The Age of ‘Octopus Talents’ Is Here
Self Study, the Trend to Watch
The stories of three multitalented people engaged in lifetime learning and leveling up their skills runs contrary to the conventional university education and on-the-job vocational training.
Self Study, the Trend to WatchBy Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 624 )
Dusk settles in as people getting off work spill into the streets.
Staff from Airbnb’s headquarters on the south side of downtown San Francisco stream out from the building’s first-floor lobby.
Mostly around 30 years old, they dress in hoodies, jeans, polo shirts, and tees, typical attire among the startup crowd.
The white, four-story building is nowhere near new, looking more like a big warehouse. But such minutia has not hindered Airbnb’s rise to become a unicorn - one of the fastest-growing startups in the world, with over 1,500 employees.
Robert Chang, a data scientist from Taiwan, is one of them.
Each day after getting off work, he commutes back to his residence in the Silicon Valley town of Mountain View. Notebook on his lap, this is Chang’s “class time.”
“Silicon Valley is changing so fast; you have to keep learning in order to be competitive. That’s the atmosphere around here,” he says.
Constant Learning Key to Silicon Valley Survival
Now 30 years old, Robert Chang has a double Master’s from Stanford University in statistics and information engineering. According to him, however, it was not his formal education that got him the gig at Airbnb.
“I actually didn’t learn in school what I really wanted to do,” admits Chang. Following graduation, he took a succession of massive open online courses (MOOCs) from platforms including Coursera. In addition to eight to 10 hours of work, he studies online for another hour each day.
Chang, who has held previous jobs at the Washington Post and Twitter, is currently responsible for establishing Big Data prediction models at Airbnb. Based on Big Data accumulated from room rentals around the world over an extended period, the system calculates how much income future rentals can bring the company, while estimating landlords’ profits and how to set rental rates.
The increasing application of Industry 4.0 is generating an enormous amount of data and statistics, making data scientists prized talent in today’s market.
“I learned (programming language) Python, the tool I use to build models, in my online studies,” says Chang. “If I hadn’t studied it on my own, there is no way I would have gotten this job,” he adds emphatically.
Self-improvement a Necessity
“Once I got out into the business world after graduation, I realized how little I had learned,” says Derek Chiu, 35. With an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from National Central University and a “Double E” Master’s in electrical engineering from National Taiwan University, Chiu is currently chief technology officer at Eyehouse VR, a virtual reality software platform developer.
“Everything is changing so fast that everyone is forced to keep up,” says George Chang, who heads up marketing and curriculum planning for ALPHA Camp Taiwan, a tech and startup school with offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Chang relates that while graduates from top universities were hot properties that companies fought over before they even earned their degrees, the face of the industry is changing so fast today that conventional school education cannot keep up with the pace. This has resulted in a yawning gap between talent supply and industry demand.
Chiu majored in communication circuits. Following graduation in 2005, he and many of his classmates entered the mobile phone manufacturing sector that was hot at the time.
Now, a decade later, “I’ve realized that the contract manufacturing ship seems to be slowly sinking,” he says. As software has superseded hardware, becoming industry’s main driving force, “the mood is somber among OEM industry engineers these days. The work is steady and the pay is still pretty good, but they don’t see the future in it,” he adds.
So Chiu decided to jump ship and join his classmates to found a VR software platform startup.
This, despite not having a background in software. To bridge his personal knowledge gap, he had to search for information on the Internet or take computer courses.
At first he did not get that much out of the classes, as “programming is 70 about yourself, and 30 percent about your teachers. Teachers can only explain concepts,” Chiu says.
It was only after attending an ALPHA Camp immersive course that his learning started to take off.
Whether website development, iOS, or digital marketing, ALPHA Camp’s instructors are all industry practitioners, and students in each course engage in a practical project-based plan.
No longer taking classes at ALPHA Camp, Chiu nonetheless continues to use his time to learn new things online on weekends.
“In software, there are always new things coming out; Google constantly introducing new skills through their developer conferences,” says Chiu. “So my current job is like stacking wooden blocks, always trying to keep pushing myself higher and higher,” he says.
One Can Never Know Enough in Today’s World
“Stable, comfortable, regular… is not the kind of life I want,” says Ting Wei, a former department store floor manager now working as a marketing planning specialist at Fandora, an online illustration superstore.
After graduating with a degree in French from Tamkang University four years ago, Wei entered the department store industry, managing young women’s clothing specialty counters for the operations department and coordinating events with vendors.
Not seeing good future career prospects, and intrigued by the experience of a former classmate’s internship at a startup, after a little more than a year she decided to pivot.
Finding herself without relevant experience, she looked for suitable MOOCs, targeting ALPHA Camp’s immersive bootcamp in digital marketing.
At first, Wei was extremely frustrated, with terms like “digital” and “online content” going over her head. “But I worked the hardest I ever have in my life,” she says, adding “I think I got the job at my current company because of the capstone project I did for that course.”
Students from different academic backgrounds in the bootcamp joined together to form teams, discussing at the beginning of the course what kind of business plan they wanted to do. Over the course of three months of studies, they completed the project, practicing as they learned.
“We worked on an online garbage collection matching platform, the Uber of garbage,” says Wei.
Currently at Fandora, Wei is responsible for graphics development and social media management for illustrators. She affirms that her experience at the department store coordinating with different vendors has served her well at Fandora.
“One can never learn enough the way everything is moving so quickly,” says Wei, who continues to level up her skills even after finding her new job. New skills for her to learn include consumer insight and graphics software.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman