I still do not know the value of x

At the age of 27, I have survived 14 years of school, 4 years of undergrad and 2 years of a masters. But despite the ridiculous amount of time that I’ve spent in the classroom, somehow I still do not know the value of x.

How is that possible? Am I that bad of a student? Well I might be, but that’s neither here nor there.

It has taken me 20 years to realize that knowing the value of x is not the point at all, and it was actually reflecting on this class plus a little inspiration from Suli Breaks that made me realize why.

Educational institutions often ask us to find the value of x, to memorize and recite the periodic table, to regurgitate someone else’s opinion on Shakespeare, all with the end goal of putting a checkmark beside your work and giving you your D or your A. I used to love this type of education. I loved math because there was a right answer and I went into Engineering because there were problems to be solved. I love coding because your code either compiles or doesn’t. It either does what you wanted it to do or not. It’s very simple, it’s very black and white. You’ve got lines to stay in between and you’ve got instant validation, and for someone with a deep rooted fear of failure, the transparency is extremely comforting.

Life is not black and white though. As we have learned in this class, in life and in technology there is a rather large grey area, affectionately known to us as the creepy-cool line.

My initial expectations of this class were that we were going to use technology to learn about technology. We would tweet and blog our way into an understanding of blockchain, AI and the internet of things. I thought that there was going to be a checklist of things that I would know at the end of this class, that had we had an exam on, I’d ace !! I thought I would be learning the value of x.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes we did tweet and blog, and yes I do know a little bit more about blockchain and AI and IOT than I did before we started, but those are just side effects.

I recently read an article on Disney and the Future of TV. In the article, the writer explains the disruption that the internet had on TV. He suggests that traditional TV did multiple jobs for people. “It informed, it educated, it provided a live view on sports, and other breaking events, it told stories, and it offered an escape”. The advent of the internet however meant that anyone could reach everyone with anything. Thompson, the writer, said that to win the competition for attention, meant developing a business model that was aligned with the job to be done. For example, Netflix’s primary job is to provide an escape (“from boredom at the very least”). That calls for providing content that viewers want, when they want it, without annoyances or interruptions. The best way to do this is through streaming on a subscription service. Sport on the other hand is highly differentiated and best consumed live. It also has natural breaks in play which are ideal for advertising. This means that sport is perfectly suited to the traditional business model.

This idea, that different jobs call for different business models, applies to technology too.

This class made me realize that solving for x isn’t the challenge. Technology has given us a million and one ways to solve for x. Knowing why we want to solve for x is so much more important. Being able to question why we are using specific technologies to solve problems is the challenge. This class taught me that the intentional use of technology to reach a goal or purpose is far more powerful than the blanket replacement of all existing processes with technology.

Technology is a tool. It is a powerful medium with which we can use to achieve your end goal, but understanding what that end goal is, and which, if any technologies can and should be used to achieve that goal, is the real task.

“This one is for my generation. The ones who found what they were looking for on Google. The one’s who followed their dreams on Twitter, pictured their future on Instagram, accepted destiny on Facebook”.

So no, I still do not know what the value of x is, and the most technical thing I learned how to do was to tweet. But teaching me to code was not the purpose of this class. For me this class was about getting out of my ‘correct answer’ comfort zone and instead thinking for myself about the promise and perils of technology, about the good, the bad, and the unnecessary applications of AI, and about the humans behind a good digital strategy.

Oh and I learned that the robots are most definitely coming for us all!

10 comments

  1. merrimju · ·

    Best title I’ve ever read!
    I was very interested to see where you were going with your algebra as we all know the analytical lengths we’ve have to surpass first to get into this program and then to pass courses. I also completely agree with you about the love of math and black and white, but needing to use this class and all our classes to help understand the gray that led us to our answer in the first place. Overall great recap!

  2. jimhanrahan7 · ·

    I was thinking this during the panel presentation. With all the talk about the use or adoption of “tech” I can only imagine that some executives buy in to the idea of innovation and think everything is a nail (because look at my new hammer!). It’s a great tool – as you say – for us to have in our belts, but a tech-first strategy is certainly a good way to burn alot of money without seeing a return.

    PS: Please don’t ever post anything from Boston Dynamics. Its…terrifying.

  3. licarima · ·

    I like you still do not know the value of X and quite frankly I gave up trying awhile ago. I think it’s an insightful comment that knowing why you want to solve the problem is that much more important. We all had expectations for this class, who doesn’t when they see a class about “tech” in 2019, but you are right we learned so much more beyond tech, beyond just going digital. We learned to have an informed opinion about the world around us and how technology is playing a role in all of our lives. Great post!

  4. Great post, Miriam! I initially thought your post was going to reference some sort of finance problem set, but this was even better! I think one of the biggest challenges of business school has been accepting that we don’t always have an answer, and that sometimes recognizing that you don’t know the answer is as important as actually knowing the answer. Something that I’ve struggled with all semester is thinking critically about how best to use technology, and you’ve done a really great job of talking about how uncertainties and end goals have to inform what you do.

  5. mckeanlindsay · ·

    I loved the metaphor throughout! So much of our education has been solving for black and white answers, as you mentioned. This class has been so refreshing in that it’s all about communicating ideas, not whether you get it right or wrong. It is a little bit uncomfortable not having all of the answers, but I think that is what makes the class so special

  6. Nice finale. I confess that I made the decision to approach this topic in this way years ago out of necessity, when the class was called Social Media for Managers. There just wasn’t enough established content to teach, and new content was coming out weekly. That happy accident has worked for 10 years, and we’ve never lacked for interesting issues to discuss or learn about. I doubt I could ever go back to the “old way.”

  7. This was a really great post! We’ve always gone through school being taught that there is some sort of right answer and that in order to get to it, you had to follow a certain process that was laid out in front of you and drilled into your head. This class broke that cycle that we’ve grown so accustomed to and really challenged us to think about things in different ways and often left many topics open for interpretation, especially since tech is something that we all have a wide variety of views on. It was great not having to find ‘x’ this semester and think outside of the box, because when it comes to technology and it’s everchanging nature, I don’t think there is one.

  8. Awesome post Miriam! I couldn’t agree more. Honestly, almost every class I’ve ever taken has been focused on “teaching me the value of x”, microcosms if you will. However, ISYS6621 was a lot more of a macrocosm, examining technology from a higher level. I’ve definitely taken enough microcosmic classes to appreciate someone finally tying it all together for me in high level analysis. Yes, its a bit more grayscale than black or white, but thats why we have more personalized evaluations than a true or false test!

  9. huang91j · ·

    I loved how you framed this post. The why behind our decisions in life and in the workplace. Sometimes there isn’t a right or wrong answer, but more so that grey area. In the workplace, that may be exceptions when it comes to contracts or financial situations with clients, or how to best implement technology in a way that pleases multiple teams in an organization. Assessing the good and bad will always be the best approach in finding the best answer for every situation!

  10. Jaclin Murphy · ·

    This reminds me of the memes about how school doesn’t teach you how to write a check, file taxes, apply for a loan, etc., but i’ll be damn if I don’t know that the nucleus is the powerhouse of the cell. The current education system and grading structure in the U.S are things that I have mixed feelings about. When did it start being about getting the write answer, rather than learning? This class gave me some hope. I finally started to remember what it is like to just get excited about learning again. And due to the lack of strict assessments in the class, I felt that I had the chance to simply gain information and explore topics that interest me. So here’s to learning for the sake of learning!

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