41 years later, what did University really teach me?

I recently read Dave McKay’s (President & CEO at RBC) post on “Why IBM’s Ginni Rometty has me thinking about the future of post-secondary learning”. In the post, “Ginni says the half-life of most specialized skills nowadays lasts just five years.” I recall being told a similar statement when I graduated engineering in 1979, that the half life of an engineer’s skills at that time was also 5 years. What this statement means is that the relevant skills taught to a graduating engineer would be be reduced to half their value within 5 years or sometimes is phrased as 50% of the relevant skills taught to a graduating engineer will be irrelevant or obsolete within 5 years .

So now, 41 years after graduating, what skills did I learn from 4 years of engineering school that I still use today?

Not surprisingly, it is not calculus, differential equations, mechanics of deformable solids, or a host of other technical competencies nor is it any of the computer skills learned then, given the most advanced technology of that era was an IBM 370 mainframe and the PDP-11 minicomputer.

What I took away from university that I still use forty years later are the problem solving methodologies; the experience of cramming and crunching to meet deadlines; the ruthless prioritization skills required to scrape out a passing grade when the assigned workload was 2X the available capacity even if you worked a 100 hour week; the ability to work as a team to divide and conquer this workload; and the knowledge that if I survived the insanity of Systems Design Engineering, there wasn’t much that the working world could throw at me that could possibly be worse. After all, we were the only engineering program whose unofficial motto was “we teach you a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing”.

But there are nuggets that I was taught that I still retain and use frequently that haven’t changed. In first year, we had an introductory course on Systems Theory which discussed how systems work. What I remember as one of the major laws of System Theory was simply stated: “to optimize a subsystem, is to make the entire system suboptimal”. This simple, elegant statement has guided me in how I look at companies, organization structures, business plans and budgets. It has given me the fastest path to see and assess what is breaking or broken.

In a bizarrely named “Engineering Economics” course, I learned what discounted cash flow, return on investment, return on capital assets, internal rates of return and project budgets were and how to build business cases to justify and manage projects. In Engineering Law, which was a highly sought after “bird course” which every engineering student wanted to take because it was the only easy course in our schedule, I learned about contracts, tortes and a number of other related topics. These two courses likely contributed to me later doing my MBA because they revealed to me how little I knew about anything other than math and physics.

With age and the benefit of time, I have gained a different perspective on University. I see analogies to elite military training programs that put soldiers through hell to see if they survive. Absorbing and retaining content is less important that the accomplishment of surviving and winning at the game because the strategies learned to succeed are the lessons you retain. Many people talk about “life-long learning” and how university prepares us for that. Maybe, but I think those are more likely innate skills we bring to university and a prerequisite for success there. I think it is the learnings of handling the pressure, collaboration, team building, problem solving, and developing mental toughness that are the hallmarks of a university education and those don’t have a half-life in business.

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