Everyone Must Learn to Code

When I was 9 years old, my father brought a Commodore Vic 20 computer home for Christmas.  It came with 3k memory.  It had a keyboard, a tape drive and it connected to a TV.  I still remember sitting in my pyjamas and turning it on.  As a child with nobody to tell me how I should or shouldn’t program, my first attempt was a paragraph in english describing a game.  I was surprised when I reached the end, hit the return key and: “Syntax Error”.

The Vic 20 came with 2 books “Learn to Program BASIC I” and “Learn to Program BASIC II”.  I went through these books by the end of January.  It was more fun writing my own games than playing the ones that came with the computer.

I learnt maths because I needed binary to create sprite graphics.  I learnt quadratic equations to solve for collisions in games.  I learnt basic physics to create realistic missile flight.  Maths in school was easy because I had already learnt it to serve my computer programming hobby.

Computer Programming saved me from boring school lessons

I never paid too much attention at school.  It was generally boring.  I spent a lot of time daydreaming.  I would think through which of Superman’s superpowers would be most useful to escape the boredom of school.  It was always a toss up between flying and laser eyes.

I was lucky.  The traditional school environment was built for my style of learning.  Exams tend to bring out my best performances. I was never good at the sustained effort.  I am best in the hurried sprint to deadlines.

I used to read a lot.  I had read the entire SciFi section of my local library before I was 10.  I would take out my full quota of 6 books and read them in a week.  I had whole collections of Dungeons and Dragons books.  I loved Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (all 7 or 8 books).  I loved Tolkien (LOTR, Hobbit).

Reading is great, but it is not an activity that allows the development of mastery.  You can’t get “better” at reading after a certain point.  You might be able to get a bit faster, but you don’t develop beyond basic reading in any significant way.

I loved sports, but was always a bit small so got pushed off the ball in football or relegated to wing when playing rugby.  My younger brother was superb at any game with a ball, and there is nothing more painful to an older boy than being beaten by a younger boy in sport – even more painful when it is a brother…  and the gap is 5 years.

Computer programming was my first world of mastery.

Computing is taught poorly in schools.  We need a change in the role of computing and style of learning supported by computers in schools.

The Failure of Computing as taught in our Schools

Most school systems teach children how to use Microsoft Office.  They teach students to be users of computers, not creators with computers.

A computer is not a car.  We need people to know what is under the hood as well as knowing what the pedals do.

Programming computers is a wonderful environment for children to explore, test, trial, experiment, hypothesize, fail, succeed…

Programming taught me Important skills.

Any programming language is essentially the same.  Java, PHP, C++, Basic, Python, Lisp…  even Fortran, Cobol or Assembly code.  Master one, you will quickly learn any other.

It teaches you to be clear.  It teaches you how to trace and remove errors.  It teaches you how to test.  It teaches you how to think about systematically solving problems – not one-offs, but full systematic reproducible solutions.

As you grow you learn about building code that scales.  Efficient use of memory. Efficient looping.

As you collaborate you learn to write code that can be easily understood by others.  One half is good commenting, but the other half is using the clearest code to achieve the given outcome.

You learn how to isolate specific parts of the code to test for correct function.

You learn how to describe solutions to other people.

You learn how difficult it is to predict human behaviour.  You learn that human beings will tend to do the unexpected.  You learn that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.

Everyone must learn to code

I do truly believe that I learnt more in my own self-guided programming of computers than in any classroom.  The social stuff I learnt in the playground and through sports.

What were the teachers doing?

Keeping me off the streets.

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Body Language. We do not Move the World with Words Alone

This is a guest post from Tony Anagor who has been working with me this week in IESE.

Tony has built a multi-million euro event management business in Barcelona.  3 years ago he told me that he had found his true passion.  He works with individuals to clarify their purpose and give them the belief and confidence to take action to achieve their goals.  Connect with Tony on LinkedIn.

Can we talk?

I have been passionate about the art of communication for many years.

My journey began 29 years ago when I witnessed one man completely mesmerize an audience of 8000 people for 12 hours a day during a 3 day personal development weekend.  Today Anthony Robbins is world famous and has changed the lives of 1000s of people.  But… how does he do it?  Communicating with passion that’s how!

“Your body is your autobiography in motion”

Communication was never on the school curriculum when I was a child. I learnt the theories of Pythagoras.  I spent a whole term musing over the law of Parabolic Motion, and as interesting as it was, I use none of that knowledge today. Today I find myself fascinated at how a person can walk into a room and with just their body language announce “ here I am” whilst others can shuffle into a room and whisper  “oh there you are”.

The art of communication is often looked upon as a soft skill that attracts varying levels of importance in an academic curriculum. There is nothing soft about an orator who can whip a nation into a frenzy of emotion using a carefully written speech rich in metaphors and alliteration. Communication is a PRIMARY skill and should be given its due respect in our modern day education system.  Simple things like eye contact, breathing, hand movements and a smile can give 80% of yourself away to a keen communication skills expert. As Leil Lowndes says in his book How to Talk to Anyone: “ your body is your autobiography in motion”.

We do not move the world with words alone

Consider for a moment the unassuming diminutive shuffling figure of Gandhi, how was the world so enamored by his equanimity? How did he instil his message in others with such conviction? The next time you see a clip of his speech, watch how he uses his smile and his eyes.  Take a look at Ronald Reagan, we can debate his politics, but he transitioned from an actor to become president of the USA, next time take a look at his eye contact and his smile.

If we begin to notice and analyse the people around us who we admire for their communication skills, we will see that they use their bodies just ever so slightly differently to most people; we call it charm, X factor or charisma.

If I wished to become a pilot I would have to study and undergo hours and hours of practice and training.  Having qualified, it would be incumbent upon me to invest time in keeping my skill level updated to a globally accepted standard.

I wonder how the world of politics and business would be today if we did that with our communications skills.  Some people in positions of influence have not updated their skills since they were toddlers.

My first tip to making the step towards improving your communications skills is to buy a very simple book called Talk Language By Alan Pease.  I read this book 29 years ago and I was hooked!

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Visit Conor’s Improve your Speaking page here on the blog.

Connect with Tony
Tony works with individuals to clarify their purpose and give them the belief and confidence to take action to achieve their goals.  Connect with Tony on LinkedIn.

Reining in the State

There was a wonderful letter to the editor in this week’s Economist magazine that used a powerful metaphor of an orchestra to highlight the untenable future of state social spending as currently provided.  The letter was in response to Taming Leviathon – a special report on the future of the state.

“Sir, you twice mentioned – and then went on to ignore – The Baumol cost effect: the same number of musicians are needed now to play a Beethoven symphony as in the 19th century, even though real wages for musicians have since risen.


But William Baumol was an optimist. A better analogy would be an orchestra whose musical instruments steadily increase in size, so that they are soon too large to manipulate without motors and computers. Eventually a larger concert hall is required to accommodate them. The new hall is, of course, equipped with “dynamic acoustics”, which can be tailored in real time to the music being played. This in turn, requires teams of engineers and computer technicians, as well as mechanical hoists and their operators, to move the instruments.


This works until the instruments reach a size that their (aging) players can no longer maneuver them single-handedly and more musicians must be employed. And another hall built. Such is the nature of the pressure on health care and pension costs imposed by accelerating developments in medicine. It is a structural problem, which cannot be solved by pretending it doesn’t exist, or that it’s just a matter of “catching up” with private sector productivity.” Monty MacLean, Stockholm.

The western world has a big problem.  We have mortgaged our future requiring large debt repayment costs to be added into the costs of doing business…  but we are now competing on a global scale with economies which do not have that additional cost, or high costs of living and therefore high wage bills.

I do not think the answer is widespread cuts and reduction of all social provision to nothing.  I do know that sitting back and waiting to see is not the answer.  Any good ideas?

Standard of Living is Directly Proportional to Labour Productivity
I think a few areas are key: ensuring world class digital infrastructures, ensuring world class education for all, developing leadership and communication skills that allow for unparalleled collaboration and creation of new products, services, ways of living.  In the long run, the standard of living of a country is directly proportional to the productivity of labour – which is a factor of quality of infrastructures, quality of leadership and systems of work, and efficiency of labour.  My brother has some great thoughts on conquering procrastination.

4 approaches to learning a new discipline

The US Aikido master George Leonard in his book “Mastery” speaks of 4 approaches that we take to learning new disciplines.  It scares me that I might be a regular Hacker…  how to shift my approach and push through “good” and reach “better” and one day “expert”?:

  1. The Dabbler – The Dabbler’s learning curve rises very quickly, meets an obstacle and then drops to zero, since the dabbler gives up the activity and goes on to another; repeating the same curve on different activities.
  2. The Obsessive – The Obsessive’s learning curve rises quickly, meets obstacles, which The Obsessive tackles by redoubling his effort, getting more books and tools and trying to figure out ways to get better results faster and cheaper, and then burns out in a short while when he finds that the curve is not a straight line upwards.
  3. The Hacker – The Hacker’s learning curve rises quickly, meets an obstacle or two and then plateaus out on a straight line. The Hacker doesn’t consider the need for more instruction or rising above that level. He is content with level reached and plans to stay at that level.
  4. The Master – The Master’s learning curve rises quickly, plateaus for a while, and with consistent practice, rises again with some regression and plateaus again for a while and so on. The Master knows that Mastery is a lifetime path. The Master enjoys living on the plateau. The Master knows that while he is on the plateau, learning is happening and practice will inevitably raise him to a higher level.
How do we make the journey of learning a journey towards mastery?  George outlines five keys to mastery:
  1. Instruction – get an instructor.
  2. Practice – learn to love the plateau and practice for the sake of practice.
  3. Surrender – surrender to the learning process and the learning curve.
  4. Intentionality – bring all of your willpower and the mental game to the learning.
  5. The Edge – focus on the fundamentals and the leading-edge.
Have a great weekend.  Looks like spring is here.

Entrepreneurship is not a Panacea. It requires its own Education.

Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, says that Higher Education is the new over-inflated bubble.

I agree with his premise.   A nice, costly certificate from a well branded Center of Learning is no guarantee of a safe, secure life.  In the end it will depend on you making use on a daily basis of the knowledge and the network of contacts you get in the course of your studies.  It will mean taking better decisions because you have better tools and practice in examining complex problems, and you are able to pick apart problems to find root causes.

Entrepreneurship is not a panacea. 
However, I would challenge his assertion that jumping into entrepreneurship is a solution for many.  The attitude of “I will make my own luck” is great, but, in the immortal words of Colin Powell “Hope is not a Strategy”.

It is easy to point to Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and say “phew…  glad these guys dropped out of school…  look at what they achieved”.  These are the lottery winners.  They had a lot going for them – Bill Gate’s mum was on the board of United Way with the Chairman of IBM…  possibly giving young Bill an advantage when he sold his DOS operating system to IBM’s personal computer division?

Entrepreneurship requires many skills
Entrepreneurship requires learning.  The best place to learn is next to experienced entrepreneurs who are building businesses.  You need an apprenticeship.  You need to try, fail, learn, try again, succeed, try again, fail, learn…  Tenacity combined with reflection…  Read Paul Graham on The Most Important Determinator of Entrepreneurial Success.

Entrepreneurship requires network.  Only people who know and trust you will give you resources.  You need to get to know people with resources that you may need.

Entrepreneurship requires tough ego-free decision making.  The ability to take a step back from the situation and examine the problem.  Don’t be an entrepreneur if you can’t handle the brutal choice between horrible and cataclysmic.

Entrepreneurship is lonely.  Only other entrepreneurs can really understand how lonely.  The Entrepreneurs’ Organisation is a great place to connect, and their Accelerator programs help early stage entrepreneurs get a good start.

Entrepreneurship is an attitude towards life.  Scott Adams talks about how he used his time at university to really learn about running businesses.

Successful entrepreneurship is a different game.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece (“The Sure Thing”) a couple of years ago in the New Yorker looking at what “Rich Entrepreneurs” (1-2% of total) do differently than “Poor Entrepreneurs” (98-99% of total).  The first was start thinking about the 3-5 year exit strategy rather than the current great idea…  There are plenty of other things that the rich entrepreneurs do to reduce risks and control their outcomes.

A better education system?
So maybe we need to define the path for learning entrepreneurship?  And perhaps work better at creating an education system that fosters to the strengths of each of us – not just those that are good at maths & science, at sitting still for hours, at paying attention for hours…

How to Handle Questions during your Presentation

I had a question from one of the participants, Thomas, last week in the IESE Persuasive Communications Seminar in Barcelona.

He asked “If you are caught off guard with a question – how do you react, or how do you turn around a question without answering?”

Don’t do the Rabbit

Parliament and young people: Lord Puttnam’s lecture
credit: UK Parliament

If people are seeing you for the first time, then how you react is fairly critical to their judgement of you.

The “Rabbit-in-the-Headlights” look, wide-eyed surprise caught in the glare of audience attention, is never a good look.  The look of surprise is read by others as that you must be hiding something, or you are not entirely sure of what you are speaking about.

You don’t have to answer every single question, your own agenda is important too.  You can set expectations early on about whether you will take questions during the presentation, or whether you will set aside specific times to handle questions (after each section, at the end).

5 steps to handle Questions:

  1. Listen.  Demonstrate that you are listening with eye contact, nodding your head. Treat each person with respect.
  2. Thank the person for the question.  It is a risk to raise your hand and ask a question.
  3. Repeat in your own words what you believe you have been asked.  Sometimes not everybody in the audience has heard the speaker. It also gives 2 advantages
    1. Clarifies that you have understood.
    2. Gives some time to reflect before answering.
  4. Pause.  Do not rush in.  
  5. Answer. Decide how you want to handle the question:
    1. Send it back to the audience “Great question.  What good ideas do you have?”
    2. Defer it to later “Important point.  I have some material that I can show you later that will help clarify that area.”
    3. Answer it. 

Remain the owner of your presentation
On finishing up the Question and Answer session – always return to your own agenda and repeat the key messages and close of your speech.  Do not let the last question from the audience define the last words that the audience hears you speak.

How to respond depends on the context – journalists with TV cameras, your own team, group of friends, in a courtroom with a judge and jury, presenting to your board, presenting to large group of employees, speaking to your boss, your wife after you arrive home later than planned, speaking to a group of senior people who haven’t met you before and are seeing you for the first time…
How to respond depends on who is asking the question – a competitor for a promotion, a good friend who you know wishes the best for you, a boss who asks lots of reflective questions, a boss who is very critical of those who don’t measure up to “perfect”.

Further Reading
Some useful question-handling resources from great public speaking bloggers:

What do you think?  Have you ever really messed up when dealing with a question?  Have you seen a teacher with a really good style for handling questions?  
Have a great weekend.

"Be water, my friend" Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee said “Be water my friend.”  What does he mean?  What is it to “be water”?

    On “being water”
    What is it to “be water“?  Water flows and adapts.  It has no plan, but deals with the environment that it finds.  It fully explores the space.  It has no expectations of what it will find.  It forgets immediately when it leaves one space to find another.  It remains the same inside even as it flows and adapts outside.  Is this what it is to “be water, my friend”?  What did Bruce mean?

    Bruce in speaking of be water is talking about a Tao concept called Wu Wei – knowing when to act and when not to act.  Wu Wei can variously be translated as “effortless doing” or “effortless action”.  It connects to the Greek Rhetoric school and “Kairos” – recognizing the right moment to act, and knowing in the moment the right way of acting.

    According to masters of rhetoric it is impossible to teach a general way to identify these moments and the right methods of action – so we must turn inwards and go back to our intuition, and really become good at listening to our own internal voice.

    This is the path to being water.

    “Don’t make a plan of fighting
    that is a very good way to lose your teeth
    if you try to remember you will lose
    Empty your mind
    be formless
    shapeless
    like water
    put water into a cup
    becomes the cup
    put water into a teapot
    becomes the teapot
    water can flow or creep or drip or crash
    be water my friend”

    Here is the video of Bruce (on the blog here):