Jeff Bezos, Washington Post and Implications for Education

The big news this week was the curveball from Jeff Bezos and his decision to buy the Washington Post for 250 million.

A lot has been already written on this decision, including what Bezos may be thinking. Go get yourself a cup of coffee, some dark chocolate and feast on the gossip when you have some time to kill. I did that today and it was quite enjoyable. What I’d like to talk about though is what it means for education.

Tyler Cowen has predicted a while ago that the tech big four (Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook) potentially gobbling up major book publishers and he views the WAPO acquisition a step in that direction. Is it though?

WAPO has been primarily an education company for a while now, but the acquisition did not involve the education assets. I think Tyler’s general point of the tech tycoons getting into publishing is true, however. With WAPO, Jeff Bezos has a tool he can shape the national policy with. Bloomberg has Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which by the way has been producing fantastic content for a while now. Bezos now has WAPO. Whether the papers are loss leaders/customer acquisition tools for the bigger businesses, a seat at the table or a combination of both is kind of besides the point. It’s probably both, but the trend is clear. When subscription revenue suffers and all you have left is the name, there is probably a white knight out there who is willing and able to jump in.

I think the implication for education is not so much what this means for online content, e-textbooks, MOOCs etc., but more so on major publications shaping national policy on important matters such as immigration, financial markets, and innovation, which indirectly, but materially, shape the human capital. I am not sure where Jeff Bezos stands on these matters but it will certainly be interesting to see how he uses WAPO.

Here is a wild prediction: Elon Musk buys the LA Times within the next 24 months. You heard it here first.

Book Review: The Element by Ken Robinson

I have purchased this book the old-fashioned way. Went into a bookstore, started browsing, noticed it, and started reading. It opened so powerfully (which I won’t spoil for you), so I bought it. It certainly exceeded the high expectations I had for the book.

Ken Robinson is as good as a presenter as he is as a writer, so if you are on the fence, watch his TED talk first. Then you can make a decision.

The Element makes a simple two-step statement. That we need to find our passion to be truly happy and that the education system needs to be revamped in order to nurture our creativity. In that logic, Robinson adopts the same tone as Sal Khan and his One World Schoolhouse. Like Khan’s book, Robinson excels in explaining education’s role in finding one’s true passion. If you plan to read both books, start with the Element first – then read Khan for a detailed roadmap, and another excellent articulation of the vision.

The stories move you and they are all good. Toward the middle, I found myself questioning whether I read one story too many, but Robinson then pulled me right back into the book and showed me a connection. The education chapter alone is worth buying this book.

The book is entertaining – there are some good nuggets like Paul McCartney turned down by the school choir. “How good was that choir?” Those and other funny one-liners are neatly sprinkled throughout the book.

Robinson found his element in this book, and I do believe reading it will make you closer to finding yours.

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Resume As a Tool of Reflection

A resume is clearly a job search tool. It is one of your strongest weapons to land an interview, which may ultimately get you a job. But the reality is most jobs, about 65%-85%, are found through your networks. Your unsolicited resume may quite likely end up in a pile that doesn’t get a second look.

I learned this when I was first looking for a job. A prospective employer, to which I sent a resume, did not call me for an interview. Four months later, a friend told me there is an open position, the same one I applied for months ago and asked me whether I would be interested. Naively, I told her that there is no point because they already passed me over. I didn’t see why this time would be different with no real change in my resume. How naïve of me! My friend insisted, and I immediately got the interview.

In most cases, neither networks, nor resumes are enough to get hired. Either one can get you the interview but then you have to show up and get the job. This doesn’t mean that your resume is useless. Your network can get you an interview, but you need to back it up with what you have done. But if your network does a good job of replacing your resume as the path to the interview, what is the point of even having one?

For starters, you would still have a resume for formal application purposes. But the real strength of the resume is that it is an honest mirror that tells you what you have done and where you have gaps. As such, writing/polishing your resume is a moment of reflection. As any prospective employee who sat down to write/polish a resume knows very well, it is a moment of truth. You probably tracked your year-to-year accomplishments mentally or through formal end-of-year processes with your employer, but chances are you have not taken stock of the last three or five years holistically. A resume allows you to do just that. It will bluntly tell you that some of your accomplishments are not easily quantifiable. In an academic job market, your resume (or CV) will slap you in the face and will cruelly remind you that you don’t have any publications. The resumes are also quite honest when it comes to gaps and you will ask yourself the question “How will I explain that 8-month period when I sat on my hands?” Alternatively it may remind you that you have been stuck at the same position for four years with no real chance of advancement in the near future.

Not all is bad. If you are honest with yourself, you can use the process as a motivator, take the reflection in and draw a career plan. You can define actions. You can develop strategies. The resume itself may not always land you the interview you want, but the process of writing, or even cleaning up your resume may re-define your career. Chances are by doing this regularly, you may become so successful, you may never need a resume again!

3 Resume Trends You Need to Watch

The resume is not dead. It is just growing up and changing. As I mentioned in a previous post, I expect a Resume 2.0 movement where some creative formats will emerge and there will be a format war. The world still needs standardization, but the new standard will look a bit different than what we have today.

How did I come to this conclusion? Well, there are three important trends that are leading to a perfect storm. Once the storm gathers enough power, some innovators will respond to the demand. As it is standard in a format war, for a few years it will not be obvious what the new format is, but eventually a winner will emerge and monopolize the market. This new resume will certainly reside online, and its creator may make some decent money if he or she can wrap a sustainable business model around it.

What are these trends? Let’s dive in:

Recruitment Trends and the Importance of Having an Online Resume

We slightly touched on this before. The May 2013 issue of the Inc. Magazine reported that a staggering 98 percent of recruiters used LinkedIn to find employees. Even Twitter and Facebook clocked in at 42% and 33%, respectively, according to Inc.

LinkedIn’s surge is understandable. After all, it was built for this specific purpose. But I don’t think many people were expecting that the new resume could be 140 characters.

Whether any of these formats, including LinkedIn will emerge as the winner in the resume war is unclear. One thing is certain though. Recruitment is shifting online and even tools that were designed for other purposes could turn to contenders.

Alternative formats gaining

While the resume is not becoming obsolete, creative solutions are emerging. The first video resume I have seen was that of Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, which landed her on Harvard Law. In this day and age where a video culture dominates, the idea doesn’t certainly look ridiculous anymore. Even in academia, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution predicted that most researchers will have a 5-minute video that goes with each paper. A natural extension of that idea is for them to have a video resume as well.

Other creative formats are also on the rise. A popular debate these days is whether some of these approaches would work only in creative fields. Nevertheless, it is clear that people are not afraid to experiment and see what works.

There are quite a few players in the visual resume niche. Revu, Vizualize and Kinzaa are examples. Revu and Vizualize gave me the impression that they are using graphics for the sake of using graphics. Kinzaa is probably the best of the bunch. It is more of a blend between the traditional resume and visuals and at least gives the recruiter the opportunity of a quick skim or a deep dive.

Are these good attempts? Absolutely, and check them out. Will any of these companies stand out and have a claim on resume 2.0? No, I don’t think so. At the end of the day, these are not radical departures from the current resume, just a bit more visual. These companies are more likely to go sideways. That doesn’t mean they can’t have a good exit, all I’m saying is I don’t think they will become household names. One option is to expand like Orange, which started as a creative resume service and has since ventured into other areas, such as web design.

Online hub to all your things

We people are everywhere, from an online standpoint that is. We write blogs. We leave comments on others’ blogs. Most of us have a Facebook and LinkedIn account, probably a Twitter account as well. We review things on Yelp, Amazon and Trip Advisor. Where is the one page that describes and tracks that all and tell the world who we are? Outside some creative domains like photography, academia or publishing, I still don’t see a whole lot of personal webpages, or an online hub that summarizes and tracks all of this activity.

This is somewhat changing and online hubs are getting some traction. Two examples are About Me and Flavors Me. An About Me example is here.

These two sites are quite similar and are generally coupled together in relevant conversations. There are some good ideas here, such as gathering your online activities in one place. With a single click I can view the person’s blog or Linked-in profile. I haven’t registered but I assume creating a web page is very easy. Still, these products are not a whole lot more than a glorified personal web page.

About Me did a Beta for a few months back in 2010, collected 400,000 users in short order, and raised $425,000 in venture capital. It then went live and sold itself to AOL after only four days. The purchase price was rumored to be in the tens of millions of dollars and less than 50 million dollars, and another source pegged it at approximately $25 million. I doubt it was ever a good fit for AOL. In fact, Tony Conrad bought it back from AOL earlier this year at a fraction of the original sales price.

It took me some more time to find a buyer, but in 2012, the UK business card upstart Moo acquired all its assets including 500,000 users.

If one looks a bit further in other corners of the web, there are some other players such as Zerply, Dooid, Follr, and Resumatic. All these sites appear to be operational but I am not sure how much traffic they attract.


There are important lessons in each of these trends. The modern resume will live online, will probably be a bit more visual, and will be connected to an online hub. What is left is to consolidate those pieces in a meaningful way and create a sustainable business model around it.

Framing is Everything – The 7-Year Postdoc

Thanks to Marginal Revolution, I discovered this wonderful article about coping with tenure. Well, that’s not exactly true – I think the article is actually about life in general. About not worrying the rules and instead creating your own rules. Learning to say no. Not being concerned with the game and being the game.

To me, the story is nicely wrapped around three important messages:

1. Follow Your Passion

Academia is cutthroat. I stopped short of tenure track – I got my PhD and moved on to private sector even though my initial goal was to stay in academia, teach and do research. This was partly because I started to understand what Radhika Nagpal explained very well in her article when I was a grad student. I really liked academia but probably not enough to have another six or seven stressful years. I wanted to write about what I truly enjoy and not necessarily what would bring me closer to tenure. Technically, the two should be the same and working on your own ideas is a good strategy, but that is probably true in the long run and not necessarily in the short run. The short run requires playing the game, networking, getting out there and sacrificing work-life balance. Or so I thought.

I truly admire Radhika for what she has done. Her message is an important one. She shows us that one can enjoy life even as a tenure-track assistant professor. That one can follow his/her own research agenda and not somebody else’s. That one can work not more then 45-50 hours a week and still get a lot done. That people can follow their passion, not worry about following the herd, and instead form their own path.

2. Be Oblique

Independently, I have read about Obliquity by John Kay earlier this week, and when I read Radhika’s article, I remembered the concept. I have not read the book and looks like it has gotten mixed reviews. Not sure why that is, but I think there is something to be said about not leading a one-sided life and focusing on just one thing. Driven, yes. Confident, absolutely. Wanting something a lot and making sacrifices along the way, for sure. But we can’t really take it too seriously, and can’t lose sight of the fact that whatever it is, not getting it is not the end of the world. While I am all about passion, I also recognize that it may be true that you may more easily reach your destination not by charging at it at 100 miles/hr, but by trying different things, picking up different pieces and discover yourself. Doing what you want, within reason, is really good advice, and you may simply realize that all the things you have done were parts of the whole that you always wanted but never knew how to get there. Basically, you can only connect the dots backwards,

3. Lean In

Finally, there is yet another message here. Radhika has leaned in. Yes – I am referring to Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the concept she has popularized in her book – Lean In. Radhika has shown the world that she wants to lead and she has not given up on her dreams. Yet, she has not given up on her family either. She has focused on being good as a whole as opposed do single-mindedly following a goal. She has not assumed that her husband would be the breadwinner and she would be the homemaker. She wanted the best of both worlds, and looks like she got it by being smart, efficient, and ambitious, in a good, balanced way.

Is this Just Survivor Bias Though?

These type of stories always bring out the cynical. The counterargument goes something like this. “She has done it but she is a superwoman. I’m not.” or ”She just happened to be lucky. It may have not worked out.” or “It is easier to make the argument after the fact”.

True – it may have not worked out. Even Radhika acknowledges this and stresses that this is a not a recipe for success.  For every Radhika out there, there are quite a few unhappy academics that fell off the tenure wagon. They probably realized it may not be optimal to switch to the private sector at that point either, so maybe they trickled down to a lower-tier school where they have even a lower chance of breaking out now because they are kind of out of the circle now. As Radhika mentioned, it worked for her. It may not work for everyone. You have to be smart, efficient, still play the game a little bit, and yes, also have some luck.

But what does that prove? That we need to channel all our energy into one thing and ignore everything else? What proof do we have that this approach works? Chances are it has not even led to the achievement of that one-sided goal, let alone finding balance and happiness in life.

And yes, you can argue that we would have never heard about Radhika if this tenure thing didn’t work out for her. You may say that she would have not been happy and she would not run around and say that this 7-year postdoc thing is the best thing she has done. We don’t read too many stories about good plans that did not end heroically. Maybe she would have been a bitter woman who kept asking “what if?”

But maybe not. Maybe she would have been equally happy, or happier. Maybe she would have moved on and done something else with her life. The ultimate test is being comfortable with your decision no matter what happened. To be able to look back and say “I’m glad I have done this – it just didn’t work out”. We don’t know whether Radhika would be comfortable with her approach, because the counterfactual has never happened for her, but neither do we have any indication that she wouldn’t.

Either way, I have no doubts that she has done the right thing. That would be true even if she would have not necessarily felt that way had things not worked out for her. Life is simply too short to not go after your passion, keep a balance, cherish your family and in Radhika’s words, be the best whole person you can be. This is the only way I know how I, or anyone else should live. Let’s respect and celebrate all the people who try, regardless of where they end up.





Is the Resume Becoming Obsolete

In One World Schoolhouse, Khan questions the future of transcripts and credentials. A related thought is the future of the resume. What is happening to the resume? Is it losing steam? Does it have a place in this new world where college becomes, in Khan’s terms, optional?

Quite a few people are harboring these thoughts. One of the fresh ideas Gary Vaynerchuk brought to the table in Crush It was is the future of the resume. He claimed that the resume will become extinct. He said it quite colorfully, too: “Tell me this: Is it a pdf of a tidy list of where you’ve worked and for how long, with a couple of strategic bullet points highlighting what you did in each job? Yeah. You’re toast.”

Yes and no. It is probably true that more people are taking risks with their resumes. See these creative examples (My favorite is this one.) It is also true that the resume is becoming somewhat less relevant because the instinct becomes just googling someone and see what comes up. A LinkedIn profile can be a good online resume (and more) and I saw an interesting statistics on the May 2013 issue of the Inc. Magazine – a staggering 98 percent of recruiters used LinkedIn to find employees. Even Twitter and Facebook clocked in at 42% and 33%, respectively, according to Inc. Twitter had indeed some success in some sectors. Bear in mind that these sites, unlike LinkedIn, were definitely not created for job hunting purposes. Overall, this is perhaps not surprising. Online presence became an important asset and will be even bigger in the future. Still, the numbers tell an interesting story.

Let’s take a step back though. What is a resume? It is a standardized tool that helps recruiters to evaluate candidates and make hiring decisions. When a standardized tool loses steam, it doesn’t completely go bust, rather it just changes form. The industry still needs a standardized tool. The creative resume examples above may land you a job, especially in certain fields, but I don’t really see that all of a sudden that everybody tosses the traditional resume in favor of an artsy one. After all, you are not Lady Gaga trying to sell albums. You may be in accounting. Therefore, creative resumes will continue to be an interesting niche, but they are unlikely to work as a standardized tool.

At the same time I don’t think we will find ourselves in a world without resumes anytime soon, either. Instead, the resume of the future will look a little different. It is not obvious what it will look like, but it will be a modern, still standard tool that reflects the power of the web and people’s activities thereon. What I expect is kind of a standard war similar to Betamax vs. VHS in video tapes in late 1970s and 1980s or Blu-Ray vs. HD DVD a few years ago.

Can LinkedIn be that standardized solution? It is clearly popular and its HR solution is growing really fast. I still think that the primary purpose of LinkedIn is networking and not a resume repository. For the most part, the Linkedin resume is an online version of the traditional resume. The company’s power comes not from the resume but from its audience. LinkedIn will continue to be a force to reckon with, but I don’t think the future of the resume is a LinkedIn profile.

There are some other decent efforts in the marketplace. Beyond Credentials is an example. The site allows its users to create online profiles that the HR managers can review. The site dubs itself as a Generation Y play though and is limited to 3.0+ GPA students from the top colleges in the U.S. That may work as a niche, but this does not seem to be an effort that will create tectonic shifts in the resume 2.0 movement. First, the site is really not for people with work experience, which is the majority of the job market. Second, even within the universe of college students, you have to come from a certain school and have a 3.0 GPA. Beyond Credentials is really not looking to change the game, only to separate the cream of the crop and give them an alternative platform. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and many other successful people wouldn’t even have a voice here. You can argue that the site is not for entrepreneurs, but my point is that by simply making the already artificial filters of the real world stricter, you can’t really change the game. If the world moves in a direction where the credentialing job is unbundled from the university, the resumes of the well-credentialed high achievers will become more irrelevant over time.

All in all, I don’t think anyone has figured this out yet but I know a lot of people are looking for the next big play. It will be interesting to watch how this unfolds.

What is College All About?

What is a university for? This comes up quite a bit when my wife and I discuss the future of online education. I am a bit more bullish than her, but being the common sense person she is, I know I have to pay attention to what she says. She is not against online classes per se, but wonders how they can replace the university because she thinks the university is as much about learning as it is about socializing and learning how to communicate with people. As generally is the case, she is right.

When David Brooks attempted to answer the question in a New York Times piece, he mentioned technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Both are important for sure, but the picture is somewhat incomplete. A more complete answer comes probably from Sal Khan (Alex Tabarrok of the Marginal Revolution fame has argued a quite similar point here.) In One World Schoolhouse, which I reviewed here, Khan argues that the university primarily performs the following three functions:

  • Teaching/learning;
  • Socialization;
  • Credentialing.

Notably, research is not on this list. Khan does acknowledge that research is an important function for the society, but he implies, correctly, that it doesn’t have a first-order impact on the student. This especially rings true these days because most star researchers don’t even teach classes anymore. This is simply a result of misaligned incentives. Outside maybe MBA settings, you don’t get much by being a rockstar teacher and your time is better spent on producing yet another paper. The teaching is mostly left to adjunct professors, lecturers, or even PhD students. Let’s look at this from the perspective of the student. Does the student really care, or does it benefit him in any way, that the faculty is home to five Nobel laureates? Not really, unless the student takes a class with them, which is generally not the case.

Now, having those star researchers on the faculty is certainly good for reputation. But this already manifests itself in the credentialing function, and its natural extension: signaling. Once you have a degree from that university, you indirectly benefit from the cache of that university. Research, then, is arguably a second-order benefit for the student, even though it is still a first-order benefit for the society as a whole.

Now, Khan’s vision is that teaching/learning and credentialing should be separated. In the world Khan envisions, credentialing is not necessarily a function performed by the university; instead, it is accomplished through rigorous assessments, which Khan calls microcredentials. Khan is quick to point out that this does not eliminate the need for the university, instead it makes it optional like an MBA. Khan also notes an unemployed adult can use these assessments to signal that he has the necessary skills.

I think he is spot on with this vision and this may be a path to solving some of our broader problems, such as the long-term unemployment. There is some recent evidence that a person who has relevant experience but has been out of the long force for more than six months may be skipped over for someone who has been employed even without relevant experience (If you are so inclined, read the original research here). This may be rational for the employer, but bad for the society as it creates sustained long-term unemployment.

To be clear, the problem does not have an easy solution but Khan’s vision would be a good first step in that direction. If a prospective employee can signal his competency through these assessments, that could increase the chances of him getting hired. At the college level, it provides a sustainable path for the student who doesn’t have the money, or connections, to get into a good school. More than anything, what the society needs is reassurance that the American dream is still alive, and meaningful long-term change can come through successful unbundling of the functions of the university.

Do Away With Summer Vacation?

In One World Schoolhouse, which I reviewed in a previous post, Sal Khan proposes an interesting concept: No summer vacation.

Before you boo, let’s give this some serious thought. One of the fantastic points in Khan’s vision is that education should prepare us for real life. Am I suggesting that real life should include some work on weekends, too? Absolutely. Before your boos get louder, allow me to qualify my statement. If you truly do what you love, it will not feel like work. I am a big fan of work becoming play and people following their passion and finding ways to monetize it.

That’s not how the dismal science, economics, models it. As Steven Landsburg claims in The Armchair Economist, we don’t care about labor, only fruits of our labor. Is this true?

When I put my economist hat on, it is hard to disagree with that statement. The theory is pretty simple. Workers choose between work and leisure. Leisure is fun, but it is costly, the cost being the lost wages you earn by working.  Each of us, then, decides how much we should work given the wages.

Even though this is pretty standard theory, I am not at home with this. It makes me uneasy because deep down, I disagree with the notion that we don’t care about labor and only fruits of our labor. I want my hobby to be my work. I simply want to do what I want to do; and if I get paid for doing what I love, even better.

Some people argue that following your passion does not necessarily maximize your income. This is generally true in the short term, because you may have to provide for your family, have other responsibilities, switching costs may be high, you may need to be re-trained etc., but in the long term, you are better off by following your passion, financially and otherwise.  Call me a romantic but I really think your lifetime income is actually maximized by doing what you love. If this is true, it would create somewhat of a paradox – I do what I love to maximize the fruits of my labor, but that means my labor was not that costly in the first place, because it is what I would have done in my free time, anyway.

This study found that almost 80% of the people are not passionate about their job, so maybe the economics modeling is simply a reflection of reality. That, however, doesn’t make it the ideal scenario. Work and play should be one and the same in adult life, and if we agree on that, then Khan has a pretty good case. It goes like this. People should do what they love when they grow up, education is supposed to prepare us for real life, so kids should do what they love without having an artificial divide winters and summers, which really doesn’t exist in real life.

Book Review: The One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan

We already knew that Sal Khan is a really good educator. What we didn’t know was that he is a really good writer.

Before I started reading, for some reason I was under the impression that Sal wrote One World Schoolhouse to create some promotional materials around his YouTube videos that made him a celebrity and landed him on a Forbes cover. Ahh – how first impressions can be misleading. It is the other way around: Khan Academy is promotional material for his book, or more specifically, for the vision he outlines in his book.

Sal managed to be bold, yet humble, serious yet witty. These are delicate balances and Sal achieved them masterfully. Who would have thought that I would laugh out loud when I am reading a somewhat academic book on a very serious subject. His vision is unmatched. As he also acknowledges, he does not have all the answers, but I think he has all the questions. Naturally, his book is a great conversation starter at the national level. Certainly, the future of education is a conversation that we need to have.

As with any good idea, his vision makes intuitive sense. Nurturing our kids’ (and our) passion is the most important thing we can do in this world. What were we thinking when we moved away from that? (yes that was kind of happening 1000 years ago). Khan carefully walks us through why the model we have today may have made sense 100 years ago, but he convinces us that it doesn’t anymore.

He is also spot on when he discusses the relationship between education and real life. If we don’t teach our kids to be responsible, how in the world can we expect that they become responsible adults when they grow up? If we don’t nurture their passion, how can we expect them to follow their passion? A determined few would, but most simply won’t.

The “follow your passion” literature, and its close cousin “rebrand yourself” genre may be oversold, but I have not yet seen a book that takes a step back and actually starts drawing an achievable path to those goals. Khan’s book is that rare gem. Ignore it at your own peril.