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Merrill Aldrich

Technical content about Microsoft data technologies. All opinions expressed are purely my own and do not reflect positions of my employer or associates.

Education, Money, Happiness

It’s back-to-school time. The MCM program has been canceled. A good time to reflect.

I have two little boys, you might know, Will and Robbie. Will is a third grader this year, and Robbie starts Kindergarten tomorrow. I have been through “school selection,” which, especially if you have kids, really means, “Where must we live so our kids have a decent education?” With the littlest one starting school in earnest, and the cancelation of the MCM - and the hand-wringing and worry and blogging about that throughout the SQL community – I have been mulling over this problem of education a lot.

School and I go Way Back

I am probably an over-educated nerd, to be honest. I have, taken together, eight years of college education. I don’t have exactly the degree you would expect from all those years, but they were all valuable – the papers I do have are for two Architecture degrees. I studied Architecture for six years, computer science for two. Before that I was in a classic New England prep school, where going to college was just an expected norm. I did an exchange program in Sweden during that time, and lived and went to a college prep program in Linköping (pronounced roughly leen sherping). Both my parents are retired teachers from U.S. public schools, my father a French teacher, my mother, a music teacher.

I even taught, albeit as a very young visiting lecturer rather than a professor, at a prestigious university for a time. I worked alongside career academics and got a little of the flavor of that life.

Architecture is difficult, and heavily regulated, and so has a very long and onerous program of university, internship, testing and accreditation, followed more continuing ed and more accreditation. When I went to school it took at least 8-10 years from high school graduation to become an architect. I never did, though I worked in the field for ten years. Most architects never make much money. Some stars do. The movie image of an architect is just that. Imaginary.

What I mean to say is, I have spent my whole life in relationship to schools, to teaching, to certifications, to the measure of a framed piece of paper on the wall, and what that means in light of career, money and happiness. It was an expectation from my parents, who, as teachers, are whole-hog invested in education as a basic moral imperative. Elaborate certification was a specter during my whole time designing buildings, one that I resisted. “Certs,” as we call them in IT, are a constant topic in the SQL Server community. Now, as a parent, I have to make up my mind about how this continues with my boys.

Consider This

This is a very good series of short videos from T.V. personality Mike Rowe, that I found online via Andy Leonard: 

Also consider this related older thread from Andy, which is thought-provoking:

Common Myths

I don’t know much, but after long years dealing with and thinking about these issues, I know for a fact that our society carries some mythology, perpetuated by media and some institutions, that doesn’t help families make good choices about education.

Myth: College is About Getting a Job. College is Job Training.

There are some college programs that look very much like job training – engineering, for example, or law or medicine. It might be that a large percentage of graduates from those programs go on to work in their “chosen field.” It might even be that new entrants into some professions have to have a degree in the field. Still, and call me crazy, I am weary of hearing that education is only important to ensure young people have job training, so they can be employed, because that idea is so misguided. We sell our whole culture short by constantly reducing this issue to employment (pun intended). We sell our young people short every time someone makes a wisecrack like, “oh, Art degree – would you like fries with that? Har, har. Yuk, yuk.” Yet this is what we hear, over and over: employment as the only important rationale for education. People sometimes say, “Education can enrich your life,” and that is more true – but they are rarely taken seriously.

Here’s the truth: if you live in fear of not having essentials like food, heat, a roof over your head, you’ll be miserable. If you live in constant worry that you will lose your job, you’ll be miserable. If you live with a horrible job that you hate, but you have to keep it to survive, you’ll be miserable.

If you look at those statements, you might note that college is “orthogonal” – an overeducated word for “unrelated” – to any of those things. I have a good job and make a decent living in a field totally unrelated to the professional program I attended in school. It doesn’t mean the education was lost, or didn’t have value, it means the real value of that education isn’t job training.

Myth: College Will Help You Make a lot of Money.

Truth: C students and dropouts are often richer than we are, the nerdy A students. Anybody out in the workplace with open eyes should know that. There might be exceptions for some Ivy-league CxOs or surgeons or lawyers, but in my experience education and serious wealth are not directly related. Why is that? This could be a whole other post, but to summarize my belief on this topic:

  • Nobody makes serious, exotic-car-collection, multiple-house money by working for a wage or salary. You make money by controlling wealth-generating assets. This is because other people will not pay you great piles of money for your individual labor, they will only pay you great piles of money because you control assets like companies, labor, material, technology. There is little related to education in that equation. What it takes is the insight and skill to gain control of assets – if that’s your cup of tea.
  • You never make serious money unless the main thing you are paying attention to is making money. If your priorities are elsewhere, other people probably get the money. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there it is. There are a few stories of people who, for example, invented some technology and stumbled into riches, but in fact the majority of rich people are rich by focusing single-mindedly on getting rich. University education will provide you no end of distractions from getting rich.
  • Getting and keeping serious money requires being blind to, or stomaching, certain ethical dilemmas. University might well deepen those dilemmas.

So, if you want great piles of money – and perhaps question that impulse – then don’t focus on higher learning. You need to be literate, and you need to be able do do math and such, but get control of a business instead of worrying about some Master’s degree. It’s more effective to learn business in business than in a university.

But, I am not rich, and I work for a salary, so at the end of the day, I probably cannot speak with authority on this.

Myth: College Will Guarantee You Make a lot of Money.

We do our kids a disservice equally by claiming that going through a college degree program somehow guarantees you wealth. There’s the economy, there’s the job market, there’s supply and demand. There are statistics that show college graduates may be more employable as young people, but for an individual kid there’s no relationship here. If you are smart and resourceful I think good career paths are out there either way. Likewise, a college graduate can be unemployable, or fixated on a specific career for which there are no jobs, or where all the jobs have low pay. This college=rich thing is nonsense.

Myth: Money Makes People Happy. Therefore, College is Required for Happiness.

Here’s the double-edged myth that rolls the previous three into a nice surprise package with a bow on top. There’s a message out there, repeated endlessly: College = Money = Happiness. The problem for kids is that, with one shot and a one-way ticket through life, if you discover this is a myth when you are 35 and miserable, a lot of time has been wasted. We need to remind kids that happiness is happiness. Once you get past the basic economic necessities so that you are comfortable, once you have activities and vocation that you find rewarding, it’s a statistically proven fact that happiness is not related to wealth. I think happiness might be related to education in some ways, which I’ll talk about in a minute, but that relationship does not detour through job training and money.

Myth: College is / is not Worth the Money.

With all this ranting, you might have the impression I am against sending kids to college – but nothing could be further from the truth. I am only ranting against all the undue emphasis on money. Here’s the thing: college really can enrich your life, but it’s not with dollars. You get one life, and all you have, really, on the last day, is your experience. The point is to live well, and for many people, going to college helps. It helps you grow up, it helps you think about things in new ways, it expands your view of the world. It helps you in your job, but the important ways that it helps are not as job training. It helps you write, for example, or meet deadlines, or communicate. It helps you with strategies for problem solving. Even then, it’s not necessary for everyone.

After the first one or two jobs that a young person has, it is my fervent hope that employers don’t blindly make college degrees a requirement for job candidates, because all these soft job skills can also be acquired in other ways. It’s not that you must go to college to get them. College just helps some people get those skills faster. After a few years, in many professions, the college degree just should not carry that much weight. Look at the real qualifications of the candidate.

College is expensive. Is it worth the money? If you went, and you are miserable, then it wasn’t. If you went, and you have a better life because of the experience then it was. The constant analysis of “this degree for this job has ROI where this one doesn’t” entirely misses the point. When I think about my kids’ future, the college question really comes down to this: in their one trip through life, will college help them to be happy, productive, satisfied? That’s all. That’s whether it’s worth the money.

English degree makes you literate, and being literate makes you happy? You have a decent job in some completely unrelated field, and that job is rewarding? That’s ROI.

Myth: Everyone Needs a Degree.

So, I don’t think a college degree makes everyone happy, or employable, or rich. So, while higher ed was right for me, and I am so happy to have it, I’m with Mike Rowe on this. Let’s be sensible about it, instead of forcing it on every kid, for imaginary economic reasons. We should instead, as he argues, make lots of different opportunities for lots of different kids in many fields.

I’ve made a comfortable living, but not much money. We are not rich. I could have been smarter about what I have earned, in some ways. But my education is part of who I am, and I like knowing the things I learned. I’m happier for it.


That brings me around to the MCM program. I have thought a lot about going after MS certs and the MCM. I’d have a lot to learn, but I do feel like I could earn that. I personally have not gone after the lower certs, because, in the back and forth of whether they carry real weight or not over eight or so years, I always seem to land on the side where I think my experience is enough without the paper. I already have the motivation to hone my skills and learn this DBA craft on my own, without the deadlines or the tests. And with the web, and a modest book budget, the learning is mostly free.

I have huge respect for those who have earned the MCM title, or who worked to create it, and I can imagine how disappointing it was when Microsoft made their blunder of an announcement. Counting some of the MCMs among my friends, and knowing how expert they are, I know this was a genuine, thorough, high bar for DBAs.

That said, and not discounting their accomplishments, I think Brent Ozar had a really insightful take on this issue. It’s hazardous aligning something like lifetime educational goals, akin to the way I think about a college experience, with the very simple, hard realities of a technology corporation like Microsoft or Cisco. Those entities are going to do what they need to do economically, and teaching or certification, even while they may be well intentioned, are going to be bound to that corporate interest. I feel like it’s important to keep that in perspective. Insofar as the low-level technical detail of training and certs like this has such a short life – three years? – and all of it is bound, at the end of the day, to selling technology, then it really is the learning that matters.

The bright side? Microsoft can remove the program, but they can’t take the learning or experience away from the the people who participated, and, at least in my view, that’s the important part the experience anyway.

Published Sunday, September 8, 2013 3:33 PM by merrillaldrich

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Manson said:

Great thought

September 10, 2013 10:40 PM

John Halunen said:

Totally agree with most of this, money <> happiness etc.  Think you missed the analysis re: value of college.  Its not about the job training for most, its about learning how to think and solve problems.  I don't use any of my math degree daily, but sure do use the ability to solve problems I learned getting the degree. That is really what we get paid for...

Secondly, from an economic standpoint a college degree results in a net gain of about a million dollars over the persons lifetime.  Obviously it costs money too, and the interesting question is whether investing that maybe $150k up front cost somewhere else makes more sense.  Assuming you had it laying around :-)

September 11, 2013 11:30 PM

merrillaldrich said:

John - Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I agree with you 100%, and I know that statistically college grads do have an earnings advantage. For many people that will be important. I just think we fixate on that money too much, for every kid and for every job.

September 12, 2013 9:30 AM

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