Disruption & Access

I came across thIs chart the other day on Twitter showing camera production from 1933 through 2014. Camera Sales

This chart is great because it perfectly illustrates the good and bad parts of disruption. Better, more portable cameras destroyed the incumbents (Polaroid, etc.). But at the same time these innovations massively increased access to and use of cameras (this is the point that most people miss). It's estimated that there were more photos taken in the year 2014 than there were in all of the years prior to 2014. That's incredible.

The fact is that while disruption can cause some short term pain it almost always results in a greater good for those in the industry. More people travel because of Expedia. More people go out to dinner because of Open Table. More people listen to music because of Spotify. More people get a ride because of Uber. And on and on.

This is perfectly analogous to what needs to happen in healthcare and education. We need the incumbent analogs to go away and the innovators to take over and give access to a lot more people at a much lower cost. We just need the regulators to get out of the way and allow it to happen.

Hard Work Isn't Enough Anymore

There was a good op-ed from Thomas Friedman in yesterday's New York Times titled, Average Is Over, Part II.  The key line for me is:

Thanks to the merger of, and advances in, globalization and the information technology revolution, every boss now has cheaper, easier access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. So just doing a job in an average way will not return an average lifestyle any longer.

I've written in the past that hard work isn't enough anymore and as Friedman points out this is becoming more and more true. If a person or a machine anywhere in the world can do your job as effectively as you can at a cheaper cost it is simply a matter of time before you're unemployed. You have to find a way to add irreplaceable value.

In some ways, I think the key to thriving in this new environment is just to simply be aware that doing a "good enough" job isn't enough anymore.

I'm glad Friedman is giving people that awareness.

You're Not Special

Here's my favorite excerpt from David McCullough Jr.'s highly publicized commencement address at this year's Wellesley High School graduation.  It's about time educators starting sending this message...read the entire speech if you get a chance.

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

Yes, you've been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs.  Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special.  Because you’re not.

Segmenting the Unemployment Rate

Any data set is a lot more useful if you segment it.

As an example, let’s say you find out that your e-commerce website converts at a rate of 3%. That is, for every 100 visitors, 3 make a transaction. That’s somewhat useful data, but it isn’t actionable -- i.e. you can't do much with it -- until you segment it. 

You need to break the users into segments: by gender or age or income, etc. When you do, you’ll find actionable insights that will allow you to take actions that will increase your conversions. For example, you might find that men between the ages of 30 and 40 that make more than $100k per year actually convert at the rate of 20%, but that most of your site’s visitors are in lower converting segments, thus the aggregate 3% conversion. With information like this you can adjust your marketing to bring more higher converting users to your site -- you'll get more marketing bang for your buck.

We must do the same with our unemployment data. The unemployment rate -- last time I checked -- was 9%. This number is quoted over and over again in the media as if, by itself, it actually means something. 9% unemployment is not actionable.  It must be segmented.

For example, the U.S. unemployment rate for those with graduate degrees is 2%, college grads 4.5%, high school grads 9.7%, non-high-school grads 15%. 

It’s critical to recognize the difference between these segments. The data is telling us that for the educated segment of our population, unemployment is at or well below its natural rate. But for the uneducated population it’s super high. This is actionable data. This tells us that there isn’t necessarily a shortage of jobs. There may actually be a shortage of qualified labor. Politicians should keep this segmentation in mind when evaluating "job creation" vs. "job training" programs.

The 40 Hour Work Week

I came across what was supposedly a very, very controversial graduation speech given by a right wing talk show host to students at Texas A&M.  It turns out that the speech was simply a chapter in his (fictional) book.  Much of the speech is totally over the top.  But if you’d like to get your blood flowing you can check out the entire speech here

The reason I’m posting about it is there was one line towards the end that struck me as pretty good advice for college graduates… 

Speaking of earning, the revered 40-hour workweek is for losers. Forty hours should be considered the minimum, not the maximum. You don’t see highly successful people clocking out of the office every afternoon at five. The losers are the ones caught up in that afternoon rush hour. The winners drive home in the dark.

Also, related to this topic, Salon.com had a good article a while back on the advent of the 40 hour week, that argues bringing it back would increase productivity -- interesting read when you have a few minutes.

Stop Stealing Dreams

Seth Godin just released his free ebook titled, Stop Stealing Dreams. It's an excellent book. I highly recommend reading it and passing it onto your friends -- especially those that work in education. It's basically a series of blog posts so it's an easy read. Here are some lines from the book that I liked the most:

Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor.

Are we going to applaud, push, or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable, and mediocre factory workers?

There are so many examples in the mainstream news of companies not adapting and failing as a result (Research in Motion and Kodak are a couple of the most recent examples). The markets change, competitors take market share and the companies that don't adapt fail and fail fast.

There's no secret here. In fact, I would bet that most school administrators and politicians could explain exactly why Research in Motion is failing. But our schools -- possibly our most important public institution -- are doing exactly what RIM did, and to some degree are experiencing the same fate.  

Why College Isn't Getting Cheaper

There’s a great column this week from James Surowiecki in the New Yorker where he talks about the education bubble the U.S. might be facing.  I recommend reading it if you get a chance. 

Related to the column, over the weekend, I was thinking about how much more valuable a car is now than it was 20 years ago.  These days, you can buy a beautiful brand new reliable car with good gas mileage with all the bells and whistles for about $12,000.  When I was a kid the only people that had cars like that were the rich Dads.  Today, there are rich people and lower middle class people driving around in the exact same car. 

The reason for this is twofold: 1.) global competition has driven down the price of a car and 2.) car companies have become wildly more efficient, allowing them to build much more car for a relatively small amount of money. 

The same can’t be said for college education.  Global competitors can’t “import” a cheaper education and colleges and universities aren’t any more productive than they were 20 years ago. 

Because of technology innovations and a more skilled workforce, the average worker at GM is much, much more productive than she was 20 years ago.  This is not true of the average professor at Harvard.  She’s still teaching about 20 students per class and it still takes 4 years to produce a diploma.  At the same time, that professor is making much more than she was 20 years ago.  Costs are increasing, output is not.  And colleges simply pass the increasing costs onto students.

As Surowiecki notes in his column, some of this is inherent to the educational industry – it’s generally easier to improve productivity in a manufacturing environment than it is in a classroom.  But it also points out the gross lack of educational innovation coming out of college campuses.  The Occupiers should add that to their list of grievances.

Math, Science and America

My company just held an all day recruiting event for computer science majors from top colleges in the Northeast; 48 students attended. Of the 48, there was 1 that was born in the United States.

What does this say about America and -- more importantly -- does it matter?  One thought...

Given the skepticism and short attention span of many young people, it's about time teachers stopped keeping the applications of algebra, calculus and trigonometry a secret. Telling students with artificial attention deficit disorder to "trust me, you're going to need this someday" is unlikely to work.  Let's start with easy to understand and cool applications -- flying planes, walking on the moon and building skyscrapers. We can back into the boring stuff.