How Important is Education?

by Nick Monday, August 29, 2011 9:09 AM

About a month ago, I took the day off from work and went to Oshkosh for the EAA Fly-In. If you've never had the opportunity to go, and you enjoy flying, it's quite the experience. For the two weeks of the fly-in, the skies over Oshkosh become the busiest airspace in the world, and the variety of aircraft is quite impressive.  The day that I went up was declared to be Burt Rutan day, and the air show that day featured several of his innovative designs, and they had several more on display which did not fly. Burt Rutan was also there that day, spoke at several different venues, and I was lucky enough to hear him speak.

Burt RutanBurt Rutan, in my opinion, is one of the move innovative aerospace designers in history. While few of his designs have become extremely popular at the time, the designs he used often times were incorporated years later after more mainstream companies and designers started using them. He is truly the definition of "years ahead of his time".  Among various aircraft, he also designed SpaceShipOne, the first private manned spaceship.

Rutan spoke on many different topics, from his history as a designer, to the Space Shuttle. However, one of the more interesting topics he talked about was the value of having an aeronatical engineering degree in aerospace engineering. His view was that graduates of an aerospace program were essentially statisticians with no creativity. They would look at lots of data about how a current design operated, decide on a couple of areas that could be changed, and made minor tweaks. Then they'd run the data again. In any given year, an aircraft design would improve, but only on the margins.

According to him, many aerospace designers don't have a "gut". They don't come up with innovated designs that are truly game changers because they don't have a gut sense about how a design should work. If they can't model it directly, it won't happen. Rutan also talked about some of the low tech and rather simplistic methods he used to test various aircraft designs to verify that it would actually fly... but that was generally enough. One of those methods involved pulling a scale model attached to a trailer with a ball joint down a highway with his car.

Rutan's point was, just like the old basketball saying goes that "You can't teach height", you also can't teach that kind of creativity. You are either an out of the box thinker, or you're not. And often times colleges are structured in such a way that they try to suppress any subersive thoughts you might have about new and innovated ideas. This is not to say that data analysis and modeling aren't important. But at the same time, in any technical field, there is far more to the job than simply following existing models and slightly improving them.

These same lessons apply to software development. Education and certifications can be good signals to someone's ability, but there is far more to being a good developer than knowing your GoF patterns and the syntax to your chosen language.

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Nick Schweitzer Nick Schweitzer
Wauwatosa, WI

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I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit. ... Full Bio

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