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Do Degrees Hurt or Help?

Remember how we were told as kids in school that we had to study hard to get into college or university? There was that ongoing, implied threat that not getting into university or college would ruin our career. Or at least, be very bad.

It turns out it may not be that bad after all. For example, over half of Apple’s employees don’t have 4-year degrees. Why?

Coding. University graduates can’t do it. Sure, there are software engineering degrees where you learn what coding is and different coding approaches that can be objectively assessed in exams. But coding is an art. It requires on-the-job experience, learning from others, being allowed to make mistakes, getting used to working for deadlines, and all the other things that matter in the real world. Things you can’t test in an exam.

It’s not just Apple challenging the importance of 4-year degrees. Google, IBM, Bank of America and Hilton are just a few of the increasing number of companies that don’t require 4-year degrees for new employees.

In many ways, coding is like real-world reliability engineering.

Reliability engineering is a unique beast. We all know (or at least feel) that probability and statistics are important parts of designing reliability into something. But reliability happens at points of decision. Design decisions. Manufacturing decisions. Maintenance decisions.

If you’re all about probability and statistics, but not better decision-making, then you aren’t a real-world reliability engineer. Which is why universities and colleges continue to let our industry down.

I often talk about ‘ponderous professors’ - stereotypical reliability engineers who love probability, statistics, analysis, and testing. There are thousands out there. The person who does ‘statistical stuff’ down the hall. He gets invited to lots of meetings, but when we are ready to design something reliable, our ‘ponderous professor’ demands more data, more time, or both before they give you any helpful, practical guidance. Which they never end up providing until after something bad happens.

Maybe you know one. Maybe you know a ‘highly accelerated life testing’ or ‘HALT guy’ whose answer to everything is HALT. Maybe you know a ‘failure mode and effects analysis’ or ‘FMEA guy.’ These are people who focus on solutions before understanding the problem. People who are so one-dimensional that they try and keep reliability engineering in their very small comfort zone. People who solve the problems they want to solve and not the problems they need to solve.

I have post-graduate degrees in reliability engineering. I have worked at two universities. I have seen these ‘ponderous professors’ multiply in artificial, academic safe havens. Free from real-world predators (like commercial insolvency). And most of them weren’t interested in real-world reliability engineering.

Real-world reliability engineering focuses on what your organization is trying to achieve, what it values, what it defines success to be, and then working out how reliability engineering helps you get there. My degrees really help me find solutions to some problems. But not all. It’s not even close.

So if you are a young professional reliability engineer plotting your way forward in life, make sure you remain a real-world reliability engineer. A degree might be part of your professional development plan, but it can’t be your only professional development plan.

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