Why I wouldn’t let Steve Jobs teach my class.

There is no doubt that Steve Jobs has had an incredible impact on the world in general – let alone the computing industry. Unfortunately, everything I’ve heard and read about the man has convinced me of one thing: he is probably the last person I’d want teaching people who are not exemplary. By construction, my classes contain a range of students and most of my job is working out how to educate all of them without boring the faster and killing the slower – Apple is not such an environment so it’s unsurprising that what worked for Steve would be anathema to my classroom.

Now, my apologies to Steve, whom I will now never meet, but his passion for doing things well and doing things ‘right’ appears to have come with an equally passionate lack of tolerance for failure, or not meeting his exacting standards in some way. And, like any educator, I don’t necessarily have that luxury. Yes, some standards are non-negotiable, but to nowhere near the same degree!

My class is full of passers. Scrapers. “Getters-by”. People who do dumb things and fail. I can’t yell at them for hours. I can’t get into a lift with 8 students and get out with 7, having un-enrolled and failed one between floors 4 and 5.

Now, before you think I’m having too much of a go here, I can understand places where the level of training and expertise is so high that my techniques are not valid. Education comes in many forms. I don’t have to worry about people wetting themselves and early primary educators don’t have to teach calculus – it all balances but it’s not all uniform.

But let’s talk about the places where things just have to be right. Airline pilots spring to mind. Years of training. Lots of mentoring.

Near enough is not good enough!

There is no ‘conceded pass’ or supplementary examination for landing a plane. It is either landed correctly or it is not, and you’re unlikely to get a second chance. I can see there being different standards of conduct and examination at this point because of the professional standards required.

What about my students? While they’re with me, we’re in the soft landing zone – the ‘try again’ zone. I can offer opportunities for redemption because nobody has died or was in danger.

But my students may control nuclear reactors, tank weaponry or aeroplane navigation systems. When they’re in the workforce, I can completely understand someone demanding their best, all the time, and to a given standard.

My point, hidden in all of this, is that I can see why Steve Jobs did what he did with his business, but I’m not sure that my students are ready for that yet. When they graduate? I hope they’d be up to the technical level required (I certainly will aim to do that) but I’m still not sure if they’d be all the way up to that level of perfection. Until that point? No way is he getting near my class – he would have killed them!

It’s an interesting thing to think about.


6 Comments on “Why I wouldn’t let Steve Jobs teach my class.”

  1. billb says:

    I think I’ll have to disagree about landings. I’ve been in some good ones and some bad ones. There are definitely degrees of landing. Hard landings are bad for the aircraft and increase maintenance costs even when no one gets hurt. Good pilots make softer landings.

    But landings aren’t where you want your pilot not to fail, emergencies are. Landings are routine. Having your pilot remain calm and revert to (hopefully correct!) training when the excrement his the fan is when you want them not to fail, and that’s all about hours of practice. Students pilots are sent up on their own on a nice day typically after less than 20 hours with an instructor (sometimes as few as 10). It’s the training for emergencies in awful weather that distinguishes commercial airline pilots from pilots (and not all of them succeed).

    I think the rest of your points remain, though. Data Structures or Distributed Computing is a fine place to fail (as is the simulator pilots train in). It should be encouraged with soft landings.


    • nickfalkner says:

      I take your point, Bill, but I think it’s the definition of correctly that’s the sticking point. A hard or soft landing is still a landing, a crash isn’t. I like the extension to soft landings, however. 🙂


      • billb says:

        Yeah, I knew I was being pedantic as I wrote it. I suspect that one too many dicey AA or SWA landings have stuck in my craw. 🙂


  2. Keith Cohen says:

    The expectations for performance in “the real world” of skills acquired in higher learning can be a shock to new graduates.

    But tolerance to levels of failure does have its place in the corporate world where new skills and learning are being applied.

    Not every workplace is like Apple.

    Even junior nuclear engineers or flight-control-systems software developers need opportunities to try new skills at the increased risk of failure.

    The trick for managers is to know where new employee skills are suitable candidates for individuals ‘stretch’ goals.. and where not.


  3. Peter Kelly says:

    I think the lack of people like Steve Jobs in our university system is a great shame. He was one of those rare individuals who had the courage to stand up and say that no, “good” is not enough – it has to be *excellent* – or, as he would say, “insanely great”. While I don’t agree with the way he treated people who didn’t meet his standards, I believe his stubborn commitment to quality is one that all software professionals should be taught to adopt, even though it’s often very difficult to achieve in practice.

    One of the reasons why most software sucks so badly is that students are taught in university that it’s ok to produce substandard code that only sort of works. Sure, even the best programmers produce lots of shoddy code in their early ears, but they only become the best because they continue working hard until they’ve mastered the necessary skills, instead of justing settling for the 50% pass marks that at most universities is sufficient to get a degree. I think that as educators we have a responsibility to instill in students a value system in which excellence is an expectation, not just a “nice to have” extra.

    There’s a reason why Apple is the world’s most successful technology company.


  4. […] commented before on Steve Jobs but, having just finished Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography, I’ve had some other […]


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