The Winter of My Discontent

Read­ing Time: 3 min­utes

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?