Gates on education: Knowledge is good

If Bill Gates wanted to write an opinion piece for Network World, I'm pretty sure we would publish whatever he wrote no matter how vacuous, trite or self-serving.

For the BBC News, there's no "pretty sure" about it; they would; they have.

Headlined "Bill Gates: The skills you need to succeed," this collection of the obvious and even more obvious might sneak by unnoticed as a Faber College commencement speech, but it seems reasonable to expect a bit more insight from the world's most famous software mogul writing for one of the world's most famous news organizations.

Here are the first three sentences:

One of the most important changes of the last 30 years is that digital technology has transformed almost everyone into an information worker.

In almost every job now, people use software and work with information to enable their organisation to operate more effectively.

That's true for everyone from the retail store worker who uses a handheld scanner to track inventory to the chief executive who uses business intelligence software to analyse critical market trends.

So it seems as though there's been a bit of a technological spurt as of late. Who knew? … Seriously, what could any adult possibly glean from those paragraphs other than the fact that Brits prefer the letter "s" where Americans see a "z."

So if you look at how progress is made and where competitive advantage is created, there's no doubt that the ability to use software tools effectively is critical to succeeding in today's global knowledge economy.

A solid working knowledge of productivity software and other IT tools has become a basic foundation for success in virtually any career.

And where might one acquire this productivity software of which you speak? Hey, I'm just asking. Settle.

Beyond that, however, I don't think you can overemphasise the importance of having a good background in maths and science.

Of course, it cannot be overemphasised -- or overemphasized -- which is why it's emphasized and re-emphasized every time anyone has anything to say on the general subject. We'll presume "maths" is another Brit quirk.

If you look at the most interesting things that have emerged in the last decade - whether it is cool things like portable music devices and video games or more practical things like smart phones and medical technology - they all come from the realm of science and engineering.

As opposed to what? Philosophy and Latin?

Today and in the future, many of the jobs with the greatest impact will be related to software, whether it is developing software working for a company like Microsoft or helping other organisations use information technology tools to be successful.

Communication skills and the ability to work well with different types of people are very important too.

Am I nitpicking? No, I don't think I'm nitpicking.

A lot of people assume that creating software is purely a solitary activity where you sit in an office with the door closed all day and write lots of code.

This isn't true at all.

Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs.

That passage may be the most interesting of the entire piece; and, yes, that's damning with faint praise.

I also place a high value on having a passion for ongoing learning. When I was pretty young, I picked up the habit of reading lots of books.

It's great to read widely about a broad range of subjects. Of course today, it's far easier to go online and find information about any topic that interests you.

Having that kind of curiosity about the world helps anyone succeed, no matter what kind of work they decide to pursue.

One might even say -- hmmm -- that reading is fundamental.

Now, it would be unfair of me (even more unfair of me?) were I not to mention the fact that the Microsoft chairman's essay was well received by the BBC audience, irrespective of whatever shortcomings I may have perceived. From the comments:

"Without doubt Bill Gates has hit the nail squarely on its head," says one.

"I agree totally with Mr Gates' comments," offers another.

And a third: "You can't help agreeing with Bill Gates' sentiments on the subject of education."

The man made sure of that much, all right.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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