D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

Good Grades Don’t Solve World Problems

Sunday, July 4, 2010 11:14 PM

I’m going to toot my own horn here for a bit, highlighting some accomplishments from the last almost-decade I’ve been in the IT industry:

  • Stayed up almost 48 hours straight creating suite of Crystal Reports for a start-up company’s initial product (which launched at the end of that 48 hour period btw).

  • Wrote my own markup language for declaring formatting within an XSL:FO doc that would be translated through a Java app to output a PDF.

  • Introduced initial prototype of web-based application ported from a successful desktop app (that company has since switched all their desktop apps to web apps).

  • Architected/Wrote inventory application (Windows CE platform, barcode scanner enabled device) that provided huge time savings for client’s year-end inventory count.

  • Handled client interaction and contributed to coding of ASP.NET 2.0 (beta) web application for communicating office building availability and lease information.

  • Project-Managed and oversaw all process from setup to delivery for a Canada-wide rollout of new computer system for a retail chain.

  • Targeted a niche technology (BizTalk) and achieved employment as part of a BizTalk team with no prior experience other than book learning.

  • Ran a local technology conference under employers banner. Followed that up with running my own technology conference under my own company in a different city/province and with speakers from all over Canada and the US.

  • Helped lead four different user groups, starting three of them. Involved with INETA, Microsoft MVP for the last three years, worked Ask the Experts booth at TechEd a few years back, have spoken at various user groups, code camps, and conferences, and have built a network spanning the globe.

And I did it all without getting a high GPA average in college.

This week I’m sitting in on a meeting to discuss ways of enticing businesses to look at technology students that don’t have the highest GPA’s for consideration when it comes to co-op terms or post-schooling job placement. The problem is the age old standard of assuming a high GPA equates to a quality employee.

While many industries have evolved and moved forward with their techniques and tools, education has remained largely unchanged with a reliance on quizzes, tests, exams, and work assignments. All of these revolve around the idea that students must learn (read: memorize) material and be able to retrieve it on command. Those that are able to do this are obviously more serious and dedicated to their selected craft and their education.

Bullshit!

The ways people work today, the methods they use, the resources at their disposal…all of these are out of synch with how our education systems are preparing students. The working world doesn’t need people to flip switches and turn knobs. They need people who can *think*, who can visualize solutions to problems, who can be creative and ingenious, and who can make a difference in an organization instead of just filling a seat.

And looking solely at grades does not tell you the full story. It does not tell you about the true ingenuity of a person, or their ability to solve problems, or their ability to communicate with others, or their ability to be part of a team. All it tells you is that someone was really good at passing tests and doing assignments.

So what has to change? Two things.

Schools/Education System
First, schools need to wake up and realize that the way they determine grades are outdated. Having students regurgitate facts and answers is not a useful way of communicating to industry which students are truly the prized pupils. Having students apply their learning to a situation provides a truer sense of not only whether the student understands the concepts but also (and more importantly) how to apply them properly.

Of course, this also means that teachers/instructors need to change as well. Educators now need to be creative, resourceful, and inventive in ensuring that they’re challenging their students. They also need to be brave enough to stand up to the status quo of how learning has been delivered for the last century.

Industry Organizations
Organizations hiring students need to broaden their own hiring requirements and invest more time in ensuring their interviewing the right prospects. Just because a student has the highest GPA in his/her class doesn’t mean they’ll fit into an organizations culture or be able to fulfill the needs of the position being hired for. HR and IT departments need to come together to form game plans for scouting talent ahead of the co-op or graduating date. They need to talk to teachers about specific aspects of the students work. At the very least, their interview methods need to be more involved and thought out than the generic “Tell us about a time when…” style of questioning.

Students
Actually, there’s a third thing that needs to change: Students and their attitude of entitlement. For a while we held the Winnipeg .NET User Group at a downtown college location. Having graduated from said college, I thought this would be a great opportunity for students in the IT programs to network with professionals in the industry…maybe event present and show off their talents or their school project. I tapped my instructor contacts at the school to help spread the word. And with multiple intakes of technology related programs happening over that year, we only got a handful of students show up. What an incredible opportunity wasted by so many!

The problem is that students have bought into the same bullshit that educators and industry have been preaching: the GPA is king, nothing else matters! But that’s wrong, and even if that’s what they’re hearing from teachers and industry connections, THEY’RE wrong. Students have a responsibility to market themselves and their skills in whatever way they can, and that doesn’t mean a fancy resume template or a token website. It means blogging. It means getting involved with community. It means attending industry events and networking. It means reaching out to businesses that might be hiring instead of waiting for them to contact the college/university. It means actually DOING something for your career.

That’s what I did. My co-op placement wasn’t sourced by the college. I saw an ad in the paper for a company looking for software devs and I responded to it, explaining that I was looking for a co-op term and throwing the potential for government subsidized wages in as extra bait. I landed it.

Expect Better
The funny thing is that the group that stands to lose the most in utilizing the GPA measure are the hiring organizations. The cost for acquiring an employee, even a student, is substantial. You don’t want to waste your time and money on someone that ultimately isn’t going to fit your organization, and GPA won’t tell you that.

Instead, organizations need to look beyond the number. See what accomplishments the students have done, both in and outside of school. Make interviews less about “tell me about a time” and more “how would you respond in this situation”. Investigate potential students up front by talking with instructors and councillors. But don’t just set GPA as the first pass for whittling down a stack of resumes. Unless you really don’t want to put the effort into finding the right person and just want a smart body to fill a seat…a very expensive seat.

Educational organizations need to find better, more meaningful ways to test students and relay that data to perspective employers. Pressure needs to be applied both from industry and from students to hold schools accountable for how they communicate success.

Students need to do more than get good grades, especially in this economy. If you want to be successful in your career, you have to work at your career and not just in exams and assignments. Do you know what’s better than having a high GPA? Having made connections and relationships with industry people who you can contact personally when it comes time to land that co-op gig or a job after graduation. And the value of those relationships will last much longer than your college GPA (After a certain point of time, people care more about your experience than what you did in college…especially as you move further and further in time away from graduation day).

The World Doesn’t Run on GPAs
The problems of this world require people who are able to solve problems, come up with ingenious ideas and inventions, and communicate on a wide range of levels. None of that can be communicated through a GPA unless educators change the way they determine success in their classrooms. Until that happens its up to industry organizations and the students themselves to put in the extra effort.

And to those non-4.0 GPA students out there reading this, take another look at that list I started this blog post on. I didn’t require a high GPA to achieve all that, I just had the passion and drive to accomplish things. As you enter the real world outside of campus, you’ll find this to be true as well: Your final grade in college does not limit what you can do in your career…but its up to you to accept that.




Feedback

# re: Good Grades Don’t Solve World Problems

Your post reminds me of this recent slashdot article which you might find interesting.

http://news.slashdot.org/story/10/07/01/208222/Zoho-Dont-Need-No-Stinking-PhD-Programmers 7/5/2010 11:18 AM | Christina Gray

# re: Good Grades Don’t Solve World Problems

It appears that many people are starting to notice that the education system is out of whack with reality. I stumbled across an upcoming documentary which attempts to address the inadequacy of the public school system (US of course). They have a trailer: http://www.racetonowhere.com/. It was especially interesting that my 12 yr old son thought the points raised in the trailer were quite valid.

On a more personal note, you're absolutely right about the lack of correlation between GPA and effectiveness in the workplace. I am one of the those "high GPA" folks and I will admit that the work involved in getting a high GPA was different from the work required to get the job done for my employer. It's not even the same as actually learning something (as sad as that sounds).

As you've pointed out though, part of the problem is caused by the way organizations hire people. Usually, you have somebody in HR who doesn't really know anything about the position (especially tech positions) using some sort of checklist to screen applicants. Of course, GPA is one of the items on that checklist so many lower-GPA folks (who may be better candidates) get passed over for consideration which only perpetuates the idea that a high GPA is required.

On the bright side, I think the reliance on GPA diminishes as you gain years of experience. It's mostly applicable to the newly graduated. Still not a good thing but the tech industry seems to (rightly) value experience over education for the most part. 7/5/2010 11:38 AM | Dave Witwicki

# re: Good Grades Don’t Solve World Problems

It appears that many people are starting to notice that the education system is out of whack with reality. I stumbled across an upcoming documentary which attempts to address the inadequacy of the public school system (US of course). They have a trailer: http://www.racetonowhere.com/. It was especially interesting that my 12 yr old son thought the points raised in the trailer were quite valid.

On a more personal note, you're absolutely right about the lack of correlation between GPA and effectiveness in the workplace. I am one of the those "high GPA" folks and I will admit that the work involved in getting a high GPA was different from the work required to get the job done for my employer. It's not even the same as actually learning something (as sad as that sounds).

As you've pointed out though, part of the problem is caused by the way organizations hire people. Usually, you have somebody in HR who doesn't really know anything about the position (especially tech positions) using some sort of checklist to screen applicants. Of course, GPA is one of the items on that checklist so many lower-GPA folks (who may be better candidates) get passed over for consideration which only perpetuates the idea that a high GPA is required.

On the bright side, I think the reliance on GPA diminishes as you gain years of experience. It's mostly applicable to the newly graduated. Still not a good thing but the tech industry seems to (rightly) value experience over education for the most part. 7/5/2010 11:38 AM | Dave Witwicki

# re: Good Grades Don’t Solve World Problems

Great post D'Arcy. I'm largely in agreement. I didn't need a précis of your achievements to agree with your statements about the shortcomings of the education system - it's spot on, and totally jives with my last blog post on the same subject.

I do have one point of disagreement though and that is that the education one receives at school, even in this day and age does have *some* value - the transfer of information. Students need a base from where to start their quest for knowledge - they need to know the basic subject material for which they're trying to find further information. Even in the current climate where we've got the infinite (it seems) querying abilities of Google/Bing/WolframAlpha and numerous other indexing facilities.

You come unstuck when you need to find information based on other information you know nothing about. I'll just take a generic topic out of a hat. How do I ask a search engine for answers about a topic for which I know nothing about? Like say... how do I design a piece of code in a trending programming language that will allow someone to view information I've collated in some data repository in Internet Explorer?

Piece of cake if I understand the keywords, I wanna write a .NET MVC Web App that references data in an instance of SQL Server 2008.

So there is *some* value in the education system - there needs to be some transfer of knowledge to give the students a kick start.

We need to find a more appropriate method of testing information retention, understanding and interpolation though, because putting kids in exams will give you information that is biased towards those that have good retention and can recall and use it well under pressure - that is valuable, but you are right, doesn't tell you that the other kids don't have the potential to be more valuable.

A useful topic in school would be teaching kids how to survive under pressure. I think the biggest thing stopping a lot of kids doing well in exams is that they panic. The first thing we know about panic is it causes you not to think clearly and when you don't think clearly, mistakes are made, things go wrong and outcomes can be bad - in other situations, they can be fatal.

I learned this in an EMS course I took a few years back - most water fatalities in cold water occur within the first 20 seconds of falling in the water, not as you might suspect, hypothermia. 90% of those fatalities are people that consider themselves good swimmers. You might be surprised to know that even without protective clothing in 50 degree water it takes 1-2 hours to reach the point of unconsciousness from hypothermia, and even then with buoyancy, your expected time of survival can be anything up to 6 hours. But when people fall into cold water, they panic, panic causes them to flail and make bad decisions, they take on water and quickly drown.

Consider this metaphorically - under pressure of an exam, someone who hasn't been conditioned not to panic will do so, and they'll quickly drown - metaphorically speaking of course.

Maybe one of the classes on the syllabus should be called "Don't Panic", and all it does is put kids in different situations every class that would normally induce panic and condition them against it so they can think clearly and objectively under pressure. 7/20/2010 12:42 PM | Ben Alabaster

# re: Good Grades Don’t Solve World Problems

HR has no business hiring IT professionals IMHO. HR people are not in any kind of position to evaluate somebody's skill, the only thing they have to use as a gauge is GPA! That's the majority of the problem right there. IT professionals should be evaluated by the IT professionals that they would end up working with if hired.

I could go on and on about the misplaced reliance on HR departments :) 8/19/2010 2:31 PM | Chris D

# re: Good Grades Don’t Solve World Problems

I was actually inspired to write a blog post about hiring, so here it is!

http://agileshoptalk.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/self-organizing-teams-a-new-take-on-hiring/ 8/19/2010 3:44 PM | Chris D

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