Sunday, November 21, 2010

I just hope I don't end up like Hiromu Naruse...

Hilsener, mine venner!

Well, on November 17'th I began the slow and arduous process of jettisoning my dreams.

A local community college here in Halifax offers a "Test Drive" option whereby potential candidates can go into the school, get paired up with a student, and attend classes for the day to try and get a feel for a specific program.  I guess some colleges offer this to cut down on the number of graduates who might realize, all too late, that perhaps "Parapsychology" might not have been the most practical degree to pursue after all.   

Actually I don't want to sound churlish here since I think it's a brilliant idea.  I wish the hell I had this option offered to me before I walked off the same precipice many High School graduates face every year.

As the day of my Test Drive arrived, I faced it with a mixture of dread and apprehension.  The last thing I wanted was to get handcuffed to some nineteen year old twinkie devoid of sage advice and with whom the only common ground I might hope to share is our mutual love of One Tree Hill. should probably ignore that last part.   

Regardless of my trepidations, I went into the Information Technology campus last Wednesday, filled out enough paperwork to apply to CSIS and then waited to see who I'd get partnered up with.

Two potential mentors materialized at the appointed hour, the first of which I'll call Trevor.  Trevor seemed bitter, laconic world-weary and refreshingly candid, so naturally I hoped and prayed that he would be my guide that day.

The other option was an intense dude I'll name Marvin.  He kinda looked like the sorta gent who probably camped out for tickets to Attack of the Clones despite the ever-present risk of being tormented by  Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.   During the entire time I was filling out my paperwork he kept sighing dramatically, breathing through his nose and lamenting that his last test drive candidate that was assigned to him vanished mysteriously last week after they said they were going home for lunch and then never returned. 

Hmmm, I wonder why?

By some random draw of good fortune Trevor was assigned as my overseer.  En route to the computer lab his insider knowledge proved valuable:

"It's kinda strange that they sent you here in the middle of the week in November.  We won't be doing a lot of typically IT stuff today.  In the first class we'll just be talking about some case studies for our Business Ethics class and doing some presentations later."

As we entered the classroom I just assumed that we'd have to sit up front where Marvin and his own academic Padawan were already ensconced.

"Naw, dude, follow me," Trevor said.  "This is usually where we all sit."

'Thank God', I thought to myself.  I used to curse mature students during my days at Saint Mary's.  It always annoyed me that they'd always sit up front, ask questions every forty seconds and indulge in flagrant ass-suckery.

"Good point," I enthused.  "We can definitely cause more trouble back here."
Trevor seemed bemused by my comment and soon I'd learn why.  After he helped me get logged in, he introduced me to his peeps before the class began in earnest.

They were some of the nicest people I've ever met.

I guess my biggest fear going into this was just being the only dude over thirty.  Mercifully, this 800 pound, over-the-demographically-target-aged gorilla was dispensed with right away.  Just as I proceeded to explain why I was there to the group, a guy likely ten years my junior said:

"Trust me, I'm an old dude like you.  You don't need to explain why you're here."

Fortunately, despite their relative youth, a lot of these guys had still been through their own share of "the shit" and knew exactly where I was coming from.  The only difference between me and them is that these guys had obviously come to their senses a lot quicker than I did. 

It didn't take me long to relate to every single one of them.  Like me, they'd all made well-intentioned miss-steps in a post-secondary world.  One guy who followed his heart and took a prior Culinary Arts program loved the course, but was then aghast to discover that his work term would be the equivalent of indentured servitude.   Even working in high-end restaurants the most he ever made was $12 an hour, working eighty-hour work weeks (!) in the environmental equivalent of a flash-fryer. 

"The attitude was that, eventually, maybe, after paying your dues for God knows how long you might build up enough of a reputation to open your own place or become head chef somewhere, but how long was that gonna take?  Three years?  Five years?  Ten?!?  F@#$% that!"

Another gent had invested a mint in tuition at a major Canadian University for a degree in Biology.  When he came back to the Maritimes he was horrified to discover that government cutbacks had gutted employment opportunities in the the science sector.  In fact, he talked about one scenario where two-hundred and forty people were in competition for the same job.

"The successful candidate had twelve years of practical experience," he went on to say.  "He actually wrote  studies on the exact same task he was hired to do."

Wowzers.  How the hell can you compete with something like that when you're fresh out of university, have no on-the-job experience and you're burdened with enough debt to sink Johnny Depp's yacht? 

One other guy just wanted to be a teacher.  Simple and noble enough, right?  Well, after paying his dues teaching overseas and working in close confines for paranoid bosses, he actually looked at the prospect for teachers in Nova Scotia.  It wasn't pretty.

"Oh, c'mon!"  I protested.  "It's gotta be good!  What about all the Baby Boomers retiring?"

"Yeah, you'd think that, right?  But then again, so did every other other person on the planet with a liberal arts degree who thought: 'Yeah, I'll pick something practical to fall back on, like a teaching degree!'  Well, due to cutbacks, the amount of in-demand teachers dropped, the competition went through the roof and most schools just retained their substitutes."

Amazing.  Although these guys were all extremely clever, well-spoken, well-written, and industrious (at least at face value), they'd also been burned by the worst lie adults can propagate on kids: "You can be anything you want to be."  Frankly, that's a load of Bantha shit.  I think everyone needs that sober voice of reason to come along at some point in time and say: "Look, I know you have a passion for what you want to do, but just know that your future career prospects for this are Jack and Squat, and Jack just left town."  

Now I know that sounds cold, but it was something I needed to be told about twenty years ago.  Please, parents, don't create unrealistic expectations.  I also don't think you should completely discourage creative types either, just let them know that there's no reason to pursue it unless they're completely passionate and have no interest whatsoever in doing it for the money.

So, in essence, what I'm saying is that we all need to find an in-demand job we can tolerate, which allows us to develop biddable skills that will serve as valuable commodities in the business world.  You wanna do something creative?  Well, that's fine, but you may just want to treat it like a hobby for the foreseeable future.  Don't abandon it, but it can sometime take years of diligent but part-time effort to establish a career in the arts.

I'll also tell you this right now: things sure have changed in a classroom since I've been in one.  Or maybe it's just the Community College atmosphere, I don't know.

When the instructor first showed up he spent some time talking about the timetable for the next few weeks, his expectations for the students and upcoming assignments that were due.  At first he spoke like a typical educator trying to wrangle control of his class as superfluous conversations broke out all around the room.  Then he said something that struck me as rather odd:

"I don't want to bother having to talk over people so if you need to talk that's what whispering is for."

This struck me as strange for two reasons (1) That people were actually bold enough to talk openly while the instructor was trying to speak (2) That he seemed cool with it as long as they weren't being too loud.

Any educator that I've ever had experience with in the past has been a strict disciplinarian who demanded undivided attention.  They would call your unruly ass out in front of everyone if you kept up with the jibber-jabber.  

After addressing all of us, the instructor spent the first half of the class talking to and addressing questions from my fellow Driver.  When he came down to the back of the class to see me I felt like shouting a head's up to all the people gathered around that were on Facebook, playing Flash games or checking out trailers for Green Lantern.

But then I realized: this guy doesn't give a shit what his students are doing, as well he shouldn't.  After all, they were all there on their own dimes so why should he care how they spent it?

This philosophy of treating people like adults extended to the methods of instruction as well.  Only the first few classes consist of straight-up lecturing.  After the instructors give their students the raw materials to do problem solving they then proceeded to test them systematically by throwing out scenarios for them to overcome.  The instructors still remain close by for assistance, but mainly they just let the students puzzle things out for themselves, nicely mirroring a real work environment.  Brilliant.

If you've read any of my previous posts about my university days (You can follow the Yellow Brick Road right here:
Signed, The Ministry of Half-Assed Organization) then you know just how pissed off I was by professors who apparently wanted you to employ psychic powers to determine exactly what they wanted from you in exams, essays and presentations.  Even worse was the complete and total lack of continuity between profs when it came to things like content and format.

But not with these guys.  Every Case Study included a rubric which showed, in no uncertain terms, what mark you will receive based on real work environment expectations and just how close you came to fulfilling them.   In other words, if you're willing to follow instructions and work hard enough to demonstrate what's being asked of you, then you effectively have complete control over the mark you'll receive.

Anyway, we all had a good yarn about the the state of the labor market, the frustrating but very real presence of nepotism in Halifax, how expensive and impractical some of the pother schools can be and specifically what the college could do to prepare me for a career in the field of IT.  Not once did my bullshit detector go off.   
But, as you might expect, everything has a downside.  While the guys were finalizing their Ethical Case Study submission I asked if there was anything I might be able to do since I was kinda feeling like a fifth wheel.  After proofing two of their submissions (Great work, by the way, guys!), one of them suggested  that I try out a tutorial for a fairly approachable, general purpose programming language called Ruby.  Not having anything better to do I agreed to check it out.

And is was perhaps the most boring thing I've ever read in my life.

Now, don't get me wrong, I didn't get hung up on anything or fail to progress through the material.  It was just that half-way through the second page, my brain went into Test Pattern mode and I just wasn't retaining a single thing.

Listen, I love the creative applications that computers can provide, but that still doesn't mean I wanna assemble hardware or design a program that will make these machines sentient.  Maybe I've seen so many bad sci-fi movies that unconsciously I just can't go down that slippery slope. 

True to Trevor's word, the next class just consisted of guys just doing presentations.  They were all highly entertaining.  In quick succession I learned about such brazenly non-IT related things such as why we sleep and dream, how important a catalytic converter is to my car's exhaust system and how a piano-playing cat fits into the pantheon of internet memes.

These guys did a fantastic job, considering just how nervous they must have been.  I've been pretty upfront before in this blog about how terrified I was the first time I was asked to do a presentation in front of a group of people.  A lot of these guys were around the same age I was the first time I forced to confront this, one of the worst fears we're asked to face in our lifetime.

Although a lot of the presentations went over time and merely consisted of guys reading off a Powerpoint presentation screen, a lot of them incorporated humor, whether intentional or not.  The highlight for me came when one dude, who was doing a presentation on how microwaves work, kept insisting how important  the Megatron (not the magnetron) was in the proper generation of coherent microwaves.

Perhaps the most memorable thing, however, was the instructor.  I almost fell out of my seat when he reminded the class that cover letters and updated resumes were due next week.  Friggin' resumes and cover letters!   

I could only imagine how awesome it might have been when, in my last year of university, one of the profs asked us to submit similar material to them which they would then forward on to potential employers who were hiring in our field of study.  It was mind boggling.

"Listen, this is important," he said.  "I never know when my contact at say, Rim might send me an email asking me how many resumes I might have at any given time.  Sometimes I'll tell 'em I've got like...eight or twelve on hand and he might write back and say 'Okay, send 'em all over'."

Wow.  The instructor might have been completely oblivious as to why some of the students started to giggle when he observed 'how frequent the request for Rim jobs were becoming', but I was just as convinced that this guy knew the industry and tons of relevant contacts.

And that's what amazed me the most.  The students and faculty all seemed genuinely adept and interested in working with computers in some capacity but not one of them had lost sight of the fact that, ultimately, they were all there to try and eke out a stable career instead of some kind of crappy McJob.     

When the day was done I was asked to fill out a survey asking: "Did this test drive allow you to decide conclusively if you will or will not apply for this program?".  The only answer I could give, in all honesty, was still:


I still have many more avenues to explore.  Despite the fact I was encouraged by the welcoming students, the well-connected instructors, the evolved programmed learning techniques, the emphasis on independence and the laser-focus on career prospects, I still can't help but wonder if I'll have the aptitude and the passion required to see something like this through.

But at least I can say that I'm still on the track and I haven't wrapped my analogous car around a telephone pole yet...

EPIC:  I've never really been a huge fan of Green Lantern, but then again, I used to say the same thing about Iron Man.  The value of this flick really gonna be dependent on the charisma of Ryan Reynolds, which I think he has in spades...

EPIC II: Attack of the Clowns:  It's mutants like this that give Star Wars fandom a bad name.  I'm glad someone sicced Triumph on these losers...

Triumph The Insult Comic Dog - Star Wars
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FAIL:  Speed kills, folks...


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