Blog Post

What Do Don Draper and GitHub Have In Common?

In a recent blog post, Justine Musk, a well-known fantasy writer facing the challenge of writing a more mainstream novel, quoted Sir Ken Robinson: “You don’t know who you are until you know what you can do.”

That statement reminded me of a recent email conversation with some friends about the differences between education and learning. The big argument was the modern institutionalized education is packaging of certain lessons, classes and ideas, adopted for the median and predictable. Many of us felt that modern institutionalized education just packages certain lessons, classes and ideas, but in the end, what really comes in handy is what we learn along the way.

What I was taught in school and college has had little or no bearing on what I do for a living — that is, write. Sure, I learned grammar from my schoolteachers, but I learned how to tell stories after reading countless novels. Reporting skills came from reading magazines and newspapers. My Chemistry major may have helped me understand the properties of Indium Phosphide, but it has had little bearing on my ability to write about the business of semiconductors. All that, came from what they call pounding the pavement.

Lucky for me, when it came to getting a job, none of my editors cared what school I went to — all they wanted to know was if I could report and get them decent, clean copy that didn’t require too much editing. As my clippings file grew, the college degree became less relevant. Today, when I evaluate someone for a particular job, his or her degree is a lot less relevant to me. What matters most is the journey they have taken and what they can do as a result.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not dismissing the value of fundamentals one learns in school. I’m arguing that we need to put more weight on one’s demonstrable capabilities than college degrees. This “experience” in the past used to make up a big portion of our resume. With the emergence of Internet as a platform, we are entering a phase where these capabilities will be on full display for others to see.

Whether it is from sharing designs, photos or links through Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, we are defining our reputation and identity. My colleague Mathew Ingram called it the web of reputation. Simply put, we are what we share. Is this behavior mainstream? Not now. Will it be? Absolutely.

As a result, the resume will become more than a mere sheet of paper, listing your previous gigs, schools you attended and degrees you got. I am not naive enough to believe that this is going to impact sectors that need says manufacturing expertise and precision, say making airplane parts, but it could help someone blogging about aeronautical designs stand apart. As our society starts to shed its industrial past and transforms itself into an Internet-enabled economy, one’s proven abilities will determine one’s hire-ability.

The GitHub Revolution

The technology sector, for sure, is at the forefront of this change. “Half of the people who work for GitHub don’t have college degrees,” said Tom Preston-Werner, founder of GitHub, an online repository that now boosts over 1.93 million git software repositories and counts over 680,000 members. “A commit (of code) to GitHub matters lot more to us than the resume.” Why? Because it is not about one’s educational pedigree, instead it is “proof of one’s capabilities.”

Preston-Werner, who in his past life created Gravatar, the web-based visual identity tool, is a firm believer that a programmer’s contributions to open-source projects is a better way to judge talent than skimming through 100 resumes. He believes that one’s weblog tells more about a person’s thinking capabilities than their college degrees. Tom is not alone. I know of a dozen startup founders who regularly spend time on GitHub, looking for engineers and programmers they can add to their team.

Like Github, another online community where capabilities count higher than pedigree is Dribbble, where designers both new and established share their creations. So far it has been in beta, but the service is opening its doors soon and it has the potential of helping designers show off their design skills, a far more important factor when it comes to hiring a designer, whether full time or for a project. The peer-reviews and comments from other designers are only going to help evaluate the design talent more effectively.

The brainchild of Dan Cederholm, a web designer who has worked for Google, MTV, Blogger and ESPN, Dribbble is described as a site by creatives for creatives. It has become a favorite hunting ground for web and mobile startups to find up-and-coming design talent.

And if you were thinking that this was a tech-only phenomenon, think again. Soundcloud is a German startup that allows musicians to create and share their music online and interact with fans directly. There are a lot of new artists who are going to be discovered because of this new service.

New Century, New Music

Forget these examples and let’s take a 360-degree view of our Internet-enabled economy. Quora, one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley is essentially a peer-reviewed knowledgebase. By asking the right question and responding to a question with a thoughtful answer, it is fairly easy for others to assess one’s capabilities.

Today, schools teach us old marketing and sales methodologies that work for an industrialized economy. Now imagine selling soda in this new world where media is not radio, newspapers and television but instead is represented by Facebook, Twitter, iPad and Android phones. Try selling to a crowd that believes anytime (anywhere, on any device) is prime time using the old techniques developed for mass media.

I am not surprised that Madison Avenue and traditional media companies are struggling to find a way to embrace the current shift from many unique means of distribution to a single network. The new medium needs someone who has the ability to leverage the Internet scale but also have a micro-focus at the same time.

The marketing whiz of tomorrow cannot get by with the skills of today’s marketing gurus. Instead, what brands would need are what some experts have called a growth hacker whose job is to use the networks, find growth and turn it into revenues and profits. There are no playbooks for this role.

One thing is for sure — you are not going to find him or her in a school taking a class for this stuff? Why, because educational “packages” of today are much slower to respond to this rapidly changing world. I would argue, that the next Don Draper is likely to be found on Twitter rather than on a college campus or on Madison Avenue.

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8 Responses to “What Do Don Draper and GitHub Have In Common?”

  1. Traditionally, the industry and academia have always been slow in catching up with each other. Often, it can take many years for cutting edge academic research to find its way to industrial applications. Conversely, industrial innovations take many years to make it into college textbooks. That doesn’t mean they should look down on each other.

    In these modern times, when the pace of industrial changes and innovations has become extremely fast, academics have been a little slow in catching up. But make no mistake, the majority of people who keep the tech industry up and running are people with proper educational backgrounds. No start-up company makes it truly big and continues to grow and sustain for years and decades without the help of ‘professional management’, ‘professional enginneers’ and other professionals. These professionals are all usually well-schooled people. If not for them, the start-up would remain an unstable, medium-sized company at best.

    A S

  2. Om,

    I think you could have made the point of this post without bashing on college education. At a time when the rest of the country seems to be losing sight of the importance of education and being anti-intellectual is encouraged among the common people, it is important that people in the tech industry don’t start bashing on education.

    I doubt that companies like Google, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, FB, etc. would have been started merely by people being social and sharing, without going to good schools, without having a good educational background (even if it was at the highschool-level) and emphasis on education from their parents.

    This is a dangerous line of argument to make in these times.

    A S

    • seanwellis

      I don’t think he bashed an education. He just emphasized why accomplishments and abilities are more important than education.

  3. Great post. Though I am probably biased as it reflects my view and feelings and also reality working in web development sector. Diploma is rarely asked. Portfolio and test term in which your skills are tested is a norm.

      • ronald

        Didn’t Microsoft do the same thing in the early 90’s. I seem to recall that they were accused of hiring the “smartest” not because they had jobs for them but only to get them out of startups and competition. Which I called intellectual inbreeding back then. Now back to, is MS dead or a thriving company … intellectually.

      • Om,

        Your response is a nice little sound-bite, but it is sorely lacking in substance.

        Firstly, we don’t know the exact ratio of ‘pedigreed’ vs ‘non-pedigreed’ people at FB. Last I heard, most of the new hires at FB, especially in senior positions were people with great degrees and pedigree. Remember, the found himself is from Harvard. Just because FB may not be as fanatic about educational background as Google doesn’t mean the majority of people at FB don’t have a fine education.

        Secondly, FB is nowhere close to Google in how much social and non-social data it has about people. Your repeated attempts to compare and equate Google and FB is beginning to sound like the way the US government historically compared and equated India and Pakistan for any and every topic. You know as well as anybody else how pointless that comparison is.

        A S