Computer grid.jpgTo my Computer Science students: your field is changing rapidly, and you need to be able to adapt. To do that, you need to stop thinking of yourselves as "programmers" or "IT guys" and start thinking of yourselves as problem solvers.

Here's an example of a potentially big change on the horizon: IBM Watson, a cognitive computer that draws conclusions based on semantic context of meaning (rather than rigid logic tables). It's not a solution to every problem, but it's a novel approach: click here to watch the 8-minute breakdown.

If it's not Watson, it will be something else. The tools of computer science never stay the same for long.

What does this mean for you?

Thinking of yourself as a "programmer" is like a carpenter calling himself a "saw-user" or "hammerer." The saw and hammer are only the tools he uses: what he does is solve problems.

It's the same for you: because of your training, programming is one tool in your toolkit that you can use to solve problems. In the same way, Watson's purpose is to augment decision-making (i.e. problem solving) capabilities. It's another tool in the 21st-century toolkit.

I teach a Technology for Business Decision-Making course that covers topics like this. I teach those students how knowledge and method are used in conjunction with technology to solve problems. These three things -- knowledge, method, and technology -- are all crucial in every field. The tools don't make the techie.

My vision for Computer Science majors is that you would all start thinking of yourselves as problem solvers. I would encourage you to keep up with current methods and tools for problem solving in your field. Your field is changing rapidly, and you need to be ready for it -- beyond the diploma.

Image credit:
Image by geralt [CC0 1.0 Public Domain Dedication (] via Pixabay

IBM Verse is a new-fashioned email/social/collaboration/analytics tool that's being touted as the answer to the world's problems with information overwhelm. Although their marketing is slick, I've seen little that suggests that Verse is built to enable personal productivity and knowledge work.

Read more on my business blog, Notes on Productivity.

20150520 - How IBM Verse works.jpg
This Tuesday was the last day of school for Amy and Wendy. I drove them to their first day of nursery school almost 20 years ago . . .  

Twins first school day.jpg

. . . and this week I drove them to their last day of school.

The twins' last school day

I'm very proud of them and all that they have accomplished. It's been a privilege for Kathy and me to home school our daughters and watch them grow into the lovely women they have become. It's been a delight to watch them the past four years as they have grown and matured further at The Master's College. While this chapter of their academic studies has come to an end, I know that they are life-long learners and their education will never be complete.
Robot hand I.eP.jpgI really enjoy consulting and coaching executives and other professionals, because it allows me to make a difference in the lives of others. There's nothing like that moment when their eyes widen and they say "I get it!" or "That's cool!"

I also get to experience this same thing with students in my Intro to Robotics course. This course isn't just a bunch of computer science geeks doing geeky things: I use it to prepare my students to work well, both in their personal and professional lives, by teaching them essential life skills.

I know teaching life skills through robotics sounds far-fetched, so I'm going to prove it below.

Robotics life lessons thumbnail.jpgIn this course, one of the exercises I teach is the After-Action Review. This consists of five questions:
1.        What was supposed to happen?
2.        What actually happened?
3.        Why did it happen?
4.        What did we learn?
5.        How can we do better next time?

On Monday, as I lead them through an After-Action Review, I wrote the answers to the final question on the board (as you can see on the left). The action under review was the students' preparation for their final in-class competition (which involved designing and building a robot in teams), but the answers they came up with also translate to work and life in general.

Note that these are not in order of importance or priority. They're all lessons learned. Here's what my students had to sayplus applies to best practices for life:

Continue Reading "Best Practices for Robotics Competitions, Work, and Life in General" »
Eric with CS328 Intro to Robotics students

Last night, the students in my CS328 Intro to Robotics course competed in their final robotics competition for the semester. They had to work in teams to design, build, and program robots to perform complicated tasks in a limited amount of time, and I'm very proud of what they've accomplished.

After the students presented summaries of their final papers, we set up for the more nerve-wracking part of the class. Each team was scored in four areas:

  1. How well their robot was designed and constructed
  2. How well their robot performed
  3. Ingenuity and problem-solving
  4. Gracious professionalism on the part of the team members, including teamwork and sportsmanship

Each team's robot competed twice and was ranked based on their higher score. In the end, two teams tied with a score of 1,800 (out of 2,000 points possible), so a final tiebreaker was held.

In my book, all the teams did well. It's much harder than it looks to design a strategy to match the tasks, design and build a robot for the purpose, and program the robot to accomplish that strategy. Getting their robots to complete this competition was a major test of skill for my students, so I say well done, class! It's been my pleasure to teach each and every one of you, and I look forward to doing so again.

Here are some photos showing the class and competition (click for larger images):

Team #6 sending their robot on a mission

Team 6 sends their robot on a mission

The competition underway

The competition underway

A close call by the judge

A close call by the judge

The teams with their robots

The teams with their robots

My students successfully designed and programmed their robots to operate devices, handle objects, and navigate obstacles. After the students programmed the bots and pressed the "start" button, the machines were completely on their own — no direct control of any kind from the competitors. Well done, students!

More on Robotics at The Master's College:

My first paid consulting job convinced me that technology would solve all our problems. Over 30 years ago, I was writing flight-planning programs with a 1-kilobyte* programmable calculator, and it was incredible: calculations that took hours by hand were done in a few minutes.

What I didn't see then was the whole picture. Technology is (and always has been) only part of the equation. My client and I had to put our knowledge together: his knowledge of the math needed for flight-planning, and my knowledge of how to write that into a program.

What I've discovered is that machines can never do our thinking for us – even though advertisers have been claiming they can for decades. Exhibit A:

Want to buy a brain - old computer ad cropped, smaller.jpg

"Its vacuum tubes will make up your mind for you far faster than your gray matter can." Somehow I'm reminded of modern ads claiming that technology can decide what's important to you.

What I found out
During my graduate research on how people work. I saw that even people with the best technology could work very ineffectively. At the same time, some people could use outdated equipment – even as simple as pen and paper – and create great value for their organization. Obviously, technology alone didn't make people better workers.

It became clear that technology is useless if people don't know how to work with it – and more importantly, use it to work together.

Based on my experience and research, I came up with this equation as a model for the effectiveness of individuals and teams:

Value (V) = Knowledge (K) x Methodology (M) x Technology (T)

Technology is literally only part of the equation. There are two other factors:

  • Methodology: the habits, rules, and practices that people follow to get work done. In other words, how people work.
  • Knowledge: what you know, who you know, and what they know

Let me go back to the flight-planning example:

  • K = my client's knowledge of the mathematics needed for flight-planning
  • M = my process for translating that math into programs
  • T = the 1-kilobyte programmable calculator

Without all three, our operation wouldn't have worked and I would've been out of a job.

A kindred spiritMark Mortensen headshot.jpg
I was delighted to come across a very insightful article that Mark Mortensen of INSEAD recently wrote for the Harvard Business Review: "Technology Alone Won't Solve Our Collaboration Problems." He emphasizes "a simple truth: it’s not what technology you’ve got, but how you use it" and includes three specific examples of how to work more effectively with today's technology.

I'm glad to find someone who recognizes "it’s less important which technology you choose and more important that you align it with how people do work." Mortensen acknowledges the importance of method and knowledge as well as technology. See here for his article.

Technology Alone Wont Solve Our Collaboration Problems.jpg

Three factors to success
The interaction of knowledge, methodology, and technology is critical to any organization's success and the value of any individual's work. This is what I've brought to my consulting clients over my decades in the field, and I've clearly seen the results: it works.

To share your thoughts on this topic, connect with me on social media (below). When you're ready discuss how I can help you and your organization manage the balance of KMT, click "Contact" in the upper-right. I'd love to chat!



LI: Eric Mack

*For the younger crowd: 1 kilobyte is about 1/16,000,000 of the memory of a standard iPhone 6.

Image credit:
"Buy a Brain" image by DigiBarn [CC BY-NC 3.0 (]. Changes made: image rotated clockwise 1 degree; article text cropped out; additional border coloring added. Scanned by DigiBarn from Popular Science, May 1949. Link to original image:

A Master's College student recently wrote a very nice article about the Robotics course I teach. She hit the nail on the head: critical thinking, creating solutions, analyzing problems, and communicating effectively are the real core of this class.
Beyond SciFi: Master’s students building robots on campus
By Emily Rader

By 9:30 p.m., the end of class had come on the first night of professor Eric Mack’s Introduction to Robotics course with hardly any notice from the students. The 17 computer science majors were so engaged in the course that to stay late to work on test robots in the lab was a no-brainer.

The opportunity to learn about robot application programming, make functioning robots and battle in robot competitions might intrigue anyone. However, a robotics class that simultaneously trains students in problem-solving and life skills from a biblical perspective makes this class unique to The Master’s College.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Thank you, Emily, and all my students!

More on Robotics: