Stop Surfing the Learning Curve

Many years ago in my previous life as an instructor of 3D animation, I noticed a trend. A high percentage of my students were obsessed with getting the latest version of the software we were using. This obsession in seeking out the absolute latest version — and, in theory, the best possible — often overpowered their desire to build their animation skills.

“Oh man, I need version 6. The new curve smoothing system will help so much.”

These are the type of comments I would hear every day. On their own, they seem fairly harmless. They even seem wise. Who wouldn't recommend using a more powerful tool? However, I came to realize that people were perpetually skirting the periphery of a skill, instead of just sitting down and putting in the hard work to develop that skill. It seemed almost as though learning the lingo, shortcomings, and features of each piece of software would inflate people's feeling of being knowledgeable in that area. I would hear my students say, “I'm learning 3D animation,” but really they were just learning the feature lists of each package, so they could carry on a discussion. They were never doing this intentionally, but it was happening.

I've started calling it “surfing the learning curve,” and I've noticed it in several different areas since then. Here are a few examples.

3D printing/manufacturing at home
“What is the best software for making my objects?”

Do you want to use some CAD system? Maybe an organic modeling suite? You'll probably get all the answers you need within the first 24 hours of deciding you want to begin making objects. After that point, any more searching, trading, and discussing is just robbing you of precious time that you could have spent climbing the learning curve enough to get to your desired outcome.

Hardware development systems
“Which Arduino should I use for my project?”

The hard fact is that, if you're having to ask this question, you're probably just starting out. The chances are, any of them will work for you at this point. What is more important is that you just grab one and actually make something. At some point, you may find that you are limited by the hardware, but you'll have built enough skill to really know that you're limited. Not only that, but you will have gained enough experience to make a better choice.

The same thing goes for the software-side development platforms. I've seen people jump from system to system, always trying to use the latest trend, instead of buckling down and becoming a skilled programmer on a single system. New shiny things won't necessarily make you any better. You have to earn it. If you can program in something and actually program well, it will most likely carry over to whatever the latest cloud-based thing you stumble onto is, should you need to move to that system.

Mechanical engineering
“The new version has 3D modeling. I need that before I can begin designing my widgets.”

Yep, that new version looks really cool. Nope, you don't need it. You need to fully comprehend the concept and construction of your object and stop worrying about the fancy new tool to do that. You can do it in 2D just fine.

EDA packages
“That one includes 3D visualization. I better switch to it.”

“I should switch to that package. It is cloud based.”

There are so many EDA packages that you could surf the learning curve forever. You could be constantly figuring out a new interface in the hopes that it will make you a better designer. Cloud-based interfaces, extensive customizable part lists, fancy simulation features, BOMs linked to retailers — the list goes on and on.

Again, these statements can stand on their own as being completely logical. You might read these and say, “Hey, those are useful features.” They are. That is why the companies keep adding them. However, the point here is that many people get stuck in the neverending deluge of fancy new features. If you're a skilled engineer, you can just as easily sit down at a fancy new package and make a long list of the bells and whistles that you have never, ever needed.

You probably should do a little research before deciding what software you will use, but at some point, you need to make a decision and put in the time and effort to develop skill. A shiny new version will appear, and a competitor will tout a feature that is most likely quite enticing. These things simply will not make you better . They are distractions from accomplishing your goals. If you don't buckle down and develop your skill, you'll be stuck perpetually climbing the learning curve of a new interface. Once you're higher up, you'll have a much better view to make decisions.

Don't be a learning curve surfer.

— Caleb Kraft, Chief Community Editor, EE Times Circle me on Google+

For more projects that engineers are passionate about, be sure to check out EE Life daily.

This article was originally published on EBN's sister publication EE Times .

7 comments on “Stop Surfing the Learning Curve

  1. Taimoor Zubar
    March 24, 2014

    “That is, the skills shortage is based on measurement of knowledge of details that are actually inconsequential, in that they are extremely ephemeral, though easily learned, and therefore not important in the consideration of what constitutes skill.”

    @Rich: I think there's a difference between skills and you cannot club them together. For instance, Business Intelligence is a skill that I wouldn't called ephemeral or short-lived. Once you master the concepts, it will guarantee you success. However, the skill on a particular BI tool can be said to be temporary and you cannot ensure survival in the long run solely on that.

  2. Taimoor Zubar
    March 24, 2014

    “You probably should do a little research before deciding what software you will use, but at some point, you need to make a decision and put in the time and effort to develop skill”

    @Caleb: I think that's easier said than done. With the competitive pressures that the workforce faces today, you have to upgrade yourself to the new version of the software or the technology or you can forget promotions and new job roles. Companies are not willing to consider otherwise from what I have seen.

  3. Anand
    March 25, 2014

    I think this is true. Without honing their skills through hard work and primitive tech, they are obsessed with using the better utilities that are provided. This means that they get less than what they come for, and this creates employment problems. The encouragement should be on practical learning and not on showing off software.

  4. Anand
    March 25, 2014

    @Rich: most interviewers often seek for a basic knowledge of the course in the student that will help their organisation. These are the same companies that complain about employee incompetency at later stages. This can be removed altogether if surfing on the learning curve is abandoned altogether.   


  5. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    March 25, 2014

    @TaimoorZ, at the same time, I think that we humans are getting faster at learning how to use tech. We're coming up on a whole generation of digital natives… and our newest workers pick up new applications without thinking about it. Not that they don't have to learn but the constant learning is part of how they think, I believe.

  6. Eldredge
    March 25, 2014

    For me, the fastest way to learn the features of a software application is to use it for solving a real-life problem that I need to address. I tend to become impatient with examples and training exercises that don't apply to something I need.

  7. Taimoor Zubar
    March 28, 2014

    “Not that they don't have to learn but the constant learning is part of how they think, I believe”

    @Hailey: That's true to a great deal. The pace at which we learn things now and acquire new skills is way faster than at which our ancestors used to do it. You're right that learning has in a way become part of the thinking process.

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