“If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.” — Samuel Clemens
It was 1980 when the most wonderful and magical thing that my then 6-year-old brain could imagine happened. I was introduced to the Apple II series computers at my very forward-looking school’s computer lab in 1980. They were absolutely stunning devices, replete with what must have seemed to me at the time to be bazillions of buttons–oh my god, the buttons! As I watched a demonstration by one of my first teachers, and saw what she was calling a turtle race around the screen, leaving behind it an ever-expanding trail of symmetrical shapes-come-art, I was hooked. A lifelong passion was born right there in that room.
Shortly thereafter, my parents brought home an Apple IIc–this was the newest portable model–and the real learning began. My parents were not particularly technical people, and so left the setup of the new system entirely to me. This was a big, important—nay, critical–job for someone my age, but I was determined not to cough up the ball.
Knowing no cultural norms that would preclude me from it, I did what seemed logical at the time, and began voraciously reading every piece of paper that came with the new computer. I think I even had the serial numbers memorized two days in. I wanted to make sure that I knew everything there was to know about the workings of the mass of wires, keys, boxes and new-smelling electronics–oh! That smell!
Fast forward to my teenage years running Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) on a series of “IBM” machines with chips like the 8088, and the pattern that would come to define me in many ways continued; everything, it seemed, required reading. Want to find out about a particular piece of software, or how to install it? You’d have to read reams of courier style font printouts, replete with the obligatory dot-matrix printer tear-off strips on the side, in order to figure out just about anything–and that was after you had spent a week searching for that document… and searching, and searching, and then searching some more.
See, at one time there weren’t any search engines, or the World Wide Web, or even the Internet as we know it today. If you knew some people, you might get lucky and get yourself connected to a large document repository, maybe even a library system of some sort, but those connections were few and far between. You also weren’t connected in the “always on” sense of the word that we’ve come to understand as today’s Internet. You would connect to a BBS somewhere, request a document, and that document might come to you days or weeks later–after the chain of nightly connect-and-exchange for things like FIDO mail, etc., had completed. So searching was a profoundly personal affair, and you learned to get good at it, and you learned to have patience. And you learned.
Fast-forward to today, and what in God’s name does it all mean? In means that after years of hiring people, managing and mentoring them, and sometimes letting them go, I’ve seen a trend that profoundly bothers me: a lack of desire to learn; at least, a lack of desire to do it independently of any training dollars, classes, or edicts from management. In other words: nobody wants to learn on their own–for the pure sake of figuring it out–any more. Everyone wants to be spoon-fed what they need to know.
Have we lost the desire to sit down at a terminal and bang away at it until we’ve figured it out? Or has the IT industry as a whole become diluted with people who, still reeling from the news coverage of the heady days of Silicon Valley startups, simply jumped in to an industry they saw as a path to wealth? I suspect the problem is the latter, and it just takes a lot more work now to weed out a pool of applicants. It’s no longer provable that you are a geek by your resume alone. You may be an interloper, attracted by money, and reasonably smart, but unwilling to do more than what amounts to a quid pro quo of sorts.
I have had several applicants for jobs tell me outright that they won’t learn new technologies unless they’re told to by a supervisor, and then only if it’s in the form of a training class. This attitude, while surprisingly common, causes me to worry about the future of the Information Technology landscape. Are we going to find ourselves with a small percentage of immensely talented engineers–ostensibly valued because of their almost superhuman ability to learn anything–supported by an ever larger group of mid-level support staff, doing only what they’ve been trained to do? Or are we already there?