Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

I frequently get asked about my background, and what factors into success in technology. We'll cover my education, and things even more important.

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.

(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.

Article C3419 - June 17, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

June 17, 2008 7:28 PM

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.

June 24, 2008 11:49 AM

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.

Bill Holland
June 24, 2008 5:40 PM

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.

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