Letter to a College Senior

by Brian Timoney

Is there anything more tedious than some middle-aged dude spewing advice to the “young people”?  Of course not.  But because I’m writing it down, you can skim-read: win/win for both of us.

That you’re going to leave school and be ejected into a crap economy is now a certainty. Rather than say “sorry”–not a wholly productive emotion, to be honest–I’ll merely observe that in our emerging Information Economy, you’ve been particularly ill-served by bits of received wisdom whose sell-by date has passed.  You reserve your constitutional right as a twenty-something to blow off anything someone more than two years older says to you, but here goes anyway:

Portfolio instead of Resume

Let’s be blunt: we loathe reading your resume as much you hate writing it. That Word doc attached to the unsolicited introductory email promises us nothing but guaranteed irritation: font choice, layout decisions, and especially the ‘objective’ blurb. Resumes are for HR, and we’re not HR–you clear on that?  Happily though, we oldsters are almost as ADD on the web as you are, so if you send us a link to something you’ve done and posted on the web, that’s different. Because you only have to command our attention for 10 seconds i.e. the time it takes for your resume attachment to open.  It can be niche (“Couldn’t afford Spring Break, so snapped geotagged iPhone shots of the different turf grasses within a mile of my mom’s house and put them on Flickr“), it can be obscure (“Check out my statistical proof that Bubby Brister is the most effective backup quarterback in the last 40 years”), just don’t be bland or predictable. The Portfolio approach enables you to display a mind engaged with the surrounding world while the Resume is an artifact specifically designed for a bureaucrat’s needs.


Statistics instead of Calculus

In 2006, about three times as many students took Calculus AP exams as Statistics AP exams.  Naturally that pays dividends down the road as the best and brightest are integrating and deriving their way to a Comfortable Life.

Actually, no.

While not dismissing the virtue of intellectual rigor, nay beauty, of Calculus, nonetheless it’s statistical reasoning gets slaughtered on a daily basis, from the front-page of the newspaper to the quarterly earnings report.  And the dirty secret of the Information Economy is that it’s largely still a Raw Data Economy: organizations have wrestled with collecting and storing data, but deriving meaningful insight from these efforts? Illusive. At best.  Armed with a semester or two of stats, an inquiring mind, and a free copy of R Studio, and you could do major damage right from the get-go. Is Stats too often the lamest class ever? Of course–but search for your inspiration. Check out this breakdown of Rory McIlroy’s dominance at the US Open using z-scores:  geeky, but very do-ably geeky, and fairly straightforward to explain to the uninitiated.  In a word, money.


Programming as a Liberal Art

In the Information Economy, the traditional gulf between Engineering and the Liberal Arts ill serves you. Again, the challenge is to see programming not through prosaic eyes as a cryptic jumble of curly brackets and odd indentations, but as a method for gathering, inspecting, and re-presenting the world around you. If you’re already have a bit of a bent in that direction, then you can already dive in courtesy of MIT.

“That’s a little too technical, I’m more of a creative type.” False dichtomy: do not pass Go.  But I’ll let Ben Fry of Processing fame explain it better than I ever could:

                                       click image to go to video page--well worth it


Narrative Instead of Mere Facts

Those with the ability to intuit meaning from rows and columns of numbers work in finance: the rest of us tell each other stories. And there are those who know this too well e.g. a political discourse that cherry-picks facts only to serve the larger cause of simplistic emotionalism.  But you’re the generation that plowed through 4000 pages of Harry Potter, so you know the power of narrative as well as any. With the world ever more complicated there will be a greater need for nuance yet a greater temptation to fall back on the cheaply sentimental. Or a dry recitation of data that doesn’t convince anyone of anything. Far be it from me to insist on seeking out masters such as Chekhov and Munro, so I’ll back off and merely suggest strongly that you check out masters such as Chekhov and Munro.

Initiative and Experience

A mistake of youth is to engage in all manner of contortions to mimic the experience of their elders: if you’re in your 20s, no one expects you to have a ten year track-record in anything.  But what you can demonstrate is initiative. Sure, the job market is tough, but the opportunities for self-learning are unprecedented. While the college admission process in place now severely penalizes the Knucklehead Teenager, if you pull yourself together as a Motivated Young Adult, top-drawer institutions such as Stanford and MIT are giving the knowledge away. In the everyday world self-reliance and initiative are the great differentiators, not SAT scores.

OK, you have things to do; I have things to do.  Best of luck.


—Brian Timoney


* image courtesy of the ZedZaP Flickr stream