An Education on Education

An Education on Education

I had a very expensive education. But it was at a good school (RPI),1 in the right major at the right time.2 So upon graduation, I was employed, well-paid, and ready to avoid snow for the rest of my life.

However, many students have paid just as much or more, but they ended up with massive debt and terrible prospects. Here’s how you can have a great education and a great job, or at least avoid crippling debt. Fair warning: it also explains why we’ll never see free higher education in the US.

Forgive and Forget
Student loans are common and literally unforgivable, meaning bankruptcy doesn’t erase them. Why? Well, if you stop paying your mortgage, they take your house. Your car loan? They take your car. But there’s no lien on your education, and no way to repossess it. It’s yours for life, or at least until you forget it. In a dystopian system, they could make you forget it, but they still wouldn’t have it back. That’s why you always owe what you borrowed for education.

A forgiven student loan is essentially a scholarship or grant. Those are great, but have completely different qualification criteria. You typically have to have good grades and beat out other students. I got some grants and scholarships due to academic performance, but it only covered half my tuition. Those who performed better than I, or had greater financial need, got full rides. Makes sense!

Less Than the Paper It’s Printed On
Some think all higher education should be free, but that would be insane because of value. By value, I mean your earning potential after graduation. Some degrees are worthless. Actually, when you factor in opportunity cost – what you could have gained with the same time, effort, and money – they have negative value. This describes many degrees at for-profit universities. Some say those universities tricked people into going there, and I’m sure some did. The government is definitely doing a lousy job of protecting students there. Maybe forgiveness is reasonable in those extreme situations (fraud), but I’d rather see a class action or government lawsuit for fraud repay students, instead of our tax dollars.

Let’s say you’re going to a good school. Your major and the job market still have a huge impact on degree value, and it changes over time. Switch to a Democrat in the White House, defense spending goes down, as does the value of an aerospace engineering degree. Stringent (some would say overbearing) regulation on nuclear power plants has had the same effect on nuclear engineers. These unpredictable events can devalue a degree significantly. Disruptive technology can have a similar effect.

But even with good timing, is the right school and major enough? No, your degree matters a great deal. A friend who majored in bio had to get a masters degree just to be a lab tech or teach high school.3 Just about every scientific field other than computer science requires you to get a Ph.D. to have any career prospects. Many fields of engineering now expect a MS. It blows me away how many students enter college without realizing that.

Of course, you can still have the right major and degree at a reputable school, but it’s the wrong school! Most American universities are specialized in one field or another. Combined with reputation, it has a big impact on value. For instance, MIT is one of the best engineering schools in the world, if not the best. STEM4 degrees from there are quite valuable.

But did you know that MIT offers majors in all sorts of liberal arts fields, such as languages, cultures, and literature/writing? Given that MIT is also one of the most expensive schools in the world, do you think this is a wise investment? What is the expected return on a writing degree from here vs. NYU or the University of Iowa? (Hint: they are the MIT of creative writing.)

The Tuition is Too Damn High
So why don’t universities charge different prices for different degrees, when their value differs so wildly, and there’s clear data to prove it? Because the cost to educate them is roughly the same. You’ve surely heard about the soaring cost of education. Well, investigative reports show it’s not due to faculty salaries. Dependence on adjunct professors has skyrocketed, keeping educator payroll (vs. administrative) pretty stable.

Adjuncts are the bottom rung of professorship. They are part-time teaching jobs that not only have low wages, but educators are paid only for the hours spent in the classroom, not preparing lesson plans or grading papers. Many work multiple jobs to get by and are on welfare and food stamps.

One theory behind the rise of adjuncts is a flooded labor market. Lately, more college students are unsure of what to do upon graduation. They don’t like their options, especially if they have a liberal arts degree, so they stay in school. They get an MFA or PhD, take on more debt. Now they’re qualified for a job that has a flooded market and the worst prospects for tenure we’ve ever seen.5

So if the actual teaching costs aren’t to blame, what is? Buildings. Turns out, your obscene tuition – and alumni gifts – go to new buildings and campus beautification/maintenance. Why? Because prospective students rank campus beauty and amenities very highly when choosing a school.

My friend’s daughter is very smart and sensible. They toured several schools, but when they got to the Ivy League schools, she was smitten. “It looks like Hogwarts!” She’s right, and you know what? I did the same thing. I toured some schools with computer labs that were just a bunch of Macs and PCs scattered around a room. Then I visited RPI and saw rows and rows of high-end workstations housed here:


A big, beautiful chapel of stone and stained glass. It was like a sign from God.

Teenagers may be very smart and sensible (or not), but we’re asking them to make major life decisions – high risk investments – without the benefit of wisdom and hindsight. They are emotional thinkers, and architecture makes us emotional. So they weigh it much higher than they should, and colleges are using it to win them over.

A friend pointed out that administrative costs are also rising. That’s true, but I’ve read that most are related to buildings – it takes a lot of people to plan, build, maintain, and staff a $100M building. You know, like the arts building at my alma mater, an engineering school. Of course, it went way over budget.

Indiscriminately handing out loans makes it easy for schools to raise tuition. Since Reagan, politicians have been buying votes with easy money for houses, elevating homeownership to a basic human right, and causing the housing bubble and economic collapse of 2008. The same kind of thinking, applied to student loans, has created a tuition bubble. Unless we put that in check, tuition will continue to rise and Americans will be saddled with ever more debt.


The first is mandatory mentoring. Before teens pick a school, force them to interact with professionals who have the job they think they want.6 Tell them which schools in their field are most respected, and what degrees are required. In other words, tell them up front what the minimum requirements are. We assume they know this, but they don’t, and neither do their parents. That wastes tons of time and money on the wrong school, major, degree, or all three.

Next, make schools collect data on employment rates and salaries by major. That’s the basic info a student needs to calculate his/her return on investment (ROI) for their chosen degree program. It should be part of the accreditation process and used for student loan qualification. People hate hearing this, but for the foreseeable future, computer science majors at top engineering schools should qualify for much bigger student loans than art history majors at the same school. Or, for that matter, CS majors at Bojangles College of Book Learnin’ and Taxidermy.

That’s smart investing. You don’t reward schools for skyrocketing tuition by having taxpayers give everyone a free ride. That’s part of what’s caused this mess. Schools will erect gilded palaces with 24/7 concierges and we’ll foot the bill.

And those bills will only get bigger. People point to Scandinavian countries as a working model for free education, but ask someone from there how many “permanent students” they know. People studying into their 30s, getting multiple degrees, happily living off the stipend with no intention to graduate. Then consider that the US population is over 12 times larger than all of Scandinavia combined. Heck, California alone is 40% bigger. Imagine the tax burden this would cause. Actually, you don’t have to, just ask someone from Scandinavia what their tax rate is.

At the same time, a top student from a poor family should never think they can’t afford Harvard or MIT. It should be guaranteed!7 That’s how we raise the impoverished. Reward both students and universities who perform well.

Finally, is there an alternative to college? Mike Rowe has been pointing out for years that our society suffers from a false belief that colleges are the only good answer to employment, and learning a trade is a recipe for hard times. In reality, compared to many college graduates, welders and machinists make way better money, have better job security, and they spent less time and money on their education.

I know it’s not easy work, but it could be a lucrative path to artist or author. I’m willing to bet that many tradesmen have great stories. I know veterans do;  just look at Hemingway. Pulitzer Prize? Check. Nobel Prize? Check. College degree? Nope.

The Future

It’s fun to think about the future and what might disrupt education. The first, which is already happening, is distance learning and MOOCs (massive open online courses). A great example is the Online Master of Computer Science offered by Georgia Tech. For at least 25 years, Georgia Tech has been considered a top 10 engineering school and by all accounts their distance learning program is legit. It’s just as rigorous as the one on campus, but cheaper and more convenient.

Given all the cheap adjuncts and grad students available to act as teaching assistants, you can have the star professors giving the lectures and scale this out to many students across the world.

You can also have educational tourism, in the same way you have medical tourism. That could play out in a few ways. First, note that undergraduate education, in STEM fields at least, is largely homogeneous. It’s there to prepare you for a graduate degree, where the real differentiation happens.

Therefore, a school abroad could gain a good reputation by licensing a curriculum from a top school. MIT Open Courseware has most of their material online for anyone to learn from. If a school could also license the assignments, tests, and grading policy, it would gain instant credibility.8

There has already been press about Americans attending German colleges for “free.” I can even see the same for us, brain draining the rest of the world because we don’t have enough students who get can into, say, top medical schools. Seems like a great alternative to a doctor shortage. I’m all for attracting the world’s best to America and fast-tracking their citizenship and contribution to society (including taxes).



  1. Less famous for being the oldest engineering school in the country than for its 4:1 gender ratio. []
  2. Computer science during the dot com boom. []
  3. Some states, including NY, require both a MS degree and a teaching credential to teach science. Despite the fact that a semester of college science teaches you more than a year of HS science. []
  4. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math []
  5. But even before this, there was a sign: elbow patches. I always thought they were cool, a symbol of knowledge and authority. Then a friend explained that they weren’t a fashion statement but a sign of poverty. Professors were required to wear suits and had their elbows on desks while writing all day. They wore out the fabric, but couldn’t afford to buy new suits, so they sewed leather patches on them to keep it from happening again. This is why I won’t buy a new jacket with elbow patches, just as I don’t buy jeans with holes in them. It’s poverty as a fashion statement. []
  6. Yes, force, because they will probably be shy and insecure about it, and not realize adults get a big ego boost just from being consulted. Heck, I have to hammer this home to young professionals who already have a job. []
  7. I know Ivy Leagues are making sure that happens, but only very recently, and only because they’ve been shamed by alumni donors. []
  8. I have several other ideas along those lines, especially for computer science. If you’re an international school who wants input from an authority on the tech hiring process, reach out. []
Mark Suster Talks Startups At Innovate Pasadena

Mark Suster Talks Startups At Innovate Pasadena

This morning at Innovate Pasadena I got to see Mark Suster speak on startups. Here’s my report.

For those looking for funding, he recommends his one coffee per week method. This where you have coffee once per week with someone who can increase your chances of getting funded. His recommendation is to identify VCs in your area who would be a good fit, then find who they have funded. Those are the ones you want to ask out for coffee. Well, the ones who have time for you – you can probably skip the ones running a $1B company. Tell them about what you are doing and ask for honest feedback. If the entrepreneurs like you and value you what you are doing, they will pass your information along to VC. Emailing the VC directly is right out.

The Team
It seems I’m not the only one who has seen crazy startup teams in the LA/OC area. By crazy, I mean they have 5 managers and nobody to build the product. I get approached by people like this all the time and my thought is that they’ve already sliced up the equity 5 ways, so I’ll be working like a slave for a fraction of the company. No thank you, best of luck.

Mark believes this happens in LA because individuals are afraid to fail. In a group, it’s not “I failed,” it’s “we failed.” Safety in numbers. Mark’s ideal team is 3-5 engineers and a product manager, the latter of which is probably the CEO. If you’ve read Paul Graham, Joel Spolsky, or Founders at Work, you’ve heard this before.

He also says that sales people are coin operated, meaning they’re mercenaries. Good ones are worth a certain salary and if you don’t have the sales to support it, you’ll pay them outright or they’ll leave. For startups, he recommends instead an evangelical business development person.

He also recommends you don’t outsource your development. Now, I run a company that builds software for other companies, including startups. So of course I believe it depends on your product. He recommends that if you can’t convince developers to work for you for free (and that is exceedingly hard in this market), you try to hire them perhaps off Elance or Odesk. That’s one route, if you are confident in your ability to qualify developers and manage them directly, but that’s much harder than it sounds. In fact, one piece of advice I’ve heard lately is firing bad hires quickly. And I’d say that’s in part due to not having the ability to interview and qualify them.

I humbly suggest that – if done correctly – it’s quite possible to outsource the MVP and bring development in-house when revenue can support it. Some, like Klout and Fab, have taken it much further. That said, if you’re going for VC funding, not having a technical cofounder can be an impediment you’ll need traction to overcome.

Is It In You?
Mark got into the slog of being an entrepreneur and referenced his most popular blog post. It’s not nearly as glamorous as the press makes it out to be. I think the best analogy for this is it’s like being a professional athlete. Maybe .02% of the population is cut out for it. You have to ask yourself, are you really a Pau Gasol? Because this is the majors. It’s an incredible amount of work and it doesn’t slow down until you succeed or fail.

Speaking of which, he addresses age discrimination. It’s absolutely rampant in the VC world. He’s not a part of it; he’s invested in those in their late 30s and 40s. Those are the people most VCs see not as experienced, but as old.

Why is that? It’s their goal: a billion dollar company. That takes 8-11 years to build, going at a full startup pace. A lot of life changes can happen in that time. You sure aren’t getting more energetic as the years go by. Your personal and financial responsibility is probably increasing over time. While he isn’t an ageist, he does say that the earlier you can do this, the better.

Or don’t. One can take 8-11 years to grow a damn fine business while actually enjoying life. This is absolutely a reasonable thing to do. In fact, one could argue that a VC-backed startup is completely unreasonable – practically insane – way to live your life.

Further Watching
Mark recommended the following two interviews for further startup education:

Mark interviews Bill Gross, founder of Idealab

Mark discusses “entrepreneur math” with Kelly Hwang

What Stifles Startup Growth in OC?

Last night I attended an Orange County Tech Startups event on the future of innovation and startups in OC. Shervin Talieh put together great panels and I heard some interesting stats provided by journalist Chris Casacchia of the Orange County Business Journal (we need an infographic!). We heard how there are a number of billion dollar business in OC, but they’re in diverse fields. As most know, hardware, aerospace/defense, biotech, and action sports are more prevalent than software.

Here are my reasons for OC’s failure to launch a big startup culture: (more…)

Companies Using Grails

Companies Using Grails

I’m pretty excited about Grails, but am often asked for social proof. Well, by every measure,1 Groovy is the #1 JVM language after Java, and Grails is the #1 full stack web framework.2 But for some, that’s not enough. They want to know who is making it #1? Major companies. Below I’ve listed the household names. I could not get details for some companies, but a Google search will verify the claim (e.g., the Disney developer posting a Grails question to a mailing list).

Last update: August 20th, 2015


  • DISH
  • Disney
  • Epic Games
  • ESPN
  • Industrial Light & Magic
  • LiveNation – TicketWeb
  • Live Gamer
  • Lucasfilm
  • MTV (and Viacom by extension)
  • NBC Universal
  • Netflix – Asgard, their Amazon EC2 cloud management app, now open sourced.
  • Riot Games (makers of League of Legends)
  • Rumble Entertainment (maker of Kings Road)
  • Time Warner Cable


  • American Express
  • Bank of the West
  • Citi
  • Credit Suisse
  • Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
  • Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City
  • Fidelity Investments
  • First Data Corporation
  • Freddie Mac
  • H&R Block – mobile site (now defunct)
  • Intuit – Intuit Payment Network
  • Janus
  • JPMorgan Chase
  • MoneyGram
  • OppenheimerFunds
  • PayPal – Bill Me Later
  • UBS Wealth Management
  • Visa
  • Wells Fargo


  • 7-11 (back office systems)
  • Big Lots – core site
  • Jostens
  • Macy’s
  • Nordstrom (HauteLook)
  • Panera Bread
  • Target
  • Walmart – MP3 streaming site (now defunct)


  • Apple
  • Atlassian
  • Cloudera
  • CollabNet – web interface to SVN server
  • CyberSource
  • Dell – Enstratius
  • Ericsson
  • HP – Application Information Optimizer
  • IBM – Kenexa
  • IEEE
  • Infusionsoft
  • Intel – New Devices Group
  • Nokia
  • Qualcomm
  • Rackspace
  • Rally Software
  • Seagate
  • Symantec
  • T-Mobile – internal apps
  • Toshiba- Toshiba America Business Solutions


  • Commission Junction (part of Conversant)
  • Condé Nast
  • eHarmony
  • GEICO – mobile web
  • HealthPartners – Virtuwell
  • Humana
  • Infusionsoft
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • LifeLock
  • LinkedIn – Recruiter application
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Lyris
  • NetJets
  • Nissan – Leaf site
  • Orbitz
  • Pacific Gas and Electric Company
  • Precor – Preva product
  • Raytheon
  • ReachLocal
  • Reinsurance Group of America
  • Time Inc.
  • Trip Advisor
  • UnitedHealth Group
  • ValueClick
  • Virtual Tourist – core site (parent is Trip Advisor)
  • Volkswagen – UK site
  • The Washington Post
  • The XO Group (parent of The Knot /
  • Zynx Health (Hearst Health Group)
These are household names in some countries outside the US:
  • MACSF – (France) insurance company, internal systems
  • Mercado Libre – (South America) core site
  • National Film Board of Canada
  • Sky – (UK) TV listings, movies, and showbiz sites
  • Vodafone Music – (UK) core site
Colleges and universities:
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Colgate University
  • Columbia University
  • Harvard University
  • NYU (Langone Medical Center)
  • SUNY
  • UCSF
  • University of Alaska
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of Hawaii
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of New Mexico
  • University of Oklahoma
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of San Francisco
  • Yale University

There are lists of many lesser known companies/apps found here and here.3 Another good place to check is Find Grails Jobs and I used all of them to compose this piece.

  1. Tiobe, job listings, etc. []
  2. Granted, I can only think of 3 others, Play, Roo, and Seam, but full stack is where you get the most productivity. []
  3. Apologies in advance that I’m intentionally leaving off startups and smaller companies. That’d be too much to manage and it won’t sway managers and architects, which is the point of this piece. []

Selecting Technology Using Job Ads

In IT (as in most industries), there are many factors to consider when choosing a new technology. One must carefully consider cost, features, ease of blah blah blah who cares? The only thing that matters is: will this look good on a resume?

Enter Indeed job trends. Indeed is a job website that searches many databases at once. They have launched a nifty tool that allows you to graph job trends based on keyword; it even does comparisons.

Comparisons are perfect for choosing technologies. To do a comparison, you separate keywords with commas. You can also have multi-keyword searches by separating them with spaces. And you can quote exact phrases. Yeah, that’s not terribly clear so I’ll just give examples.

Consider the many technologies used to create rich internet applications (RIA). It’s ridiculous. You want to know what’s in demand and what’s gaining ground. I used a context keyword in my search phrase since some frameworks use common words with multiple meanings (dojo might be found in karate instructor jobs, flex in body builder jobs, etc.). So requiring “ajax” to be in the job description makes the search more relevant:

ajax scriptaculous, ajax yui, ajax dojo, ajax flex
Scriptaculous, YUI, Dojo, and Flex job trends

Here we can see that my choice to begin Flex 3 classes was freakin’ brilliant.

Since these are statistics, they can help persuade others by lying. For instance, two popular Java build tools are Ant and Maven. You want to use Maven 2 because it’s newer so it must be better. Let’s compare:

java maven, java ant
Maven vs. Ant job trends

Crap. That won’t help convince your boss. Which is bad, because the real reason you want to use Maven 2 is that you’ve heard Atlassian uses it, and you want work for them so you can move to Australia and be around sheilas with cute accents (never mind the spiders the size of small dogs). No worries, Indeed has you covered. Just change the scale from Absolute to Relative:

Maven vs. Ant job trends - relative comparison

Wow, Maven is taking off like crazy – 600% job growth! That totally makes up for Ant having 4 times as many jobs. And this technique works with every other cutting edge framework and tool. I mean, it has to; that’s just how math works. You go from zero jobs to some jobs, that’s like infinity percent increase for significantly small positive values of zero. Math doesn’t lie.

Hopefully by now you’ve realized I’m employing some tongue in cheek humor. At the same time, being able to chart industry trends is valuable for both your business’s technical strategy and your career planning. Use it wisely.