Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2019 (Day 2)

I am glad I can get out of the office and learn what companies are doing in Utah and Day 2 of the SSTS 2019 offered some more reminders of what is on the mind of tech leaders. In no particular order, here are several items I noted:

  • Companies are looking for individuals with domain knowledge who can reach across disciplines.
  • Culture eats strategy (i.e., it doesn’t matter how great your corporate strategy is if the culture of your company is terrible.)
  • Good companies promote a learning culture.
  • As a leader, get your hands dirty.
  • Make hiring decisions based on core competencies even if the person looks different than you.
  • How do customers increase revenue when they adopt your product or service?
  • Start by measuring something.

Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2019

Day 1 of the 2019 SSTS is in the books and my favorite session from the day was a panel discussion on The Future of AI Talent in Utah. Not because I know anything about AI, but because one can apply the points made by the panel across many disciplines.

When answering a question about talent in Utah, the panel consensus was something along the lines of “Most applicants look the same—1% of the applicant pool are getting all the offers.”

I suspect this is somewhat exaggerated, but it begs the question: What makes that 1% special? How do people differentiate themselves?

What did the panelist say to the young crowd looking at AI as a career path?

  • Don’t rely on “cookie-cutter” (or in software terms “hello world”) projects to demonstrate competency.
  • Show a passion for solving problems.
  • Demonstrate your capabilities by publicly sharing your work—in the area of software development, maintaining a public Github repository for one or more projects. For those of us not in the software space, publishing in a reviewed, online journal would be an option.
  • And while we’ve all heard the college dropout success stories, having a strong educational foundation and simultaneously learning how to solve NEW problems—the ones not in the textbook today—is needed to stay competitive.

These recommendations sound like good advice for everyone looking to differentiate from the crowd.

Lifelong Learning

The concept of continual improvement is an established business practice in today’s economy. The idea was founded in the statistical process control methods developed by Walter A. Shewhart of Bell Labs and later generalized by W. Edwards Deming into the PDSA cycle:

  • Plan: What are the desired outputs? What can be changed to achieve the desired goal?
  • Do: Implement the plan and gather data.
  • Study: Review the outcomes based on the collected data (more commonly called the “Check” phase).
  • Act: If the outcomes were meet, act to make the plan the new standard.

Of course, when completed, we return to the planning phase and look for further improvement to continue the cycle. Are we communicating this idea to students and employees? Can we apply this principle to the concept of “lifelong learning?”

Is the sum of the whole greater than the parts?

Professionals don’t receive letter grades at work (at least, I’ve never received one). During our annual reviews, we might see statements such as “meets expectations,” or “exceeds expectations”—and hopefully not “needs improvement”; however, the summary statement is, or should be, part of a larger dialog on what went well over the past year, what didn’t, and what are the expectations for the next year.

Compare the way we evaluate work performance with education. For employees, we assess performance over a monthly, quarterly and yearly time frame. Students have a fixed time—days or weeks—to master a new set of skills and it is pretty much “all or nothing.” For employees, we have a simple metric, is the work getting done and meeting expectations! For students, homework is assigned, exams are given, and the answers are graded, and at the end of a class, we assume a transfer of knowledge.

At work, we are expected to improve and develop competencies continuously, and while most follow an annual review cycle, the tasks determine the schedule. The team requires a short time frame for some jobs, and others take months; often, the ability of the individual or group drives the plan. “How long is it going to take?” When the answer does not match the need, we look to adjust the scope or budget.

We have a fixed schedule in education. 15 chapters or five novels and reviews or three research papers—in 15 weeks regardless of ability or prior training. For mathematics and the sciences, knowledge is assumed based on the previous courses taken, but what if the student did not obtain competency? Can we expect that a C stands for competent?
 We assume that the sum of knowledge obtained in individual courses is greater than the parts.

As someone who has hired people to do work, the standard resume is limited in what it tells me about what the individual can do. Admittedly, some folks can craft two-pages that make a compelling case to pursue an interview, but we don’t know what someone can do unless we’re fortunate enough to see their work. This need makes hiring within your network compelling—you often have seen the applicants work, or at least have personal connections with those who have. Making the decision is expensive for the employer and fraught with risks—will this person be able to do the work, will they be able to integrate into the team, will they be able to contribute to future projects.

Educators have a responsibility to help students document how their skill sets address these concerns, and it’s not by issuing a diploma and a transcript. We need to help students document the competencies they acquire during the course of their education.

Don’t let my timeline limit your path forward

Applying the mantra of “what can I do now” is an effective way to move forward on long, complex projects that may be stuck or delayed. So, before becoming fixated on the finish, focus on how to keep moving so you can get started.

Following that . . . Academic calendars are not very flexible.
K-12 education has been on a fall/spring schedule for over 100 years and, surprising to me, an agricultural calendar was not the driving factor. (

For better-or-worse, higher education follows a similar calendar although most public colleges and universities now allow undergraduate students to start a program during fall or spring or summer (i.e., they have rolling enrollment) but this is not the case for most graduate and professional programs where a new cohort is formed each year. If someone wants to start a professional program and they miss the application deadline, they will look at the calendar and think there is nothing they can do until next year—don’t let the institution’s schedule prevent you from moving forward.

In the fall, I get emails asking if it’s too late to enroll—and at this point, it is for our program. However, for those wanting to start a graduate degree or certificate program, and it is past the official application deadline, I’ve recommended that they take the opportunity to identify possible gaps in their education or training that may come up during the application review when they do apply. Admission committee’s look at many factors (GPA, letters of recommendation, statement’s of purpose, etc.); however, most are trying to answer a simple question—will this person be successful in our program. Here a few items I’ve recommended to potential students as they navigated the application process.

Enroll in undergraduate courses (for credit) as a non-matriculated student to address gaps between your undergraduate degree and the graduate program. (A non-matriculated has permission to register but is not formally working toward a degree.) Earning a “B or better” can demonstrate readiness for more advanced work in the field and can effectively offset concerns that admission committees may have if a transcript shows underperformance as an undergraduate. If your undergraduate work was sufficient and you meet the pre-requisites then . . .

Ask for permission to enroll in a graduate course (for credit) as a non-matriculated student. If you are able to take a class associated with the program of study, it may be counted towards the graduate degree. But be warned, Colleges and Universities have strict rules for if this may be done and, if it is allowed, how many credits earned as a non-matriculated student can be applied to the degree or certificate.

My advice is pretty simple, even though you can’t start a program now, you can move forward and what looked like a one-year delay may become less than six months.

What would be the cost of public financed college?

For the taxpayers of Utah, 1% —1.5% is my best guess.

Bernie Sanders promoted “free college” during the 2016 Democratic Primaries; unfortunately, Senator Sanders wasn’t able to articulate that message into a winning strategy. Democrats, in general, are failing to capitalize on an issue that should resonate with the majority of Americans.

Who is concerned about college cost? If it’s not everybody, it should be. There are nearly 120,000 students enrolled in Utah’s colleges and universities. With approximately 900,000 households, we can estimate that more than 1 in 10 households have a college student and are directly impacted by the cost of college. I would wager that families with school-age children (K-12) are equally concerned. Add grandparents to the equation,  what percentage of Utah households are concerned? You and all these people — hundreds of thousands if not a one to two million — who want the next generation to succeed.

If the cost of college were negligible, wouldn’t the majority of these people (parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors) consider college a worthwhile option?

If the definition of a public institution is one that receives the majority of its funding from the public, then the state of Utah is on the verge of losing its public institutions of higher education (Table 1).

tution and tax funds per utah higher ed TABLE 1

So, I want to pose a question: What would it cost to fund public higher education fully?

In Utah, the total FY 2016 budget was $14.2 billion; 12% of that was for Higher Education — approximately $1.7 billion. This amount is the Operating and Capital Budget. Students currently spend roughly $680 million in tuition and fees (Table 2). To fully fund higher education would require increasing the amount of money spent on higher education by 40% — but this is less than a 5% increase in the total state budget.

tution and tax funds per utah higher ed TABLE 2

What would this mean to taxpayers? Census estimates show Utah having just over 900 thousand households in 2016; the median household income was $61,000. A back-of-the-envelope calculation would have the typical family pay less than $800 per year which would amount to a 1% — 1.5% increase in the income tax rate (currently at 5%). If you are a parent who wants their child to go to college, this is a bargain. For those of us whose children will be out of college, it’s a price I’d be willing to pay to provide qualified students the opportunity to succeed along a path with known financial benefits.

Is this a reasonable estimate? (It’s a start.)
Is this feasible? (It seems possible to me.)

It’s not free college — taxpayers will pay the bill, but it’s the ideal of public education and investment in our state we should consider.

Grading on a curve

Grading on a curve. The term gets thrown around a lot, especially on a university campus; however, it has meaning beyond academics.

Students believe grading on a curve helps those at the lower end of the distribution.

In academics, it is a measure of student ability compared to their peers so when faculty grade an exam they don’t necessarily care about the absolute grade, but the distribution of scores. For the record, grading on a curve is hard work. You have to calculate the class statistics—mean, standard deviation, etc.—and then determine how many points needs to be added to each test to move the curve to the desired point. (In reality, “scaling” is more often used with the same number of points being added to all scores to change the numerator, or questions “thrown out” to modify the denominator.) I graded on a curve—students on the low end of the curve loved it… students on the high end of the curve hated it because what usually happened is that it helped low scoring students more than it helped those at the top. (For the record, I often felt the need for grading on a curve was due to my inability to craft a good test, not just a reflection on the students abilities.)

But, we are also graded on a curve professionally, and that grade is most often expressed in dollars.

Where is this going? When I take the time to reflect, I ask myself three things:

  1. Do I like what I am doing?
  2. Am I being compensated fairly?
  3. If number two is no, what do I need to change?

Do I Like what I’m doing? Sometimes, when the answer to question one was a “yes,” I stopped. This decision may not have been right financially, after all, if you are treating employment as Me, Inc., the goal should be to maximize shareholder value (being a shareholder of one). Trading time and talents for money should dictate finding the maximum return on those valuable commodities. For the majority of my career, the answer has been a “yes, but…” which leads to question two.

Am I being compensated fairly? The problem is finding the right metric. For most of my professional career, I have used the American Chemical Society (ACS) Salary Calculator. This tool is a member only resource I have found very useful. New graduates and experienced professionals can use the online tool and it covers academic and non-academic positions, degree type, the degree year, geographic location, and additional job details. The output is not just the median but also a breakdown by centiles. Today,,, and other online services are providing basic information (usually, a salary range) or an estimation of your market value.

Is the information accurate? The ACS Salary Calculator is the most direct as it uses data from their annual employment survey using a large member base. From a limited sampling of positions for which I know the salary ranges, and offer useful information to make comparisons. So this rephrases the question to “where am I on the curve?”

I’ve taken comfort at being “above the mean”—or median. Except, of course, those times when I stopped at question one because the gig was just too exciting to worry about money. (I remember my father making the following statement to my musician brother when he stated he had a “gig:” “If you’re getting paid, it’s not a gig, it’s a job.” (Gigs can be a lot of fun if you don’t need the money.)

Being used by an organization is not a good feeling, but if you’re on the low-side of the salary curve, what can you do?

What do I need to change? Unlike a test, in the work world, you can’t rely on the grader to modify the curve. You can ask for a raise and attempt to justify the change based on your performance against the curve, but I can’t think if a case where this worked. The most direct way is getting an offer to work at a similar job for a new company for a higher salary. Again, based on a small sample of managers I’ve discussed this issue with, most are not willing to negotiate based on a competing offer. If you are ready to change companies, it’s a good way to move on the curve. But what if you like the company where you work?

Increasing your capabilities is another way to move on the curve. Are there opportunities at work to learn new skills that will make you more productive or allow you to contribute elsewhere in the group or organization? If not, what can you do outside of work? I have used a fair amount of personal time for professional development. The effort might not lead to an immediate improvement; however, building new skills and solving significant problems should be rewarded. If it’s not, look for another gig—I mean job.

Always ask questions. As a successful scientist or engineer or (insert your field here), what do I need to learn to manage projects or teams effectively? How can I better support my company (business unit) to satisfy our customers, both internal and external?

Which curve are you on? How do you move on the current curve or switch to the next curve?

Of course, you can also jump to a new curve. You may be in the 90% percentile for engineers in the world-wide-widget industry, but if the widget industry pays comparatively low salaries, it’s very likely you won’t be able to move much further on the curve. Unless your skills are directly transferable, you’ll probably need to do something that puts you on a different curve.

Changing where you’re at on any curve, or changing curves, takes time, effort and usually a monetary investment.

  • The time commitment can be substantial: one, two or even 10 years!
  • It takes real effort. It’s much easier to go golfing or skiing on the weekend than to learn skills you’ll use only at work.
  • Funding may be a significant obstacle, but with planning or finding “next best alternatives,” progress is possible.