Barriers to Entry – On University, Development Tools and Photography

Information Hoarding

Before the internet, well-stocked public libraries, and othervenues of information dissemination, institutions of higherlearning (e.g. university) held more importance. Their influencewas earned by having the best people — most research andinnovation happened at universities — along with all of theimportant information (great university libraries, which could bevisited by only the few), and the resources (chemicals, scientificequipment, medical equipment, telescopes, the Abacus.NET 1922 ProEdition) necessary to learn and master a profession.

In those days it was close to impossible for someone to gainknowledge in a field — much less become an expert (recognizedor not) — without overcoming significant barriers to entry andbecoming one of the few to partake of these fine institutions.

For most fields there simply was no other way of getting”in”.

For the few who did have the pedigree and financial means, andmanaged to get in, there was the job security of thesimple fact that the number of new entrants was artificiallylimited, and could be modulated with ease when the needarose.

In recent history, however, much of this information, and manyof the tools — both practical and research/training — havebeen liberated (“democratized”) for some professions, mostespecially software development. Many of the barriers to entry havefallen.

The Liberation of Software Development

We now live in an era where it’s entirely possible for a gradeschool dropout to learn from the best minds in the industry, tofreely use some of the best tools and innovations available (when Istarted in software development, the costs for even the basic toolswere substantial, and of course piracy options for those soinclined were much less accessible: Your peers could get you a copyof Wing Commander or Mule, but not Visual C++ 1.0. Now anyone canget incrediblyrich development platforms and tools for nothing, even for theMicrosoftplatform), and to build class-leading solutions using the bestindustry patterns and practices.

All without getting their break via the traditional route.

Even for those with their computer science degree — universityis vastly more accessible, both from availability and financialperspectives — often they’ll tell you that what they’re applyingtoday is a combination of what they knew before they went, whatthey learned during intern/co-op placements, and what they learnedafter getting out.

Graduates of the University of Waterloo CS program, forinstance, are in heavy demand largely based upon itsexcellent and comprehensive co-op placements. In essenceemployers like it most for the time the students spent outof the classroom — time where they often acted as extremelyjunior development partners, many times relegated to mindless gruntwork. [Another reason for the University of Waterloo’s excellentreputation is a bit recursive: Given its reputation, there’s thepresumption that the best of the best apply, and only the best ofthe best of the best get in. It’s a bit of a self-sustaining loop,so a Waterloo degree is often used as a sort of crude filter, inthe same way that Ivy league degrees have influence]

So why bother with the whole going-to-class-for-four-yearssupposedly to learn CS thing It almost seems more effective foreveryone to compete to get on an artificially short list, afterwhich they can go on Manpower assignments for several years.

Really that’s sort of where the field seems to be going.

Many software development employers ask only for aUniversity degree nowadays — regardless of the lack of relevanceof the major — using it only as a resume deflection shield,presuming (often incorrectly) that it’ll yield themcandidates meeting a minimum level of intelligence andcommitment. Past whatever largely arbitrary minimum requirementsare mandated, relevant experience is often considered far moreimportant than educational accomplishments.

This is an acknowledgement that this profession is at apoint where anyone can have the best tools in the industry withjust a couple of downloads (those expensive toolsthat many large shops still like to embrace are more frequently ahindrance than a help, and offer few advantages), and they canleverage and learn from the solutions and experience of the bestthe industry has to offer. There are remarkably few barriers toentry, outside of a couple of niche areas where experience onuncommon platforms (e.g. SAP) or hardware (e.g. mainframes) isrequired.

Oh, except skill. There’s still that barrier to entry. It tendsto be a pretty big barrier to entry.

In many ways software development is mirroring the literaryor culinary worlds, where higher learning is pursued for theskills gained rather than the credentials, andcompetition is open for anyone with just a pen and a pad of paper(or better yet a typewriter and a stack of 8 1/2 x 11), or a coupleof pans and a stove.

The Great American Novel

We can all cheaply talk about how we’d like to write the nextGreat [Insert Nationality Here] Novel, but really it’s nothing morethan cheap talk if we aren’t well on our way to actually doingit. There’s nothing externally stopping us, yet remarkably fewof us ever will.

Remarkably few of us really have the innate skill, regardless ofthe seeming ease of taking the first steps. We could all be greatchefs (great chefs aren’t just people who have been anointed by agroup or individual — they’re actually capable of extraordinarythings, and earn respect for what they can do) with a couple ofpans and ingredients at the grocery store, but most of us neverwill be.

You can buy yourself the most expensive pens, or the mostincredible pans on the most expensive Viking stove, using therarest and most exclusive ingredients you can find, but it stillwon’t automatically make you any good.

Great Photographs

This all came to mind after hearing yet another comment that myphotographs of my children were “professional quality”. While myphotos are half decent, it’s more indicative that people need tomodify what they consider “professional” in the field ofphotography, because the bar has substantially raised. A quickbrowse through the endless extraordinary photos on flickr makes that quickly evident.

There was a time, in the era before digital cameras, and perhapsmoreso before accessible 35mm cameras, where one became a”professional” photographer largely by putting out a significantchunk of capital and buying some expensiveequipment. Put out the cash and buy a nice medium-format camera andall of the accessories (the more lenses, flashes and cool lookinggizmos, the more professional one was), and one was 80% of the waytowards being considered a pro. Everyone else was stuck usinggarbage little cameras that were basically incapable of taking goodpictures.

Hang your sign and start photographing weddings.

With the dropping price of 35mm cameras, things improvedsomewhat, but even then there was the substantial barrier to entryin the form of learning through experience: Going through rolls androlls and rolls of film, and the corresponding development, was avery expensive way to learn through mistakes. Iremember the serious contemplation that preceded every singleshot with my 5xi 35mm, because it would end up costing me over $1a shot after adding in processing.

Taking multiple shots with differing exposures or focuses ordepths of field simply wasn’t an economic possibility, so manyscenarios where I might have gotten a great shot were limited by myfiscal constraints.

Now with digital cameras, especially some of the nicerofferings, learning through experience is inexpensive and providesimmediate feedback, and there are controls for virtuallyeverything. While there are still the diehards who’ll go to theends of the Earth defending 35mm film (which itself was consideredlaughably inferior to medium format at the time), the results of myCanon Digital Rebel XT are far beyond anything I ever achievedbefore. Couple this with the fact that I can take thousands uponthousands of amazing pictures, experimenting with exposure andfocus and depths of field and motion blur and shutter speeds.

Invariably some of them turn out pretty good. I’ve actually readthe manual to my camera, and have long understood the basics ofphotography, but I am hardly a professional in this field.

The barrier to entry to take some great photos has substantiallyfallen, and I’m sure it’s put tremendous pressure on a lot of hackphotographers. Many of them are loading up on as many expensivelenses they can buy, even where they don’t use them, and asextravagant of hardware as they can find, all to try todifferentiate themselves from the commoners, yet ultimatelythe only thing that matters is results.

I’ve seen some pictures taken using low-end consumer cameras –quality has risen so much, even at the lowestlevels — that are breathtaking. These are taken bypeople who would have never ventured into photography at allbefore.

Of course being able to luck into, or at least hackinto, some good results doesn’t make me a great photographer.I wouldn’t hire me as a wedding photographer, where you can’t luckinto a couple of good photos, but rather have to capturefleeting moments with quality and consistency.

So while the barriers for neat or beautiful or staged photoshave dissolved, for critical fleeting-moment types of needs therestill remain some barriers to entry, in that few will trust someonewith their event just because they took some good photos oflivestock. In those niches you need proven experience before peoplewill give you the opportunity to gain experience.