The only skill you need

A student asked me: “What skills do I need to learn to succeed in this information age?” I know that the student is concerned about getting a job, building a career, and prepare for the future. I have received this type of questions all the time because students want to know what programming languages they should learn or what technologies they should know when they are studying in school.

I often told them: “Programming languages will change. Few years ago, FORTRAN was the main language; today nobody talks about it anymore. Not long ago, Pascal and C were the languages taught in every university; today Java and Python are the common languages but who know what will happen in the next five years? Technologies also change, fifty years ago, the mainframe was the computer then Personal Computer (PC) came and changed everything. Three years ago, tablets replaced PCs, but now many things can be done using smartphones. Everything will change and often faster than you can imagine. But there is one thing that will never change, and what you need is “Never stop learning” skill.

The student argued: “That is easy for you to say because you are the Professor. You want us to learn, but we need specifics so we can focus our efforts. Should we learn Hadoop or Spark? Or should we learn R or Swift? What skills do we need to get a good job?

I explained: “If you focus on specific skills, you become bias on that. You will become a specialist in a specific skill, but when things change, your skill is obsolete then what would you do? You should focus on being a “Lifelong learners” where you will learn whatever come, and the only skill that you need is solving problems. To survive in this fast changing time, you need to know how to solve problems. No matter what programming language that you use; no matter what technologies that you apply, as long as you can solve the problems then you will do well.”

Problems are what people solve at work every day. They may be technical or non-technical, they may be large or small, simple or complex, easy or difficult but you must find a way to solve them. Being good problem solver is important to your career success. For example, you learn to solve problems in my mathematic course by using logic and formulas. You learn to solve problems in my computer class by using programming languages and algorithms. The computer languages that you learn, the technologies that you use are only tools that help you to solve the problem. Tools change with time, but learning will stay with you for the rest of your life and having a lifelong learning skill will help you learn new tools and solve problems.

To solve a problem, you need to understand the problem first, without knowing it well you cannot solve it. The key is to make sure that you focus on the real problem, not the symptoms. For example, if your project team is not doing well, you think the problem is with a certain person, and you blame him. However if you look carefully, the real problem may be an unreasonable schedule that he did not have enough time to do the work. You need to know the cause instead of the symptom and why the problem happened. If you know the cause of a problem, you can come up with a solution.

If the problem is complex, you may need the team working together to come up with several alternatives before selecting the best solution. You may use the “Brainstorming” technique and encourage team members to suggest their ideas to solve a problem. In brainstorming sessions, all ideas are good as you open up all possibilities to solve the problem. By having all team members to work together, you can create radical solutions that a single person may not even imagine. It also encourages people to commit to solving the problem because they have provided input in developing them.

In school, students learn many things, some are useful, but all of them are the foundation that helps students to solve real problems in their lives. Some of these will change with time, but the “learning skill,” that they develop will never change. As long as they are willing to learn, and continue to learn, they will do well. Learning should never stop.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
Don't forget to follow us on Facebook!