Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Moneyballing employee hiring

This is a follow-up to my last post trying to create competition for the college degree, but framed from the perspective of the employer.  Think about the Moneyball concept in baseball -- using statistics to find value where nobody else can see it, allowing you to build a team of undervalued players that can compete with teams with huge payrolls.  Now apply it to hiring talent in any field.  I am positive that there are characteristics that can be measured and analyzed to recruit a team of lower cost employees that do as good or better work than high-paid employees hired through traditional processes.

Who are the undervalued employees?  I think that people with strong communication and teamwork skills offer huge dividends but don't have a way to show off their talent.  I think people who self-educate through MOOCs and books are driven self-learners with a depth of knowledge that rarely gets credited to them in the hiring process.  For some jobs, I would look for people who are the equivalent of Harvard MBAs who skip the Harvard.  I still want people with the critical thinking skill, the social network, and the experience, but I would seek out the non-credentialed people who can get paid less for equivalent performance.

The benefit to employers is clear: pay lower salaries for better people.  Since the employer is saving money, the company who finds the undervalued talent can take a bonus cut for their efforts, leading to a sustaining business model.  Most importantly is the benefit to society: people without overpriced credentials now have a pathway into good jobs, even if it comes at lower pay than traditionally-credentialed coworkers receive.  If employers find that these new talent-finders are giving them better employees than they used to get, salaries will eventually rise closer to the traditionally-credentialed employees' salaries, effectively eliminating the need for the credentialing agency at all.  Then boom, the college degree is dead in most fields (except fields like medicine where education and credentials are deeply tied).  And teachers like me can stop worrying about having to decide between college prep and career relevance.

[A note on the "other" benefits of college: if you want kids to experience the multicultural aspects of college, send them backpacking in Central America.  If you want kids to get hands-on training with the best in their field, they should get an internship.  If you want kids to become critical thinkers and deep reflectors, tell them to start blogging and engaging in an online community related to something they're passionate about.  Volunteer, join a community group, start contributing to open source software projects, start a business, get connected with a local maker space.  I am confident that I could help a kid build a better four year experience full of learning, personal growth, community, and career preparation than a traditional college at a fraction of the cost.  It is the lack of a strong pathway into getting hired at the desired job that makes my ultimate four year experience plan a very risky proposition for a high school graduate.  If these Moneyball-esqe talent-finders were common, I don't think this would be an issue.]

Crushing the college degree

There are lots of reasons to go to college.  Many are enticed by the experience: live independent of your parents, live with a bunch of other people who are similar to you (in age, college caliber, college preference), experience people who are totally different than you (varied interests, varied social and political views), and party it up (whatever that means...but it sounds awesome to most incoming college freshmen).

But nobody really goes to college for the experience -- they just hope they can have an awesome experience while they're there.  Kids go to college to get a degree.  Degrees don't reflect anything about your "experience" in college, they just state that you completed academic coursework to that institution's standards.  Degrees are not reflections of the fun they had or necessarily the cool things they learned, but instead they are tickets to a career.

If I were running a business and hiring people, I would be very careful in how I do my hiring.  Perhaps I'm biased towards people without college degrees because my parents are great employees and don't have degrees, or perhaps I think college doesn't align well to the needs of many career paths.  Regardless, having a degree wouldn't convince me that you are a better job candidate than the next person.

Now let's say my business grows and I hire dozens of people every year.  Suddenly, I have tons of applications to sort through and need a filtering mechanism to quickly eliminate the worst 80% so I can go through my rigorous hiring process with the top 20%.  The easiest thing I can do is toss all the applicants without college degrees.  Candidate quality is correlated with having a degree, and based on this, I can do some filtering.  Since I am not producing good candidates, but only finding them, I have little incentive to investigate whether the degree is the cause of their quality or simply correlated.  My point is that big companies, in order to be efficient, favor people with college degrees over those who do not have one, regardless of whether or not the degree helps them be a better employee than somebody who does equivalent learning on their own.

In the meantime, college gets increasingly expensive every year while offering little marginal benefit compared to all of the exploding sources of free online education, meetup clubs, blogs, books, community organizations, etc.  Kids are caught between a rock and a hard place -- if they don't go to college, they are at a significant hiring disadvantage, but if they do go, they accumulate excessive debt and still have no guarantee of a job on the other side.

I think the solution is to create a set of career ready assessments that you can market to employers.  Once you can figure out what they actually want to measure, both in soft skills and hard content knowledge, you can deliver assessments to job candidates.  I am almost certain that the right set of assessments (some of which may include performance-based assessment by skilled evaluators) would make a much better filtering mechanism for employee candidate filtering than looking at college degrees.  If you could get enough HR departments to buy into these assessments, you could let job candidates build up a profile that allows them to apply to multiple jobs.  Similar to the college Common App, this suite of tests would provide a common baseline of information that is useful to most employers, but would allow for addendums or differentiation between the specifics that different companies are seeking.

At the end of the tunnel, employers are the ones offering the rewards -- paid jobs.  If they have a filtering mechanism that finds them better employees than their current hiring process, they will use it.  If this more effective process cuts out college degrees entirely for many fields, then you crush not only the college and university system, but the entire college prep industry, and most importantly the K-12 test-happy environment that is doing the best thing for kids in the short term -- helping them get into college.

[Background: I was in a department meeting where we continue to discuss the tension between college readiness and holistic development of kids.  As math teachers, the best thing we can do for kids right now is get them into college and improve their odds of graduating college.  The best way we can do that is to build a solid mathematical foundation that will lead to high standardized test scores and good college math grades.  I don't like that this is true, but I'm near certain that it is.

While sitting in adoration tonight, I was frustrated about all of this.  I followed the logical pathway from our discussion as a math department to the next level: college.  But colleges are not necessarily to blame -- their product is still valued.  They need competition -- an alternative pathway from high school to high powered careers -- that cuts them out.  Only then will they have a reason to change.  Perhaps I'm just an angry individual, but I would love to personally be a part of building that pathway and connecting the dots that ultimately serve kids' needs, including employment, without having to go through a lot of irrelevant coursework in K-12 or college first.]

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The right problem

Building on my last post on identity, a huge part of my identity is what problem I'm trying to solve.  The problem I get my inspiration from is trying to help as many kids as possible to grow up with a mindset and skillset that will enable them to find interesting and meaningful work, engage positively with their community, and interact effectively with the people around them.

Unfortunately, I'm not very good at it.  Part of this is because it is really hard to do.  Part of this is because I've only been trying to solve it for a few years.  Part of this is because of blind spots and imperfections in my own skills and mindset.  There are a lot of things I would probably be more successful at if I invested my efforts, such as programming, product design, or teaching in a way that was better understood and perfected over the years (I won't ever know this for sure because I have no intention of investing the requisite time/effort into these things.)  But these things are not my right problem to be solving.

What makes something the right problem?  I think, first and foremost, it has to align to your values and vision for the world.  I want to see a world where people all work together for the betterment of each other.  Second, it should (but does not have to) connect to something that you can uniquely offer.  I experienced a very hands-on, reflective, design-centric curriculum in college, and so I have a unique view on what school could look like.  Third, you have to be willing to commit.  I have been obsessed with changing education since the end of my first year of college.  Despite the title of my degree, my entire college experience and my year off in the halfway through all revolved around trying to more effectively educate kids in a way that helped them engage in what they were doing, have fun learning, and become more self-directed.  Hard problems can't be solved on short timescales.

The cool thing about working on your right problem is that you develop other worthwhile character traits in the process.  Perseverance, resilience, or grit probably top the list.  I face all kinds of failures on a daily basis trying to solve my right problem, but I know that I'm working on a hard problem, so small daily failures are just necessary steps on the way.  If I didn't have this big problem driving me, I would not put in so much effort for so little student satisfaction and academic improvement in the short term.  My successes are all rooted in the long-term.  I especially appreciate that many of my students buy into my long term vision and tolerate all of the short term failures that they get to participate in.  Big thanks to all of my Stats kids in particular who have endured all kinds of goofy stuff over the past two years.

Coming full circle, I think that the process of finding your right problem can lead to a lot of long-term joy and success in life.  I want my students to find their right problem.  I will want the kids I raise at home to find their right problems.  I wish school was better setup to help kids discover the many great problems that they could take on.  I'm not sure how to do that, but maybe I'll have to more explicitly incorporate it into my right problem and start chipping away at it!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Our Identity

I never liked being asked "what do you want to be when you grow up?"  After a while, I became numb to the question and just said "architect" because I liked to build things out of K'nex.  Eventually that morphed into "engineer" part way through high school after a neat summer camp I went to.  I did end up going to engineering school, but I took a year off in the middle to start a business, did a lot of education things on the side, and then graduated and became a teacher.  Who knows how long I will teach.  My point is that my identity, who I am and what I believe, have almost nothing to do with my current job, and changing jobs is about as complicated as buying a new house (not something you should do every two years, but hardly impossible).

What then should we ask kids when we want to know who they want to be when they grow up?  I'm not completely sure, but I think it has something to do with their mindset.  My short definition of mindset is "how you evaluate what happens around you".  This includes views on failure, how optimistic you are, what you believe is possible, and how people can/do achieve difficult things.

My mindset has not significantly changed, nor have my core beliefs, since I was in high school, and they have been almost constant since my first year of college.  I believe that the world can be better, and should be better, and that I can develop the skills (through consistent effort) to make it better.  I started in engineering because it seemed like the most natural field to develop my interest in problem solving, and the design-heavy curriculum I went through at Olin failed to disappoint that desire.  I went into education because I thought it was the field where I could get the most bang for my buck, the most impact per hour of any other field I could be in.  And beneath all of this is a Christian foundation that motivates these desires and strengthens them when they temporarily stop being fun.  All of this together helps me define my purpose and give clarity to what I should be doing next in my life.  Though I try to stay as open as possible to nearly anything, my mindset and core beliefs will probably not change a lot in my lifetime.  It is anyone's guess what my job will be a few years down the line, but I'm confident that my life choices will reflect my mindset and views of my role in the world.

Back to kids -- how do we get them to give serious thought to, and be intentional about, the development of their mindset as prepare to leave school?  I feel like mindset is not openly questioned all that often, and yet it seems to be the core of who we will become.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Buyers and Sellers at edTech Conferences

Reflecting back on the TIES 2013 conference in Minneapolis, I noticed two different camps of people: those who were looking to grow their teams and bring new people in, and those who were looking for a new community of thinkers and learners to join.  The Byron crew fell into the first camp.  As a team, we talked to tons of people, and more often than not we would slip in a "it would be great to have you to Byron" comment.  I also met other people who made similar comments to me and our team -- "if you ever find yourself living up the cities, let me know".  On the other end, there were some awesome people who seemed isolated and lacking a team to move forward with.  They were the ones that seemed to respond with "it would be great to have a team of like-minded thinkers", or similar comments, in a tone that implied they actually might be interested in moving districts.

It reminded me a lot of the buyers and sellers in baseball near the trade deadline.  Some teams think they have a good thing going and try to buy up all the talent they can to make a run for the pennant.  Other teams feel like there isn't much to play for and try to get expensive players off the roster.  Translated back to education, those are the districts that have some incredible teachers but do little to keep them excited and let them run with their passion.  I feel really fortunate to be in a district that feels like a buyer -- providing me a lot of autonomy, support, and connecting me with PLC and DLC (Digital Learning Coach) teams that keep me energized and moving in a purposeful direction.  Now we just need to work on the multi-million dollar signing bonuses.