The Software Mindset

Human beings have been creating tools for our entire existence. Tools that have helped us build shelter, produce food, and transport us across the globe. But for the first time in our history, we have built a tool that helps us with the one thing that has separated us from everything else, our mind.

The computer is the first tool we have created that makes us a whole lot less special. And that scares the crap out of us. One of the topics of greatest concern today is how computers are replacing humans in the workforce. In the past, our tools replaced low-level type jobs that were replaced with other jobs, which were often better paying and less labor intensive. But those tools replaced jobs of the muscle, not jobs of the mind. Computers now have the ability to replace all kinds of jobs, from the burger flipper to the corporate executive . And with the rise of artificial intelligence, it seems inevitable that computers will be able to do more and more. How are we to cope with machines taking more of the work?

If you listen to the popular media, the future sounds pretty grim. Computers are doing more of the work and when the jobs disappear they are being replaced at a slower rate than they are disappearing. But as an optimist I believe in human ingenuity and adaptation. I also believe there’s a way to help us deal with this changing landscape. And that way is the Software Mindset[1] .

The Software Mindset means recognizing that the power of computers and the software they run is not something to fear but instead something to use to your advantage. It means having the awareness of where and when software can make our lives easier and more productive. The key to thriving in a world of advancing computers is to use them to augment our own abilities. Just like two is greater than one, a human plus a computer is far greater than just a computer.

If we want to be able to use computers and software to expand our potential, we couldn’t be living at a better time then now. We are living at a time where not only does almost everyone have access to a powerful super-computer at their fingertips, but also at a time where the majority of software tools are free or cost no more than a cup of coffee. The success of the smartphone has enabled a whole world of “computer literate” people. It also brought with it better user experiences. Getting most things done today are only a few taps and swipes away. You don’t have to know how your smartphone works to get it to tell you the local weather or transcribe what you’re saying. We’re getting to the point where you don’t even need taps or swipes. Just by asking for what you want using your own voice enables you to get a lot of what you need done accomplished today and we’re just at the beginning of what’s possible.

This means you don’t have to be a technical wizard in order to get power from software. The same way you don’t need to know the inner workings of a car in order to understand that a car is a vehicle that allows you to transport people or things from one place to another, you don’t need to understand how to write computer code to run in order to get a software program to take a set of instructions and execute them over and over. This is core to what the Software Mindset is all about.

The key to the Software Mindset is not in identifying what tools are available or even what those tools can do. The key to the Software Mindset is recognizing situations where software can help you solve problems. And those situations are growing quickly. We all face situations everyday where software can help us. This means we all have opportunities to improve our abilities through the use of software.

For example, how many times throughout your day/week do you find yourself repeating things? For me, it’s often. I write the same emails, schedule meetings the same way, and do the same budgeting every month. I would guess you’re probably similar. Each time we repeat ourselves, a light bulb should go off in our heads telling us there’s a better way. And there is. It’s through software. The specific tools don’t matter as much as recognizing the opportunities to improve (though if your looking for some software to help you out, check out IFTTT and Zapier). It’s not just when we repeat ourselves either, software can help us gather information, create shortcuts, and customize our preferences.

Equipped with a mindset that helps us recognize the opportunities to use computers for our advantage, we should no longer fear computers but instead look forward to leveraging them.

[1] Jeff Lawson of Twilio had a similar concept he came up with in 2013, which he called Software People. You can see him give a talk on it here: I think the Software Mindset however goes beyond businesses and products and can cover everyone, from grandmothers to elementary school children.

Originally published at on February 20, 2016.

Rethinking our public schools

My mother is a public school teacher. She teaches first graders in New Jersey. Over the years I have had many conversations with her about the state of public schools and the direction they are going in. The conversations generally leave me frustrated. Frustrated because I know we can do better. People like my mother dedicate their lives to improving children’s futures. Yet the system they work in is full of problems preventing them from having the greatest impact.

This goes against what you typically hear when people discuss improving our schools. Instead, you’ll usually hear that it’s the teachers that cause problems. The argument is that tenure and teacher unions are preventing our children from getting a great education. They believe if we only had the freedom to fire bad teachers we would have the greatest schools in the world. This is the argument used by many conservative politicians.

This argument couldn’t be further from the truth. The major problem with treating schools as if they were businesses is that it’s based in fantasy. It assumes only bad teachers would be fired and only great ones would be hired.

Unfortunately, this isn’t reality. First, schools, like most public entities, are under a lot of pressure to reduce costs. Second, public school teachers are paid on a schedule based on experience and education level. And finally, there is an abundance of new teachers graduating and applying for teaching jobs every year. It shouldn’t take a degree in economics to figure out that if you got rid of tenure and teacher unions tomorrow and started treating schools as businesses, the more experienced, better educated, and most expensive teachers would be the first to go. This hardly sounds like an approach to getting the best education for our children.

Or maybe you’ve heard improvement has to come from the home. The argument here is that a child spends a lot more time at home than in school. So if a child gets little attention at home, even the best schools in the world aren’t going to be able to help.

It may be true that home life has an impact on a child’s education. But the reality of the world we live in today is that there are more single parent homes than there ever have been. In addition, many parents need to work multiple jobs just to survive. This isn’t an excuse for parents to neglect their children, but if a child’s home isn’t providing the attention needed to do well in life then I think our schools should answer the call.

Instead of focusing on teachers and parents, the place that should be the central focus for improvement is the school system. It’s a system stuck in the past with few updates since the early part of the 20th century. It’s time we update it.

The first update should be treating teachers better and showing them more respect. Teachers are the core of our educational system and should be treated as such. We should hold teachers in the same regard as doctors and lawyers. But in order to accomplish this we’ll need to make some changes.

One of these changes should be introducing higher qualification standards for teachers. Like doctors and lawyers, teachers should have to go through more years of schooling and training. This should increase the quality of teachers that we produce as well as better control the amount of teachers that are graduating and looking for jobs. I think the medical field probably has the best model to imitate, where years are spent both learning as well as actually doing. Because teaching is a skill that requires hands-on learning in addition to classroom instruction.

If we increase the amount of schooling and training required to become a teacher, we should also increase the amount of money a teacher makes. The current compensation for public school teachers is embarrassingly low for what they do. This will have the added benefit of both drawing better talent to the field of teaching and gaining more respect for teachers from society. Right or wrong, people who get paid more tend to get more respect in society, with the possible exception of Wall Street.

These changes should even appeal to conservative politicians. With increased training and salaries, teacher unions won’t be needed as much. Most of the jobs today that still have unions are ones where employees feel mistreated by their employers and threatened to be discarded. If teachers don’t feel threatened and treated poorly, then they’ll be much less likely to desire a union to protect them.

Another update to the public school system I think we need to make is redefining what school is. Schools today are run almost exactly the same as they were run 100 years ago. But in order to address the problems facing our children today, we have to change it. One of the ways we should change it is by increasing the length of the school day and getting rid of long summer vacations.

Increasing the length of the school day would have many benefits. First, it addresses the problem of parents not having time to take care of their kids. Currently, parents try to solve this problem by using something like day care or a babysitter. But why can’t schools fill these roles? They would also be able to have more time to teach the things they might otherwise learn at home to fill the void discussed above. And the typical day wouldn’t have to be structured the same way either. Students could have multiple teachers throughout the day who specialize in different things from childcare to reading.

Longer days could also help encourage schools to explore different curriculums. Teachers would have more time to dedicate to go deeper with subjects and even explore teaching less traditional but potentially more interesting and beneficial subjects to students, like computer science. It could also be used to get all students to participate in extracurricular activities. Maybe we’ll even stop calling them extracurricular and instead just except them as part of the school day.

It seems a little ridiculous that we stop educating our children for two months of the year. Removing summers would help students hold onto subject matters that are often lost over the summer months. We can still give breaks to students every so often for a few weeks at a time, similar to what we do now for winter and spring breaks. Eliminating summers would also have the added benefit of helping parents answer the difficult and sometimes expensive question ‘What do I do with my children during the summer?’

If you removed summer vacations, you would also help ease a division between rich and poor children. With summer vacations, wealthier parents can afford to send their kids to summer camp or hire tutors. This gives them a leg up against their less fortunate classmates whose parents can’t afford tutors and instead may spend their summers in front of TVs. Without summer vacation, all children can spend the summer months learning, no matter how well-off their parents are.

There’s little reason in my mind why we couldn’t implement these changes. I think we’ve just gotten used to it, so we accept it as normal. Most of the challenges, like hiring more teachers, structuring the days, and figuring out new curriculum are small hurdles that can be easily overcome.

If we want an education system that goes above and beyond our current one then we need to be willing to make big changes. Of course there will be obstacles to overcome in implementing them, namely how to fund them. But considering the size of the US government’s defense budget compared to the budget for education, there definitely seems to be room for more intelligent ways to allocate our resources.

Not improving the educational system in this country is not an option. We take great pride being the most innovative and forward thinking nation in the world. Yet our educational system is hardly innovative or forward thinking. Our challenge is that the world is moving faster than ever before and if we don’t have the courage to make big changes then we will be left behind.

We need more polymaths

The incessant concentration of thought upon one subject, however interesting, tethers a man’s mind in a narrow field.

— Sir William Osler (The Father of Modern Medicine)

Ever since Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, the world has become more and more specialized. This was for a very good reason. As outlined in The Wealth of Nations, specialization makes economic sense. A group of ten people each making an entire pin by themselves are no match for another group of ten people each specializing in making just one portion of that pin. The economy as a whole becomes more efficient and wealthier when people (businesses and countries too) stick with what they are good at.

These market effects make daily life for everyone better as well. You do not have to worry about growing your own food, building your own home, or making your own clothes because others specialize in doing that for you. Leaving you free time to specialize in something else so the baker, carpenter, and fashion designer have more time to dedicate to their craft. Not only does this make things more efficient, but by doing so it also lowers the cost of everything. This is why hand-crafted furniture from a local woodshop is much more expensive than buying furniture from Ikea.

Ok, enough of the economics lecture, if specialization is so great for society then why is the title of this essay We Need More Polymaths? What’s good for society is not necessarily good for the individual! It may be the case that society works well when lots of people are specializing but this essay is not about maximizing society’s well-being, it is about increasing your well-being. But it is also true that society can benefit by having more individuals take a multi-disciplined approach as detailed below.

Today’s workforce are needing to change jobs/careers at an increasing rate. It used to be that if you got a job at an established firm, assuming you showed up and worked, you held that job for the rest of your life. Times have changed. Everyone needs to adapt to the changing work landscape faster and faster.

The innovation word gets thrown around a lot now but do we know what it takes to innovate and be creative? It takes the ability to combine ideas in new ways. If you only understand one world, it’s going to be really hard to combine ideas from different disciplines.

That’s why innovators like Steve Jobs, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Ben Franklin were so successful. They did not learn just one discipline and stick to it. They learned across a range of subjects and were able to create new things no one else saw. By taking the multi-disciplined approach, you will see things that others will not be able to see, further separating yourself from your peers.

There is also a growing concern in society that the ‘machines’ are taking jobs away from humans. To a certain degree this is true. If your job can be broken down into a set of repeatable instructions then you should be worried, because if a piece of software is not already doing your job, it will be soon. But the best defense to future-proofing yourself is to be able to do what machines are not good at. One of those things is thinking creatively. And like mentioned above, the way to think creatively is to be able to combine old ideas in new ways (hint: across disciplines).

Unfortunately, our education system is doing a poor job to encourage this kind of thinking. Classrooms and subjects in schools are silos with teachers never talking about the connections between them. They should be encouraging cross studying. It would make education both improved and more interesting. But since the education system is not helping us think this way, we have to do it on our own.

Today’s world is very different from the world in which Adam Smith created his theory. We need to move past what got us here and start thinking about how we can move forward. And I think a good way to do this is to encourage the multi-disciplined mind and not the singular one.

For more information about this, read/watch Charlie Munger’s talk A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom.

Institutional Education’s Shortcomings

I am very passionate about education. I come from a family of educators. My mother is a teacher and her mother was a teacher. In my opinion, it’s one of the most important topics, not just in America, but in the entire world. Most of the world’s challenging questions can be answered with education. By educating the population, you give everyone the best chance to solve the hardest problems.

The problem is that I have never liked school. From the time I first entered pre-school until I finally left college, school has always been something I was required to do but never liked it. Often I found school to be extremely boring. This was caused by a combination of things over the years, like bad teachers, boring subjects, and a deep hatred for being told what to do, which still exists to this very day. To be honest, probably the only reason I kept going to school for as long as I did was because I was required to[1] and to please my mother.

The really disappointing thing is that I love learning. I am the type of person who will go out of my way to learn something new if I am interested in it. Take for example my professional life, I am currently a software developer but I didn’t major in Computer Science in college. Nor did I take a single Computer Science course. Instead, through starting my own company, I realized how valuable programming skills were so I ended up teaching myself to program. I didn’t take any formal classes or one-on-one tutoring. Instead, I used resources that were readily available and almost entirely free.

There are loads of resources out there now to enable you to learn just about anything. There are Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs for short), lesson by lesson instructional websites like Khan Academy and Code Academy, iPad apps that can teach you anything from the ABCs to complex mathematics, and also non-technology resources like books. While each of these resources take their own approach to education, they all have something in common: anyone can use them at any time. This is vastly different from traditional institutional education, where everything is structure and in a particular order.

Institutional education has some good reasons to take a structured approach but they are mostly because of external requirements already put in place. Government mandated educational requirements and curriculums are set with the assumption that classrooms will be a room of students, all of the same age group, with one teacher to lead the lesson. We know intuitively that no one human being is exactly like another, yet we treat their education as if that was the case.

An opposite approach would be to treat every student differently. Cater their learning experiences specifically to their needs and abilities. That is the promise of these new forms of education. But it is also something that can be used to make the traditional classroom experience better.

In my own experience I can tell you that over 18 years in institutional education, I probably read a total of 10 books that were required of me to read. Compare that to now where I read on average 2 books per week. This should never be the case. School should not be the place where I read less, it should be where I read more.

There are a few factors that I think contribute to this. The first is that the books are required and assigned. There is no input from the students or even a choice. Yes, this is done in order to have lessons were every kid is reading the same thing so you can have discussions about the same book. It’s also true that the school and/or teacher probably know more ‘classic’ books than the students do or would choose. But what it is missing is the intention. Would you rather a student read nothing of a required book or read an entire book of something that might not fall into the NY Times best-seller list?

Another frustration of mine from my educational experience was the lack of a connection between subjects. One example of this was shop class. I really liked shop class. We got to use big, loud machines and actually got to make things! Yet the public opinion of the class was that it was a joke. It was the type of class that was required but didn’t teach you anything and you would never take it again unless you weren’t doing well in school.

This couldn’t have been further from the truth. The problem was no one was able to connect the dots for me. Teachers didn’t, other students didn’t, and I didn’t. It’s sad that this was true. It’s not a hard connection to make that math and shop class were very closely related. There were other classes too. Chemistry, physics, etc. all are involved in shop class just no one told me. And I did ask. This isn’t only true of shop class either. Many other ‘non-traditional’ classes that often excite and interest students are never explained or connected.

The amazing promise of the internet and the access to unlimited amounts of information is that we no longer are tied down by what people or schools tell us we should know or learn. It just takes a spark of curiosity to discover and learn anything you want in the world. This is what gets me really excited about things like the Global Learning XPrize. It’s also the reason I think we need to take a step back from the way things have always been done in education and rethink how we might approach it if we had to start from scratch with the tools of today.

What types of changes would you have wanted in your educational experience?

[1] This includes both legally (through the age of 16) and because I was pursuing a career in baseball which required me to be enrolled in class in college.