Thinking about thinking

When I was in undergrad studying math, a well-meaning friend asked me “What are you going to do with math, open a math store?” They were just trying to be light-hearted, but the jab hurt. I was studying something I loved, sometimes struggling, sometimes over-the-moon with excitement, and the judgment from a traditional mindset on that education was deflating.

But even while I was in school, the disruption of current career paths was already underway. I quickly discovered my education gave me a huge advantage, because I could think in systems and logic – the backbone of web development. Even if I didn’t know the technology as well as our developers did, I could still have a meaningful conversation with them about the data objects, functions and outputs that would be needed for a robust system. I hadn’t been taught a job, I had been taught a way of thinking about jobs that could be applied endlessly.

This past week, I had the opportunity to network with a group of women hosted by the Rotman Commerce Women in Business program. I had some nice conversations with women from 1st to 4th year. Of course, they all wanted to ask my advice or what I wish I knew. What I told them was that they not only needed to know the topics they were studying, but they needed to learn how to think about the topics they were studying. And in this era we are calling the Digital Revolution, the fastest way to do that, is to learn how to code.

While the discipline to sit in front of a computer and write code is not for everyone, understanding the tools that go into writing code means that any system with a digitized component becomes something you can deconstruct. And once you can do that, it’s like Lego, you can figure out how to put it back together again in a more effective way.

The biggest obstacle I encounter when working to implement strategy or process improvements is just convincing someone that it can be done differently. So often, if we have an existing path to solving the problem, we can’t see other ways to solve it. But once I can convince someone to re-frame the problem, to see that the goal isn’t just fixing this problem, but also setting us up for success when we tackle the next problem, then the conversation is easier and more productive.

That’s why, it’s important to learn the components of the industry you are working in, but it’s more important to learn how to think about those components. Understanding them as a toolset, rather than a set of laws, is a more flexible approach that can serve you well when the next inevitable disruption hits.