US President Barack Obama made an observation last April:
One of the things every time I come to Silicon Valley that I’m inspired by but I’m also frustrated by is how many smart people are here, but also frustrated that I always hear stories about how we can’t find enough engineers, we can’t find enough computer programmers. You know what, that means our education system is not working the way it should, and that’s got to start early.
A country facing recession and high unemployment, and yet Silicon Valley is in a talent crunch where companies like Google and Facebook have resorted to constantly acquiring companies now just for the talent. How so?
My friend Mike Casey (more on him below) and I have come to call this “Everest Syndrome”. It’s where our smartest men and women are wasting their potential in middle management of a large corporation. Where they climb the corporate peaks for the elusive goal of getting to the top, many killing themselves along the way and only to find out how lonely it is at the top.
I believe it is the biggest crime of our time, as these people should be at the forefront of our economy, driving its progress and ultimately increasing our standard of living.
Sketching the picture with some stats from Australia
I’m good friends with the guys that run Grad connection, the largest graduate recruitment website in Australia and the fifth biggest jobs portal in the country. I asked one of the founders Mike Casey to pull out some numbers to illustrate how graduates enter the workforce. Although their total database is much higher, we were able to get 17,887 students who specified a specific course they had studied — which represents about 12% of the 150,000 students that graduate each year.
While I’m sure we could get more scientific on this sampling approach as there’s a bias on their employers and hence graduates, it still paints a fairly representative picture on the broad base ‘commercial’ disciplines. Gradconnection has just five categories which account for 88% of the total sample population, which are as follows:
- Commerce: 31%
- Accounting: 20%
- Banking: 18%
- Information Technology: 11%
- Law: 8%
Accounting and banking means 38% of graduates end up in financial services, and the lawyers grow that professional services group up 8% to 46%. (For context, services make 71% of the Australian economy — with the topic of this post referring to the now distinguishable quaternary sector emerging.) That’s not a good thing and here’s why.
A story by the storyteller
I went to a school that made me think doing a business degree was the right thing; and when at university, thought working at a big bank or professional services firm was the ultimate goal and what would make me successful in life. Those things in themselves are not a bad thing, but the attitudes they created were: at high school, I thought the people studying art were wasting time; and at university, I convinced a former school mate to make our newspaper venture a non-profit university society rather than an actual business that his father was willing to bank roll. The reason? I didn’t want to threaten my studies by a project, that would prevent me from “something important” like getting a job at a big firm.
That attitude I had — fostered by my environment — is pathetic. (Although ironically, this “non-profit” which challenged us to find a useful product/market fit exposed me to the Internet and led me to develop my first business idea of electronic newspapers…which fortunately never went passed the business plan.) Everyone can similarly liken it to how every good family has children that become lawyers or doctors, because that’s considered a good direction in life. My father — a lawyer of nearly 50 years now –often complains about the over-supply of lawyers in the industry: there just isn’t enough work to go around to sustain all these graduates.
We need graduates that originate value
I’m a chartered accountant and I’m proud to have survived the grueling process to become one. But like all professions, my training has me biased towards being a service provider. Service providers add a lot of value and we need them, but the thing is that they are optimisers of value, not originators of value.
If you had a nasty court case to handle due to a marriage breakdown, business conflict or car accident — then my father is a God-send because he can help you solve those issues with his expertise. But what happens where you don’t have any marriage, business or car issues that require his help? Well, you’re happy and he has no work. Service providers are inherently dependent on the rest of society, which is why there can only be a fixed supply of them.
This is very different to what I regard the originators of value. The art students I shunned at high school, can now do something in technology that has them one of the most sought after talent: design interfaces. Apple, a company that has brought interface design into the core of the company’s approach to building technology, will probably become the most valuable company in the world ever to have existed.
Similarly, scientists and engineers: they are builders. They can build value, for any industry and a solution to any problem limited only by their creativity. We will never have an excess supply of computer science students, because if they can’t get employed they can simply leverage their skills to entrepreneurship and employ themselves!
Accounting is the language of the business world and it’s why I decided on that path; but I’ve now come to appreciate computer science as the language of the information society. Those who smartly go in that direction, will be the leaders of our future.
We need more people in startups. But startups are not for everyone
If our smart people need to get out of the big corporations as a postulate, where should they go? They should be working in startups. And instead of being service providers at big banks, they should be product builders at disruptive companies.
But not everyone. I’ve observed multiple times personalities that are more detail-orientated and prefer structure tend to get more easily frustrated in the organised chaos that is a startup. They focus on execution, whereas a startup is more experimental and adaptive — and so clash with people who are the latter. While differences in personalities is a given thing in any work environment, the issue with these clashes is that you need people who can hold their head and not blow up. Conflict is fine, as long as it’s managed — and I’ve found more structure-orientated people tend to freak out more and then affect the work of their colleagues (which is the real issue, not the fact they need a more structured work environment).
But with that, is the only disclaimer I’m willing to give to Everest Syndrome. If there was one thing I could change in the world, it would be that. Because ahead of poverty, hunger, and war — it is smart people working on challenging problems that can help change the world. The Internet’s development and people understanding computer science creates the opportunity for not just new startups, but every day innovations that can automate processes (like research), connect people (like disaster relief) and maximise the opportunity for economic and political freedom for humanity.
Not everyone has the intelligence, passion and will to be a science researcher uncovering new medicines, one of the nobler career choices in my eyes. However, computer science is fast becoming the new literacy in business. Put more simply, if you don’t know how to put a website up on your own, then stop feeling pity for the third word’s first order impoverishment and reflect on the rich world’s higher-order impoverishment reflected in your inability. A symptom of a bigger impoverishment of the mind, that is a disillusion of what truly is valuable to drive our society forward.