Theory and Practice

Three years out of teaching from university and from time to time I find I still have to deal with students…which is a welcome respite, actually, as it takes me out of the usual challenges at work, even if only for some brief moments.

The latest interaction came out of the blue. An industrial engineering student texted me to ask if we had any problems that could be solved by “various IE tools.” She had been referred to a former colleague and now professor at the local university. Rather than continue the conversation by SMS, I decided to call her up instead.

One good thing about the recent crop of students is that they’re confident and friendly so it wasn’t difficult to get a conversation going. This one, let’s call her B–, had some sense of purpose of the call and what she wanted out of it, another plus because that meant I could get some feedback from the things I was suggesting.

First off, what did she mean by “various IE tools?” Jargon is a conspiracy against the layman, said George Bernard Shaw, or something to that effect. Lord knows, I’ve been guilty of that myself. But this assumption of understanding that to me seemed so vague spoke more to B–‘s inexperience in dealing with people outside of the cocoon of the classroom. No fault of hers, really, because their teachers themselves keep hammering these concepts to them as if they should know, so probably they think all professionals should likewise. (As a former teacher, I also plead guilty.)

B– broke it down to me in terms I could understand. Skipping the jargon, they wanted to use us a research subject for ways to improve our processes. However, there was a caveat from their professor: it had to be something “new”, something out of the usual and not done before. Hmmm. Hmmm.

I wracked my brains and told her two real problems that we were facing: warehouse organization and field agent dispatch. She seemed to agree but said she would take it up with her professor. I even got a request for further clarification. Then the final verdict from the professor: “It was too easy.”

So this is the part where I get a little miffed. Too easy? How would dear professor know, just simply on the basis of a short description relayed by phone? These are real problems we have been wrestling with for months, trying to get the execution right. Perhaps what he really meant was that he found the problems uninteresting and therefore not worthy of study?

And that’s a real shame. Our mundane problems are problems companies ought to pay money to solve. While they lack novelty, they are persistent problems. And it’s not simply a matter of recommending systems to put in place, it’s a matter of execution, and that’s a whole other bigger problem in itself. But hey, if it’s work that’s beneath the lofty position of the ivory tower, well….

Guess what? They’re problems we’ll be throwing to those same students anyway when they leave the university. So, ha! ha! and ha!