generosity” for more on this).

I was developing this game around the same time that Cards Against Humanity came on the scene. Guess what? Cards Against Humanity is much more fun to play than Generosity. Cards is a snarky game and snark is safe and it makes us feel clever. Generosity, at least in game form, is a tough thing to sell.

But while some things don’t lend themselves to fun games or tweets or instagram, they are still rich and worth pursuing. Generosity is one of those things. When you’re on the receiving end of it, it’s almost hard to believe how giving people can be. And when you are giving it, that’s a great feeling too. Feeling useful and helpful and generous. Life can be tough. And generosity makes it easier. What a powerful thing to be able to do.

Draw the Impossible

Have you seen Justin Timberlake’s “Filthy” video? It’s pretty goofy. The star of the video is an animated robot that dances just like JT. What I like about it is that the robot in the video defies physics. It moves in ways that robots of that size aren’t even close to being able to do. That’s what artists do – they bring life to things that seem like they can’t be done. They draw the impossible.

Habits of Systems Thinkers

If you think that the status quo can be changed over time, then you have to be a systems thinker. System thinkers have specific habits and ways of understanding and interacting with the world that helps them identify where to intervene in a system in order to change it. If you were lucky enough to go to college, then you have probably studied systems thinking in one form or another. But it sure ain’t being addressed in primary school. Though some folks are trying to change that.

The Waters Foundation aims to bring systems thinking education to k-12. There is an excellent interactive graphic on their website called “Habits of a Systems Thinker.” The graphic illustrates 14 habits and if you click on each illustration, you’ll get a little more information. The 14 habits are:

  1. Seeks to understand the big picture
  2. Observes how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends
  3. Recognizes that a system’s structure generates its behavior
  4. Identifies the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships
  5. Makes meaningful connections within and between systems
  6. Changes perspectives to increase understanding
  7. Surfaces and tests assumptions
  8. Considers an issue fully and resists the urge to come to a quick conclusion
  9. Considers how mental models affect current reality and the future
  10. Uses understanding of system structure to identify possible leverage actions
  11. Considers short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of actions
  12. Pays attention to accumulations and their rates of change
  13. Recognizes the impact of time delays when exploring cause and effect relationships
  14. Checks results and changes actions if needed: “successive approximation”

Systems thinking is a necessary skill for artists and inventors. If you are making something new and putting it out there in the world, you are in effect saying that the status quo is broken and what you are making and sharing is part of the way forward to something new and better–a new way of thinking or behaving or interacting or engaging.


more reading:

Habits of a Systems Thinker (interactive graphic)

Social Systems Design Lab


We’ve Been Nothing But Lucky

David Letterman has a new special on Netflix – an interview with President Obama. The interview is about an hour long and covers a range of topics peppered with jokes from both Dave and the President. But the note that the interview ends on is the note that I love best. The two are thanking each other for the hour and Obama chimes in with a question for Dave, ‘You know Dave, don’t you think we’ve been so lucky?’ and Dave agrees, ‘Yes, I know that I’ve been nothing but lucky.’

And I know that I’ve been nothing but lucky. Yes, I’ve had challenges and yes, there has been, and there will be pain. That’s all a part of it. But I know I’ve been lucky because I wake up every morning, every morning, thinking about how I can help other people be lucky. How can I help people discover pathways that they thought were for other people and not for them? How can I help people stay on those pathways through the ups and downs so that they stay on long enough to get somewhere beyond what they ever imagined for themselves? How can we help people be luckier? Because good luck begets good luck. For ourselves and for the people that we are free to encourage and mentor and cheer on.


Bonus material

If you missed this video of a woman walking into a room of friends and bursting out in song, have a listen: “I’ll always be grateful”