Is what I do technical?

We are trying to design a master degree in Information Technology. To me, this sort of program should be a professional master degree, that is, it does not lead naturally to a research career or a Ph.D.

My business colleagues argue in favour of research methodology courses. Apparently, students need to learn how to conduct interviews and such. In any case, I then pointed out that my master degree did not contain any such course. One of my business colleague then said a deadly thing:

Of course, you got a technical master degree!

This got me really angry. Really, really, really angry. I do not think I ever got so angry in my life.

For the record, my master degree was in Mathematics at the University of Toronto. Is Mathematics technical? If technical is to have a “practical” connotation, I can tell you that none of my graduate courses were technical. Are fewnomials practical? I think not.

But the deeper implication was that anything having to do with Science was technical. That is, it deals with nuts and bolts. And I think that it is squarely wrong. From my view point, business is far more technical. And I ran my own business for several years. The business side of things was always the boring-but-easy component.

There is a distinct feeling in North America that business is king, and science & technology are things monkeys or foreigners can do. Yet, in my experience, it is a lot harder to design a usable web application than negotiate a business deal. I believe that India and China are getting a sweet deal by doing our science & technology while we focus on business. A very sweet deal indeed.

I think that Amazon, Google, Cisco, Microsoft and so on, thrive because many of their engineers have a deep knowledge of Computer Science. Kill the science and you kill the business.

But even if you discard science. Writing good source code is hard. Very hard. And it is not hard for technical reasons, not any more than painting, movie-making and sculpture are technical challenges.

In any case, I believe that North America is headed for a wall if it fails to recognize that its prosperity is due to culture, science and technology. And given that 40% of all students at my school go for a business degree, I am nervous.

See also my post Career Swings where I wrote:

I cannot believe that in 2015, we’ll all be lawyers, business managers, salesman, and medical doctors. I cannot believe that technology will stand still and mathematics beyond basic algebra will be a lost art. I cannot believe my two sons will have business degrees and make three times my salary by managing a bunch of underpaid Indian programmers.

5 thoughts on “Is what I do technical?”

  1. While some mathematicians and computer scientists can deeply understand technology, many don’t.

    In fact, I know a couple of people who teach computer science, but they cannot really maintain their own machines or networks.

    You can be a great computer scientist and have trouble using Microsoft Word.

    In any case, I cannot consider a degree in Mathematics or Computer Scientist to be technical.

  2. The word “technical” is far too underspecified. I’ve seen it used to mean both “applied” and “theoretical”.

    In an information technology company, the common use seems to be to distinguish folks who need to deeply understand the technology from those who don’t. Since understanding information technology often requires some knowledge of computer science and even math, those fields are considered technical by association.

    In any case, I agree that the business value of science and technology education is often underrated, at least here in the United States. Even the best MBAs seem to have “technical” undergraduate degrees.

  3. Daniel, how do you define technical? My interpretation of the word is, “having to do with technique.”

    For example, I used to play the drums, and there were technical drummers and non-technical drummers. This was true for all musicians. The Beatles, for example; very non-technical. They didn’t know how to read music, their music was dead simple, and the didn’t deviate from a whole lot of popular norms. A technical musician would play music that is much more sophisticated: it is challenging to play, is played with perfect form, draws from various genres, and is unconventional. These attributes must be finely balanced with the musical feel to avoid sacrificing the popular appeal of the piece.

    When you say, “writing code…is not hard for technical reasons, not any more than painting, movie-making and sculpture are technical challenges,” are you referring to the difficulty in finding this balance? The technical aspects are easy come by–practice a lot, and you’ll have perfect form. Listen to a variety of genres and artists. And so on. But composing a beautiful piece of music is an art, not a science. This applies to the art of software, as well.

    Part of your post seems to attribute “technical” to the science aspect, while your comment seems to imply, “having to do with technology.”

    How business relates to this, I don’t know. How does interviewing relate to a research methodology, anyway?

  4. For example, I used to play the drums, and there were technical drummers and non-technical drummers. This was true for all musicians. The Beatles, for example; very non-technical. They didn’t know how to read music, their music was dead simple, and the didn’t deviate from a whole lot of popular norms. A technical musician would play music that is much more sophisticated: it is challenging to play, is played with perfect form, draws from various genres, and is unconventional. These attributes must be finely balanced with the musical feel to avoid sacrificing the popular appeal of the piece.

    Great example.

    When you say, “writing code…is not hard for technical reasons, not any more than painting, movie-making and sculpture are technical challenges,” are you referring to the difficulty in finding this balance? The technical aspects are easy come by–practice a lot, and you’ll have perfect form. Listen to a variety of genres and artists. And so on. But composing a beautiful piece of music is an art, not a science. This applies to the art of software, as well.

    I meant that writing good code is not about “learning the languages and the software engineering literature.” I can teach anyone how to program in a day. Few people will ever be good at it, no matter how well they master the technical elements (the grammar, the bags of tricks…).

    Part of your post seems to attribute “technical” to the science aspect, while your comment seems to imply, “having to do with technology.”

    I have no idea what “technical” means exactly. I am a scientist who has to do with technology, sometimes as a hobby, sometimes as part of my research, sometimes as part of my teaching. But define myself as a scientist above all else. Hence, I am not a “technical person”.

    A lot of work I do is mathematical.

    How business relates to this, I don’t know. How does interviewing relate to a research methodology, anyway?

    Research in business, apparently, is running interviews, collecting people’s opinions, and summarizing it.

  5. I think the part to be afraid of is whether or not North America continues to produce knowledge. It really does not matter whether or not they perform the actual grunt work. For instance, many successful professors have not produced a line of code in years. If these professors still can grasp the underlying concepts I don’t think them not doing the work will harshly affect their continued production. But the assumption is that they are familiar with the fundamentals if CS.
    As long as there is effective communication between the “artists” and “managers” I don’t think we should miss a beat.

    Also, a lot of companies such as Microsoft have adjusted their pay grades to both technical and non-technical positions. So you can basically still climb the corporate latter as a technical specialist as apposed to a project manager. So there is a good chance that quality Indian programmers (in NA) may be compensated the same as your sons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *