Pure and applied expertise

At school, I was a semi-reluctant maths nerd.

In England in the 1990s, students typically chose about three subjects to study at ‘A-level’ - between about 16 and 18 years of age. For my A-levels, I chose the classic nerd combination of ‘Double Maths and Physics’ - Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Physics.

In reality, when you joined the Double Maths group at the school I went to, you were signing up for a mathematics cult for the next two years. It was intense.

The structure of creating separate ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ subjects and lessons created an interesting pedagogical challenge for the teaching staff. The curriculum for the Applied lessons depended on topics (like calculus) that you learned in Pure lessons. At the same time, Pure Mathematics lessons rarely included any reference to real-world applications. This separation had its pros and cons, but at the time it felt restrictive.

This separation is everywhere when you look for it. In commercial software development, we often talk about computer science graduates as if they emerge from their degree with entirely context-free purity of knowledge, untainted by real-world pragmatism. But at the same time non-computer scientists lack the theoretical underpinnings to do good work. You can’t win.

In reality, I’ve found that it’s entirely possible to learn theory from practice and practice from theory very quickly, given the right environment. The key is providing opportunity to make those feedback loops quickly by learning from peers in a team environment.

Building diverse teams of people with different backgrounds in education and experience is the key to forging these links. The ‘cross-functional’ in cross-functional teams is not just about having different job titles and roles, but expanding the range of expertise the team can draw on.

All the best,

– Jim

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