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October 11, 2007

Convenience of Ignorance

Now that I have fixed my firewall and asterisk box, I have a bit more time to share a few thoughts. Yes, baseball season is over and I must suffer through yet another miserable off-season. More on this in future entries.

As some of you know, I recently did some recruiting at my alma-mater, Florida A&M University. Though, I do not visit Tallahassee often, it is refreshing to walk down memory-lane and talk with the engineering students and some of my old professors.
Having your company send you on such trips is priceless. Actually, my previous trip to the Florida panhandle was in 2005 for my cousin's graduation. Prior to that I had not stepped foot on campus in nearly seven years.

During this trip, I spent the majority of my time at the College of Engineering. Our college is unique, in that we have a joint program with Florida State University. Both schools supply professors, equipment and research dollars. I do not believe that there are other programs with a similar setup. The students seemed to very interested in the automotive industry, which seemed a bit peculiar considering the current state of the North American auto industry. Perhaps it was the fairly strong brand of my current employer, who knows.. I'll share more thoughts on this too.

During my brief stay at the College of Engineering, I quickly began to see that much had changed in the way that engineering students view computers. Granted I was only in the lab for a short while, but it has become obvious that UNIX is marginalized.

Gone are the days of the beloved pizza boxen (ie SUN Sparcs). There was always a sense of discovery which was part of the learning. Many of us spent countless hours in the lab building a web presence using GNU editing tools (vi, pico, emacs). In the midst of learning about building painfully simple web sites, we taught ourselves how to navigate the Solaris OS. Learning by doing was the word of the day. A fellow student once, showed me how to write a C program which could grep the apache access logs and report useful information about who was viewing my resume. None of us were Comp Sci students. We were just curious engineers with a keen fetish for problem solving. There was simply no interest in the convenience of ignorance.

The trend certainly has changed. The students which I observed did not seem to be enthusiastic about learning anything outside their chosen field of interest. Moreover, the curiosity is stifled by an administration that is beholden to proprietary computing solutions. How can the students discover anything when it's provided on a silver platter ;) Additionally, proprietary solutions simply discourages the type of exploration that was so prevalent during my undergrad experience. Yes, I know that Sun-OS was not free nor open, but it provided a nice framework for exploration.

Where else could you export your workstation graphics display upon some unsuspecting student? What about concatenating audio files to a different computer across the room? Sophomoric indeed, but quite fun and it was learning. You cannot do that easily on a Windows box. You find any of this in some GUI. I really have to tip my cap to the former director of computing Dave Kuncicky. He really encouraged students and faculty to experiment and tinker. During his tenure('95-98'), he helped build out the UNIX infrastructure and set a very high precedent. In fact, I'm sure that some of the older Solaris NIS/YP authenticating boxes are still running at the College.

I suppose the engineering students' behavior reflects the vast majority of computer users. The average user simply wants to use the computer as a tool to accomplish a task, not as a learning mechanism. Heh, who has time to learn. Heck, you really don't have to learn anything as Google has already indexed it for you.

So, what is a technical mind to do? You look for opportunities to capitalize on the ignorance. Create value and teach when it is appropriate. There will always be money to be made, while this blissful ignorance exists.

Posted by AG at October 11, 2007 6:21 AM