On Careers: Duking It Out with Bill and Steve

Susan Hall

Based on recent speeches by two well-known dropouts, there's an interesting discussion going on at The New York Times about the courses and majors college students should pursue.


Bill Gates recently said that our investment in education should be focused on academic disciplines and departments that are "well-correlated to areas that actually produce jobs." Meanwhile, in introducing iPad 2, Steve Jobs said:

It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough-it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.

Six experts weigh in with short pieces offering the expected responses-that tech is where the jobs are, that even techies need to know how to write well, and that the answer is both and that in 10 years the degree or school won't matter. All six pieces are thoughtful and interesting, but Ed Lazowska of the University of Washington made a point I found fascinating-and it was an aside:

(Unfortunately, most people in higher education would agree that while a student who arrives to college seeking a science or engineering education gets a reasonable exposure to the arts and humanities and social sciences, the reverse often is not the case.)

As Fast Company writer Anya Kamenetz put it, also in an aside:

... there's an argument to be made that technological skills constitute a new form of basic literacy for meaningful participation in society...

Increasingly, technology creates different kinds of divides between the haves and have nots. There is a technology component to basically everything these days. The most recent example I've experienced was Actors Theatre's online feedback mechanism for the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Even if building such technology isn't your job, every organization is using technology and those who figure out how to use it best will be those that survive and prosper.


With the spectre of being replaced by automation-and the so-called "hollowing out" of jobs in the middle of the economy-it's hard to predict the future and the direction students should take. I've shared before that my teenage son's interested in languages and has expressed interest in becoming a translator. Yet I know that right now Google is experimenting with a feature for real-time translation on Android phones. Still for those questioning whether college is worth the expense, Bloomberg Businessweek editor Chris Farrell answers, emphatically, yes.


This topic is near to the heart of scholar/entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, who wrote a piece at TechCrunch in addition to the one for the Times.


I like his philosophy:

My advice to my students-and to my own children-is to study what interests them the most; to excel in fields in which they have the most passion and ability; to change the world in their own way and on their own terms. Once they master their domain, they can find the path to entrepreneurship. They can then come up with creative ways of solving the problems that they have encountered, and apply their ideas to other fields where their knowledge adds value.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 21, 2011 7:57 AM Renee Davies Renee Davies  says:

As the founder of a company that does IT recruitment as well as providing human resources consulting, I find that today's college students are stumbling to find the best "fit" with their skills. However, this is an elusive target as the technical skills needed to compete are too dynamic. A better approach is to focus on interpersonal skills, team building and communication along with specific technologies. Those who will continue to thrive will take a holistic approach to their education. Additionally, all tech students should embrace the philosophy of life-long learning; seek mentors who are good business people as well as good at technologies; and lastly, focus on what they love. My senior tech recruiters are always happy to share their thoughts on what they see in the work world. You may reach them through www.hrpg.com.


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