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What's your background? Did your University education help?

I’ve seen you answer many questions in depth and with many details,
you show that you are a very experienced person in the field of
technology. My question is what university did you attend and how much
did it help you? What courses did you take?

B.S.E.E., University of Washington, class of 1979.

Yes, it did help, but to be totally honest … it was just a part of
a much larger puzzle. A very important part, don’t get me wrong, but to
look at just my college education I think misses a tremendous amount of
what brought me here.

I mention all of this because I get asked similar questions all the
time, and for those considering or embarking on a career in technology
… well, you just know I have opinions.

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(I’ll apologize in advance for the length of this one, and the fact
that it might feel a little self-indulgent. Two topics that frequently
get me going: writing about myself, and giving career and education
advice. Smile)

I graduated in 1979 with a Bachelors Degree in Electrical
Engineering. The U.W. was just starting up its Computer Science
program, and having expressed a vague interest in “electronics” on my
application, the school simply assigned me to the E.E. program.

“It’s infinitely easier to be great at something
if it’s something you simply love to do.”

I’d never touched a computer until the second semester when
Engineering 141 – Introduction to Fortran Programming was a
requirement. That was, quite literally, a turning point in my life. It
was in that class and because of that class that I discovered my
career.

Overall, I was an average student. By that I mean that if you look at
my grade point you wouldn’t be particularly impressed. However, if you
focused only on those classes that had something to do with computers
and computer programming, the story was a little different. That
Fortran class? Not only did I do well, but (perhaps in a premonition of
things to come) I helped a few other students out as well. The very next
class I took was assembly language, and before long I was also working
at the computer center as a “consultant”, helping other students who
were having problems with their introductory classes.

My focus while in school was definitely influenced by being in the
E.E. program as opposed to the C.S. program. While I did take a few
required C.S. courses, I spent most of my time learning about
microprocessors, assembly language and the like. All of this low level
stuff would serve me exceptionally well in later years. Some of my
fondest memories were the most “real world like” project classes; the
kind where your entire class is about building something and it
works on the last day of class.

As I said, on the whole I was an average student. I positively
sucked in some courses, but did very well when it came to technology.
The result was a mediocre grade point. To help offset that, I stressed on my resume
that my grade point was much more impressive in courses related to computers and programming.

Now at this point you may think I’ve pretty much answered your
question:

  • My University experience served me very well

  • Classes that focussed on fundamentals – things like microprocessors,
    assembly language programming and other low level basic concepts – were
    to become major building blocks for my career

  • You might also infer that the other classes in which I didn’t do so
    well didn’t really matter to my long term success.

To a degree, you’re right. I’ve answered the question you asked.

But there’s so much more, both before and after the college
experience that played as big a role, if not bigger in some ways, in my
career.

Pick Good Parents

OK, this is partly in jest, but it illustrates a very real and
important concept: innate ability.

There are some aspects to computer programming that cannot be
taught. The ability to think logically, for example, is fundamental. At
its core logical thinking is, in my opinion, in many ways untrainable. You can refine
it if you have the basics, but if the basics aren’t there, then you’re
going to have a much more difficult time dealing with an environment
that – by all appearances and occasionally to the contrary – is entirely
about logic.

That’s my way of saying that part of it is genetic and I had good
genes.

Both my parents were very intelligent, and though not highly
educated in the formal sense, exceptionally well educated by
experience. My father was a mechanical engineer, and I can see deep
similarities between us regarding our ways of thinking and dealing with
problems. I proudly call myself a Software Engineer for that very
reason – what I do is very much a form of engineering.

I honestly believe that much of my innate ability, my way of
thinking and my ability to look at problems through an engineer’s eye,
is primarily genetic. It’s something I was born with.

And to my parents credit, they both encouraged me, each in their own
ways, to develop my talents in preparation for what was to come.

Do What You Love

Some people absolutely hate that truism, but I believe that
it’s perhaps the single most important factor to your success as you
navigate career choices and school. In my opinion, it’s more important
than what classes you take, and more important than what school you go
to.

If you choose a field of study because you think it’ll make you
rich, you’re choosing that field for the wrong reason.

If, on the other hand, you choose your career because you
absolutely, positively love doing it … then you’re closer to
the right track.

Consider what I said about myself, above. I had no clue what I was
going to do for a living when I entered college. Then I happened to
take a class where it became clear. What I discovered was that I
absolutely loved programming, and I was good at it.

The fact that people would pay me to do it was a bonus.

So here’s a test for you: do you struggle with the classes or
projects associated with your future career? Do you have to cheat to
pass? Or do you absolutely love doing your projects, and can’t wait for
the next? Do you do more stuff in your spare time because you enjoy the
work so much? You can guess which I believe is the more likely
indicator that you’re choosing the right career.

I recall people in school who were absolutely set on being computer
programmers … and yet from what I could tell they hated
programming. They didn’t get it, they didn’t like it and they struggled
through every class. To this day I have no idea why they were there.
But I have a pretty good idea that they did not become successful
computer programmers.

Why am I successful? Because I love what I do. I took every
opportunity to do it when I was in school, and I did even more at home.
My first job saw me outlast the people that hired me, as well as take
on even more work as I moonlighted for others. (I call it “work”, but
you know that it was just so much more fun for me.)

And yes, I retired from Microsoft at the age of 44, yet within 6
months I was back working part time, and within two years I had struck
out on my own – learning, playing and programming.

Doing what I love.

There’s a reason I call it both my career and my hobby.

So yes, choose a good school, take good classes, learn as much as
you can.

But make sure that whatever you choose to do it’s something you
enjoy, and something you can be passionate about.

It’s infinitely easier to be great at something if it’s something
you simply love to do.

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3 comments on “What's your background? Did your University education help?”

  1. Thank you for answering my question, i now realize i have alot to think about before i jump into conclusions about what i’d like to do in the future. You’re lucky to find something you loved so much and make a living doing it. I really like the “Do What you love” part and think that this part really completes your answer, Thanks Leo.

    Reply
  2. From a teacher’s perspective, I think many people overlook one of the most important aspects of higher education: learning HOW to learn. I remember paging through my physics and math books at the start of each semester and thinking “This doesn’t mean anything now, but in a few months I’ll (hopefully) know what this stuff means!”. And it didn’t just apply those technical courses that comprised my major and minor. Even the required humanities classes — many of them anyway — evoked that same anticipation. Maybe it’s because I enjoy learning so much that I switched from research physics into physics eduction.

    Another example of the value of an education is my sister’s unexpected career. She studied audiology in college (at the same school I attended) and fully expected to find a job in that area when she graduated. However, there were no good jobs in her region and she was not willing to move to another part of the country. As a temporary measure, she took a relatively menial job at a large corporation, fully expecting to return to speech and hearing when an opportunity presented itself. As time went on, however, she was promoted upward through the company, based on the fact that she had a college degree and was thus able to learn new skills. She eventually moved into upper management as head of the Personnel Department! She has never used the audiology degree, but she has continually used her ability to learn new things.

    We are told (by people who study such things) that today’s high school and college students should expect to have at least 3 or 4 distinct careers during their working lives. As technology evolves faster and faster and influences society more and more, many jobs will simply disappear, many will change drastically, and some will be created with astonishing speed. Their education doesn’t end with a diploma or degree, but will likely continue throughout their lives. That means the ability to learn is every bit as important as the material being learned. To me, a lifelong teacher, that prospect would be daunting. I’ve been doing the same thing my entire working life, and it’s exactly what I prepared for in school. My students, on the other hand, have grown up in such a changing world, so it doesn’t seem to bother them.

    There are exceptions, of course, but one of the things that a college degree indicates is the demonstrated ability to learn a variety of topics reasonably well. The better schools are preparing their graduates for this new world by emphasizing life-long learning skills more than ever before.

    Reply
  3. I’ve often heard it said that education is the “key” to opportunity. I interpret that to mean that it is NOT the door, or the vehicle, that will transport you to success. It is, instead, the means of making things available: it “opens” the door – you still must go through it yourself and pursue whatever lies on the other side.

    Reply

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