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Start building hard skills. Now.

by: Samarth Bansal | 4 September, 2017

This article was originally published on Vox Populi, the student-run campus magazine of IIT Kanpur, my alma mater.

Earlier this year, at a coffee shop on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg—the fleet street of Indian journalism—I met Aryan (name changed), a friend from college. We spoke for hours: about our day jobs, India’s political environment, books, and of course, life at IIT, a topic we both are fond of.

We discussed how unhealthy it is for IIT Kanpur students to be isolated from the world outside the four walls of the campus (not everyone, but applicable generally.)

For instance, we wondered how much better we would have been had we read non-fiction books as a routine during undergrad to stay acquainted with the big ideas of thinkers across the world. And as went on talking about a multitude of campus issues, we stumbled upon and disagreed on one career-centric question: should acquiring skills be the focus of undergraduate engineering education?

Here is my argument: students who are not clear about the career they wish to pursue—and that I think would comprise the bulk of the lot—should spend their time building rare and valuable skills. Let’s call this set hard skills, so as to distinguish them from soft skills. I am sure you’d have heard about the latter: everyone talks about it—be presentable, learn to write and communicate, be able to lead and work in a team, among other things. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t discount its value in the modern workplace—far from it. However, in the campus fairy tales about success, I find soft skills taking an upper hand than the hard part, which I find problematic.

I believe that hard skills are the prime capital of a knowledge worker: skills that need months and years to acquire and are difficult to replicate. Few examples: write high-quality code, ability to build scalable software, in-depth understanding of a subject you are interested in, research, write long form essays or build engineering products. To be more precise, these are skills that no one can build in a week’s duration: it requires time commitment and dedication. A key ingredient for this task is the power to concentrate, which, thanks to our ever decreasing attention spans—and I partly blame social media for that—itself has become a rare skill.

Some in the campus advise students to “follow your passion”. I confess: that would include me a couple of years ago. But that’s a bad piece of advice, as Computer Scientist and author Carl Newport has argued. In his book Deep Work, Newport writes: “Our obsession with the advice to ‘follow your passion’, for example, is motivated by the (flawed) idea that what matters most for your career satisfaction is the specifics of the job you choose. In this way of thinking, there are some rarified jobs that can be a source of satisfaction—perhaps working in a nonprofit or starting a software company—while all others are soulless and bland.” But Newport says, citing case studies, that the “specifics of the work are irrelevant. The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation..” of the task in hand. “You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.”

Discussion on passion is not the objective of this column, but the point I am trying to make here is that instead of procrastinating as you wait to find your passion—an abstract notion which is a complex thing to deconstruct—one might do better using that time to acquire skills—hard skills.

But then, people ask: What skills to acquire? Doesn’t that require one to know their passion? Quoting Newport: “If something interests you, that is a good enough to begin the skill acquisition phase—which is a very long process. There will be milestones that will tell you are progressing.” Of course, there has to be some search process to figure out the skillset you want to build, but not at the pretext of doing nothing. It may well open opportunities in areas you had never imagined.

Take my case: I am a technologist at heart: a programmer and a data geek. When I joined journalism, many told me that I left behind the capital I had rigorously developed in college for this career switch. That’s incorrect.

In fact, my choice, I now realised, was a natural progression of what I intended to do, a culmination of various things that interested me. My data journalism profile requires me to write code, build and analyse datasets, report and write stories, think about big ideas and use all that to inform my newspaper’s readers about the world.

“What if I don’t write code?” is the response I get when I talk about skill sets. Some argue that my examples apply to programming alone. And then, they tend to conflate programming with the discipline of Computer Science, not recognising the difference, and blame the problem with their departments. That’s a flawed interpretation. I think that expertise in any area—not just writing code—opens up opportunities you had never imagined or gets you access to those which are out of reach for others.

Please excuse my inability to present Aryan’s (the friend who disagrees) arguments in detail. But I will try: At the core, he believes that that “learning to learn” is more important than focusing on a specific skill set. He aptly argues that the dynamic nature of 21st-century work makes a lot of what we learn obsolete and hence the ability to quickly pick up new stuff should be the top priority. I completely agree — no problem at all. But I still believe in the power of core competencies. And further, I would say that the process of acquiring and building skills would in itself subsume the aforementioned qualities. It’s not really isolated.

“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something” — this is the best piece of advice I got from a senior in college. That, in my opinion, should be the focus of education, which is a lifelong process, and should start right during the undergraduate days.