MOOCs will disrupt the corporate world

One of the largest, but also most admirable, threats to the existing social norms of the corporate workplace is Mooks.

Wait, no… that’s not it. I mean MOOCs: massive open online courses, such as those offered by Coursera, Udacity, and edX. MOOCs, which bring a modularity and freshness into education, are not a fad. Their use will grow, and the rising generation will be so comfortable with the concept that they’ll become a regular component of educational and working life. Within 10 years, self-directed continuing education will be as important a component of career progress as traditional “resume” metrics like job titles and workplace accomplishments.

Much has been said about the potential for MOOCs to disrupt education, although I think the threat is overstated. While the current extortion (a choke-hold on the middle-class job market) that justifies enormous college tuitions will go away, as it should, there’s still an immense social value to the college experience, much of which occurs outside of the classroom. That won’t change. So if “disruption” occurs, it will be in the direction of making “the Real World” more like college. It won’t kill off the university. That topic, however, is too big for me to attack in one morning. I’ll focus on one subtopic, which is the effect that MOOCs will have on the modern workplace. They’re a serious threat to the entrenched corporate leadership, because they provide a path to alternative credibility that is independent of a single workplace or manager. The current corporate workplace operates based on a credibility drought. Artificially scarce job titles, project allocations, and referrals are used to motivate people to put years into dues-paying grunt work. The alternate credibility that MOOCs, in maturity, shall offer disrupts that, because people can learn faster than they acquire credibility in an artificially slowed-down institution.

Open-source projects have a similar potency, but there’s one difference. An indignant employer, when it discovers that an employee has favored the open-source project on working time, can attempt to claim ownership of the code– that it was “work for hire”. This limits the willingness that most people have to subversively pursue it on work time. With MOOCs, such firms won’t have that recourse. No court will invalidate an educational accreditation simply because it was earned on “working time”.

The MOOC generation

When the Baby Boomers went to work, the rules were simple. Do what’s asked of you, don’t complain, and when you have time to spare, ask for more work. That was how one showed ambition and the potential for leadership: always being “done” ahead of schedule, always being “caught up”, always wanting more work to do. If you were lucky, you eventually started getting a higher quality of work and would eventually (after years) start to acquire credibility within the organization and possibly be tapped for a leadership role. If you weren’t, you got more grunt work, took on as much as you could handle and plateaued. Most people weren’t especially lucky, and the dues-paying period lasted for 3 to 10 years– longer than the average job lasts for us.

That model doesn’t work for Millennials. As a generation, we’re poorly paid. (Software engineers are adequately, but not exceptionally, paid.) We’ve seen the corporate ladder disintegrate, so we have no faith in it. We’re not willing to sacrifice the now in favor of a promised future when we’ve seen such promises discarded for convenience. However, we have one thing the Boomers didn’t. There seems to be more variety in the kind of work that’s out there, making more avenues toward success. These alternatives take time and focus, but they’re there: one doesn’t have to climb an institutional ladder to be successful. My general impression is that, while the corporate world “proper” has become worse, there’s a wider variety of interesting jobs out there now than existed for my parents. Consequently, if we start investing in our careers very early and do so aggressively, we can grow our earning potential by 10-30 percent per year for many years, and eventually work our way to a position of high pay, autonomy, and flexibility. Boomer managers complain about us being “entitled” or expecting rapid career progression. We’re not. “Entitled” is the last thing we are. Rather, we work very hard, and we’re extremely loyal when we believe that loyalty is deserved. We do, however, tend prioritize our own career goals well above those of our companies or managers– and we’re nakedly obvious about it, which is something that Boomer managers aren’t used to. Why? Because the future pays us. We knew, at 22, that corporate loyalty was done-for and that we are our own bosses.

Boomers had a “company man”, one-firm-for-life model. At least, that was the ideal. Leaving your firm for a promotion was considered disloyal and couldn’t be done too often, and getting fired could ruin your career. Generation X, which followed, entered a winner-take-all world that emerged as the corporate social contract disintegrated. A few people got great mentors and became millionaire options traders, or connected venture capital with a good idea and managed to protect themselves well enough from investors to strike dot-com gold. Others (most of them) languished on busy-work they had to endure to pay the bills, and their career trajectories were nasty, brutish, and short. We, the Millennials, are the keep-learning-and-carry-on crew. We saw what happened to the laid-off Boomers and the less successful Xers and refuse to let it happen to us. We’re not going to let our creativity be sapped by subordinate roles. We don’t stop learning. When there’s slack in the schedule at work, we don’t ask how we can “help out”. We log in to our Kindle reader or Coursera and learn the skills that we’ll need to get where we want to go, and to perform well once we’re there.

I’ll also note that most of us have no ethical problem with doing this and I, personally, agree with that stance. We may call it “stealing an education” from a boss, to give this practice an anarchist flair, but the reality is that we do it with the intention of becoming better at our jobs, which is a valid use of work time. It may be insubordinate, but it’s not unethical. We believe that we don’t have to ask for permission to dedicate half our working time to what we think is important, and when we’re young and unestablished, that’s often development of new skills. We just go off and do it, rather than ask for clearance. It’s an awkward conversation, and the manager might say no. Channeling Grace Hopper, we’d rather ask forgiveness.

What’s coming into form is a generation that will prove itself extremely capable, but also extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to manage in the traditional sense of the word. The old approach won’t work anymore.

What’s changing?

First, the traditional mechanisms for evaluating leadership potential are done. Old-style companies allocated new hires to low-relevance grunt work and measured their potential for leadership based on how eagerly they took it on, and how fast they completed it. This worked in 1990 when there wasn’t much to do at work but the assigned work. Rather than face hours of boredom with nothing to do, the most competent would “give back” any slack in their schedule by asking for more work to do. The current generation won’t. Opening a CS textbook at work may be a faux pas outside of research– this guy’s reading a book at work?– but Kindle and PDF versions solve that. What this means is that the rising leaders are hard to detect based on performance on assigned work, where they manage their performance to the middle for the purpose of freeing time for self-directed learning.

What shall happen when an employee is “caught” putting half her working time into online education? Well, she could be fired, but that would mean terminating someone who was more skilled and competent than the person who was originally hired– an inconsistent decision. That might make sense if it raised questions about integrity, but the rising generation doesn’t view this behavior as unethical. So I see that extreme response as unlikely. Blocking MOOCs is a non-starter, since many departments and managers will want their reports to have access to them, or to use them themselves, and people won’t gladly work for a company that gets a reputation for blocking Coursera.  This is not a change to be fought; it can only be embraced.

So what might this mean, at the macroscopic level? Companies won’t be able to prevent the rising generation from putting the bulk of their working time into self-directed learning and projects, and the more progressive ones won’t even want to do so. Companies will have to accept the self-executive mindset of the most capable people. Thus, work will be redefined, and the relationship will be more like one of sponsorship than subordination. On the whole, this will be a positive change. One of the nastiest tensions in the modern corporation surrounds the lack of career coherency in work as presently defined. Career incoherency refers to the fact that a worker’s assigned tasks may not be what is best for her long-term desirability in the workforce. Present-day young workers are often forced to balance competing job and career needs, and afraid of catching the “not a team player” label if they serve the latter too obviously. Hence, the current need to be furtive in “MOOCing”. That will change under the sponsorship system, where young people are expected to serve their career needs and their employers are just there to fund them and collect products they produce along the way. That will be superior and, in the long run, produce better technical work. The proliferation of high-quality, free, online education is the start.

I, for one, welcome our new MOOC overlords.

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19 thoughts on “MOOCs will disrupt the corporate world

  1. That will be superior and, in the long run, produce better technical work. The proliferation of high-quality, free, online education is the start. I, for one, welcome our new MOOC overlords.

    Education has been virtually free for a very long time. Do you want to educate yourself? The thoughts of the great thinkers of the past 2500 years are easily accessible at the nearest library. Very few people have the discipline and drive to educate themselves that way. To make matters worse, one is alone and has no one to bounce ideas off with. This is inefficient.

    However, though knowledge is not unobservable, it’s expensive to observe. You cannot interview everyone! Therefore, some form of filtering is needed. That is where universities come in: they serve as credential-manufacturers that make the task of HR departments much easier. Too many applicants with a BSc? Let us require a MSc to narrow our pool of applicants! And it’s not just knowledge that matters, the ability to tolerate enormous amounts of pain and do meaningless work for 12 hours per day also matters.

    But universities do more than educate and award diplomas. They also exist to rank applicants according to their cognitive ability, though no one likes to put it that bluntly. A Caltech Physics graduate is not valuable for his knowledge of Hamiltonian Mechanics and nonlinear PDEs, he is valuable because he’s probably quite smart, and someone that smart can be trained by McKinsey or Goldman Sachs to do something like management consulting or high-frequency trading. Moreover, “no one was ever fired for buying IBM”. Pedigree matters also because HR people can protect themselves in case they hire a non-”team player”.

    Michael, again you over-generalize and assume that that which applies to programmers applies to everyone. Though it is possible to learn corporate finance via MOOC’ing, one cannot learn M&A that way. Most people are not hired to think, they are hired to execute orders, though that thought clearly horrifies you, for some reason. Moreover, being hired to execute rather than think pleases a lot of people, which may also horrify you.

  2. MOOC’s have been around a long time, they aren’t changing anything. I think you have way to much faith in human “progress” generally.

    “The current corporate workplace operates based on a credibility drought.”

    No, no, no. The only credibility people in corporate care about is are you credibly a cog. Will you credibly not fuck things up too bad. Inefficiency can be solved by adding more cogs. They’ve got the money for that. They’ve got systems for that. They can’t handle a big fuck up that ruins whatever power dynamic got them rich in the first place.

    You need to start thinking about corporate work like a marriage where everyone involved “settled”. Oh, you’ve got roughly the right credentials and behave well, you’re hired I guess.

    “Very few people have the discipline and drive to educate themselves that way.”

    Why are you even asking this question. If you tell the dude on the street “work really hard and you will be rich” he will. My Dad was working class and busted his ass his whole life. Discipline isn’t as big a problem as people think. Most people don’t bust their butt because they know busting their butt is pointless.

    Education. Productivity. Hard work. Ha! Wealth, real wealth, comes from POWER. Power is why someone gets rich. The most busting your ass is going to get you assuming the middle 95% of random outcomes is 50% more then someone with your IQ and SES background would be expected to earn. If you want to do better you need POWER. And power doesn’t come from an online course. It comes from the understanding between you and your old roomy from HYPS knowing that you keep the good stuff in the “family”. It comes from owning some bottleneck so you can extract rents from lots of desperate people.

    The most you’ll ever get from studying online courses, even assuming you are super smart, is $2XX,XXX/year or something like that (maybe more if your a doctor and want to pay mega bucks and time for long education, and even then we are basically talking about the power of the AMA). That’s what a really skilled STEM person with no power is going to cap out at. That’s as far as productivity can take you. If you want to do better you need power. You ain’t gonna find it in a textbook.

    “Most people are not hired to think, they are hired to execute orders”

    Real money comes from power. It makes sense that companies main goal is not to lose whatever gives them power. Cogs do a better job of that.

    • So, what do you think we should do? Armed rebellion? I don’t believe that our society is at that point yet.

      Don’t get me wrong. I’d much rather have an armed overthrow of the corporate elite than have them in place 50 years from now. Nonviolent overthrow is better than violent overthrow is better than none.

      However, I think there are *probably* good reasons to believe that the corporate system is, although it will be slow to die, on its way out. Not because people have suddenly improved, but because these archaic power structures are going to be less able to compete for talent, which means they’ll be less successful in the market. This progress will probably take a few decades, if not a century. The corporate edifice wasn’t built in a year and it won’t die in one either.

      Sure, they’re greedy and seek to retain power. I get that. However, people have always been greedy and violent and humanity has still advanced in spite of that.

      • “So, what do you think we should do?”

        Maybe there is nothing to “be done”. It’s certainly unlikely to happen on the “we” level. If progressive thought has done one thing its been to destroy the entire concept of “we”. Individuals act. You, as an individual, will have to decide what you are going to do. You will likely have to do this in absence of any likely guarantee it will change anything on a societal scale, perhaps even on a local scale. This has always been true.

        I’ve been going through a lot of history of Rome and Byzantium. Lately I’ve been very curious about what people in declining empires think, feel, and how they acted. They had some idea what was going on but it happened anyway. Since we are in a similar situation I’ve wondered about the parallels. People are a bit more depressed and more cynical, but they are more or less the same. Human goals are still human goals. Moral choices are still moral choices.

        “Not because people have suddenly improved, but because these archaic power structures are going to be less able to compete for talent, which means they’ll be less successful in the market.”

        Did corporations get more powerful or less powerful over the last 30 years? For the average person they got more powerful on nearly every level. The internet age caused churn in who the corporations were and what skill sets they were looking for, but it didn’t change the whole idea behind the corporation.

        “However, people have always been greedy and violent and humanity has still advanced in spite of that.”

        Has humanity “advanced”. Civilizations rose and fell for 5,000 years or so. Then we figured out how to burn oil and use it productively so we had a really big spike in stuff produced. It will come back. Maybe in the next 50 years, maybe in 500 or 5,000 years if we make some other big tech breakthroughs. However, its inevitable. It’s human nature. Our social institutions can’t even handle growth slowing from 3% to 1.5%, how would they handle <0%. I can't tell you when that will happen, but on a long enough timeline its guaranteed. Humanity is always the same, increasing GDP doesn't change that.

        • Has humanity “advanced”?

          Ask any Jew or black or woman of your acquaintance who is either old enough to remember, or has some knowledge of history, whether humanity has advanced. The reply will be “Yes, but not far enough.”

          The first and last of all privileges is not to know how you are privileged.

            • A girlfriend, well and good. Your spiritual great-grandfather, the conservative, would have kept a slave mistress. And he would have defended the right to own slaves as part of the sacred rights of property that his spiritual grandfather engaged in armed revolution to establish — as against his King by divine right.

              Conservatives are just progressives stuck in the last revolution. Conservation of the old and good is a fine thing, and I’m all for it; conservation of the old and bad is Evil and Wrong.

        • Technological advancement != human advancement. I agree with the rest of your post, but this assumption is insane. The current growth rate is unsustainable. Even in a world where everyone was peaceful, had no war, and people worked in complete unison (say how the circulatory system works), a world where most scarcity would not exist as most scarcity is artificial, there are some scarcities that are not artificial.

          Fresh, clean, drinkable water is #1.

          Energy is not the problem. The only solution to that that is sustainable for the current energy use level is nuclear. The solution is there. It will not be implemented in this society which is on the brink of collapse (USA).

          That limit has probably been breached. If not, another generation will surely do it. People have not advanced. If anything, they’ve taken steps backward. There are people still pumping out babies like AK-47′s pump out bullets despite not having the ability to support themselves or their kids. This is an assault on society. They need to stop fucking or use contraception. Which brings us to the one resource that should be available, can be available, and can solve a lot of the world’s problems if enforced:


          But that will never happen with attitudes of “abstinence only” (USA) or “fuck a virgin to get rid of my AIDS” (Africa). Or rather to sum it up:

          You are not _entitled_ to have kids. You should have to earn that right. You need to prove you can take care of them and you need to dedicate your WHOLE life to raising kids. Otherwise, you should be neutered.

          Finally, the world will never advance as long as delusional, insane people are in power and that means ending religion. I don’t see that happening. If it ever does, only then, can the world even BEGIN to advance. Before that, even with solutions for water, power, and population control, humanity will never and has never advanced.

          “People are people so why should it be
          You and I should get along so awfully” — Depeche Mode

          The above is why.

          • Lucian, I personally agree that the right to have kids should be conditioned on the ability of our resources can sustain them in the long term. Even more so if we manage to significantly lengthen our life expectancy, for instance by curing ageing.

            That said, such regulation have very bad karma. What you are proposing amounts to Eugenics (whatever criterion for parenting approval you use, it’s a selection pressure). Plus, the right to have kids is very important for many humans (heck, how do you think our specie survived?).

            This is going to be a hard sell.

            • Indeed. People are stupid. This has nothing to do with Eugenics, but the actual survival of humans. There is no inherent right to have kids just as there is no inherent right to have food. You have to earn each. Having kids is just about the most selfish act one can commit. It is _not_ a victimless crime. In fact, every person in the world is a victim of such an act because every person is burdened. That includes the unborn child who obviously does not choose to be born into this world. (But that’s a whole other topic.)

              If the parents are able to take care of their kids properly, that’s great. If not, it is only because this has been accepted as the norm for too long in modern society. Our ancestors needed to have a ton of kids because a large percentage would not survive to adulthood. That is no longer the case in many parts of the world. In the places where it is the case, the case (no pun intended) for not having kids is even stronger. If one is starving and barely has any resources for oneself, bringing a child in the world is willingly cruel. The lack of education is no excuse. Even the dumbest of humans can figure out how to put on a condom. (The access to condoms and education is a whole other topic.)

              One cannot be pardoned for a crime they didn’t know they were committing simply because they did not know it. At this point, it is clear that the planet is overpopulated and current power structures creating artificial scarcity throughout much of the planet (the energy crisis being one of them, ironically) as well as real scarcity, mainly the lack of clean fresh (as opposed to salt) drinking water.

              It might be a tough sell. That is for sure. It is only because while technology has advanced humans have not. In all of recorded history we ponder and contemplate the same things and generally arrive (the few amongst us) to similar conclusions. That is not to say that the great thinkers agree with each other. Most new western philosophy is just catching up with thousand year old ideas from eastern philosophy. Yet still, people are just as stupid and will fight learning tooth and nail. They’d rather die. And they will. Nature cannot be resisted.

              “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” – Albert Einstein

              As far as what you refer to as “very bad karma.” That phrase makes no sense. Karma in both the philosophical and traditional forms only ever applies to human beings, never to material objects. Furthermore, karma is not the stupid and baseless popular idea of karma where “if I do good/bad to someone, something good/bad will happen to me.”

              No, that’s just human stupidity demonstrated in action.

  3. Brilliant!

    “We’re not. “Entitled” is the last thing we are. Rather, we work very hard, and we’re extremely loyal when we believe that loyalty is deserved.” This is so true I cannot express it in words. The HELL I and all of us on this level have had to and CONTINUE to have to put up with is unbelievable. Stupid managers, shitty code, terrible coworkers, the bait and switch interview, processes that don’t work, incompetent engineers especially sysadmins.

    “As a generation, we’re poorly paid. (Software engineers are adequately, but not exceptionally, paid.)” Yes. Sometimes barely adequately for the work we are assigned.

    My only criticism is that MOOCs are overrated and unnecessary for self-credibility. Only 1 out of the top 5 engineers I know has a degree in Computer Engineering. The others have either a High School diploma or a Bachelors in an unrelated filed. Degrees don’t matter (mine’s a B.A.H. dual diploma in Philosophy, which actually applies more than one would think). Online course completions don’t matter.

    Experience matters. This part has not changed. I’ll take someone with real world experience and High School degree if they have the skill and can prove it over a Stanford Ph.D because the former knows how to build software and the latter is an academic with no idea how to build real world software in 99.999% of cases. I’m not picking on Stanford too much (I am a little as that’s what I’e seen come out of there). MIT and just about any other institution have the same problems. I’m not saying they don’t graduate some good software engineers. I’m saying that percentage is very small (probably way under 1%).

    As far as learning on the job, it should be a requirement. Whether the manager likes it or not, downtime should be spent that way. A good manager will tell you if you have downtime you should do whatever you want. Downtime is, after all, either because you’re better than the average programmer in which case you are entitled to learn on your own, or by the failure of the manager in which case you are entitled to learn on your own.


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