The Happily Unexpected Consequences of Engineering School

After several months off, I’m back. This article was originally written for the inaugural edition of my Alma Mater’s engineering student magazine. Enjoy.

The Happily Unexpected Consequences of Engineering School 

I have always held a deep, energetic passion for technology. When I went to study a double major engineering degree at UCT [University of Cape Town], I was excited. What would I learn? Who would I get to work with? How will I use these skills in my career one day? These are common questions for any young student. In my case, after leaving university I quickly crossed over into a path of entrepreneurship, where I would I get a crash course in sales, marketing, fundraising, HR and several other areas that I was never taught much about in university. After enough people asked (and continue to ask) me, “Do you regret what you studied?” I pondered this carefully and decided that my answer was a resounding “No”. I have realized that while giving me explicit skills in a couple of technical areas, my experience studying engineering also equipped me with a number of implicit skills that I didn’t even know I had until long after I graduated. It was as though I was building a hidden toolbox of assets over those four years, and in the years since, I have seen that hidden toolbox continue to help me along. You might be wondering what I mean exactly. In this letter I have shared just a few stories that may illustrate my point.

Thinking back to my engineering classes at university, I can recall various courses where the final deliverable had to be a working demo or functional prototype of some sort. I remember building an alarm prototype for Embedded Systems, writing a predictive text program for Computer Science, and even whipping components together on a breadboard to do interesting things with 555 timers in Introduction to Electrical Engineering. The specific assignment isn’t what mattered- what mattered is that they forced us to build stuff and make it work. 

As we all now know, there is a marked difference between theory and practice. Sometimes, things don’t always work out the way the manual stated they would, and we need to do a little trial and error. At other times, we need to create a hack or workaround and pray that it holds up under testing until we have time to develop a more fundamental solution. Things don’t always proceed as planned or on schedule, but deadlines are deadlines. And it has to work, or you could fail. This sounds a lot like a real world product development cycle. In startups, tiny teams are forced to create working products in a short space of time, and it’s hardly ever as clean and straightforward as one reads about in business literature. Fortunately, all of those thoughtful planning sessions and hair pulling fault-finding missions during practical assignments offer a solid foundation for us. Engineering grads are rarely frightened by the challenge of creating something new.

In my first year of studies, my classmates and I quickly became swamped with work. Tests, projects, assignments, and the dreadful tutorials piled up. Tutorials were particularly hated, because we had to submit them or risk being disqualified from the course, but their marks didn’t count toward the course grade. At that time, I was living in a university residence, and a clever group of around eight to ten disgruntled like-minded students decided that something had to give. (I cannot confirm if I was one of this group because the story to follow is a little incriminating). Battered by mounting work volumes and not enough time to get everything done well and still enjoy university life, these students developed a novel solution to overcoming tut submissions. Every week, the group nominated an individual who’s job it was to do the tutorial for a particular subject. The night before the morning submission, the group would band together in a res room, as though a clandestine political party meeting were taking place. The person who did the tut would then have to rapidly take the group through the exercise, explaining how he reached his answers and the methods used, and members would have a chance to pose any questions. Once all were satisfied, the original pages of the tutorial solution would be distributed among the different members, who would then creatively copy (e.g. swap variable names etc.) the entire document in rapid assembly line fashion. Seeing the group effectively distribute different pages among each other and cross check each other’s work in a lightening total time of under an hour was a remarkable sight. In the morning, a postman from the group was nominated to submit everyone’s tuts while the others attended their lectures or decided to sleep in. 

Now, I must admit that this was probably (definitely) breaking the university’s rules. And while rule breaking isn’t something that I expressly recommend, it’s something that entrepreneurs often need to do. (Besides, it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission anyway, but I digress). While that group of students were possibly “harming their education” by not doing all of their homework solo, they were actually learning hugely valuable lessons in adaptable team work, managing overload, and operating in the margins where those who follow all of the rules wouldn’t care to tread. People strong in these traits are golden to startups. I’m not surprised that many of the people from that group in first year went on to pursue highly entrepreneurial careers.

My next story happened much more recently, around two weeks ago. I was in a casual meeting at a coffee shop with a successful Internet entrepreneur and über-geek, and we were discussing a little business. All of a sudden towards the end of the conversation, the following exchange took place.

"So, I assume that as a business guy, you haven’t ever written a line of code in your life" he said.

"No. Actually I have been a techie since I was a kid; I was a programmer for several years and studied Electrical and Computer Engineering at university" I replied.

"Oh, that’s cool. I was just checking. So if I asked about using a CDN to speed up load times you’d know what I was talking about."

"Yes, we could have a nice debate about the merits of AWS plus CloudFront versus an optimized local box to increase app speed…"

Recognition flashed across his face, a wry smile developed in the corner of his mouth, and we continued to wrap up the business at hand. This type of conversation has happened over and over again in my career as a technology entrepreneur. Even though I don’t work as an engineer anymore, I interact with engineers and technically minded people all the time. And the simple but unfortunate fact of the matter is that if you haven’t earned your chops in a technical faculty before and are unable to stand toe to toe in a technical discussion, they simply won’t extend the same level of camaraderie and mutual respect toward you as they would to one of their own. In my experience, business is mostly a practical skill that can be picked up on the go, while engineering requires deep understanding and conceptual frameworks that are less easy to learn “on the job”. So even though I’m not an engineer anymore and I have crossed over to the business side of the outfit, I am still lucky to be considered as an insider and team player by the technical folks, and that matters massively. To best work with or lead people, it’s essential to understand them. 

Casting my mind back to graduation day all those years ago, I distinctly remember feeling elated- but this was an equal mix between a sense of achievement, and a genuine sense of survival. I’m sure you know what I mean. When looking at that result after a difficult test or exam, sometimes the first thought that comes to mind is not “Look at my incredible mark!” but rather “Wow, I didn’t fail!” Studying engineering is hard. But then again, business is no picnic either, and it’s good to be tough. The outcomes are worth it. And as I am continuing to learn in a career of entrepreneurship, engineering students tend to develop some unexpected but highly useful tools that pay dividends for a long time to come.

4 Unlikely Ways University Prepares Students for Entrepreneurship

I recently gave a talk at my alma mater to a group of students eager to learn about entrepreneurship after university. I always relish the chance to engage with students, who are so full of nacent potential and paths not yet traveled. 

I decided to share some of the uncommon lessons of university that I have uncovered over time, thinking back on my experience as an Electrical & Computer Engineering student, and later, as an Internet entrepreneur. Here are a few of my favourite ones, told with some personal stories.

1. Demystifying complexity and learning anything.

I remember a few courses during my degree that had me particularly baffled. For the electrical engineers (like me), it was Signals and Systems. (I recall that for my actuary friends it was Financial Maths and for my accountant friends it was Tax). Faced with the upcoming exam, upon opening the textbook (I wasn’t a big attender of lectures) and seeing what looked like gibberish, a special sense of panic would set in.

Like so many students, I was faced with two choices: accept failure or push through the wall of confusion and learn this subjet. Do whatever it takes. I chose the latter path, forcing myself to read, test, re-read and re-test the textbook material until the subject started to make sense, no matter how alien it seemed to me.

Challenges like this teach students (science students at least) that they have the ability to learn anything; to never shy away from a new subject citing the excuses “it’s too complicated for me” or “I am not familiar with this stuff”. Give a former science student a financial statement, software system model or set of performance data metrics that they have never seen before, and instead of avoiding it, they will know how to invest the energy required to learn, understand, and possibly even master it.

2. Rapid fire document output.

Faced with a never ending torrent of assignments and tutorials, as students we were forced to prioritize our workload. What this resulted in was a high degree of copying going on for the less important items for submission. The method was simple: each person from the group did the tutorial for a different subject, and all of the others creatively copied it (making appropriate adjustments so the crime wasn’t obvious), usually right before submission was required.

The ability to quickly review another piece of work from somewhere else, make appropriate adjustments, and then create something new for their own company is something that entrepreneurs need to do all the time. It isn’t copying so much as respectfully imitating (e.g. a design, report, contract, presentation), and in business it’s considered a skill.

3. Talking the talk (while understanding it).

In my case, I am no longer a software engineer or a formal practitioner of the general field in which I studied (engineering) or subject that I majored in (telecoms). However, I do still work in the business and product side of the tech industry, and interact on a daily basis with technical people within and outside my own company. Without the solid grounding in technical principles of software, networks and systems theory that I got at University, I would undoubtedly be less equipped to not only understand my company’s technical development process, but also earn the respect of my team and peers.

4. Open-minded acceptance of people.

University is great at throwing a diverse set of people together into one big heterogenous melting pot. Unlike school, where popularity rankings and “in” vs “out” groups are quickly established, varsity tends to create an ecosystem where different types of people coexist side by side. In class, we were forced to work with people we normally wouldn’t have interacted with, and this was a powerful force helping to instill a sense of meritocracy among the students, i.e. it doesn’t matter who they are, as long as they can get the work done. 

Giving people a chance and evaluating them purely on their merits is a huge factor in entrepreneurship. With the randomness and ups and downs of life that entrepreneurs are hyper-exposed to, I think that they also realize that anybody can become extremely successful one day. I will always remember a particular fellow from my residence at university who was very quiet, odd looking and generally a loner. I spoke to him a few times about casual topics and one day he emailed me something. I have long forgotten the subject matter, but I still recall the quote he appended to the bottom of his email:

"The more of a loser someone thinks you are, the more surprised they’ll be when you kill them" (Nida Tahir)

Now, I’m sure he was being metaphorical but let’s just say that since seeing that I never once underestimated him or brushed him off… and try to never let myself do that with anybody else- ever.

Such unexpected lessons are part of the magic of university.