Why Problem-Solving is the Most Important Skill for Any College Student
I have a professor who views engineering as a way of learn problem-solving instead of mastering the technical understanding of science. Contrary to popular belief, he doesn’t think that specific domain experience or knowledge is necessarily required for coming up with good solutions. Think of it as being book smart versus street smart.
Instead, he believed a disciplined and creative approach by those who merely have access to the same knowledge but know how to apply it will be equally (or more) successful.
Normally I wouldn’t be writing about a topic like this except his belief on the value of thinking like a problem-solver has made me over $8,000 in the course of 9 months as a college student.
I accomplished this feat by testing the waters of MindSumo, which is a platform where companies post business and engineering challenges related to their business for college students to solve. Companies rewarded cash prizes to students like myself with good ideas.
MindSumo allowed me to develop my problem-solving skills in a risk-free way, and by winning a number of challenges, I discovered that dozens of companies really believed in this approach to problem-solving versus regurgitating technical information that I have learned from my classes.
As a student, it is important to be curious and have channels to explore in order to develop actual problem-solving skills. In my case I am a computer engineering student. Basically, I am learning to develop things like software and the computer/mobile device you are using to read this blog post.
I have little experience or formal training in any other industries. Yet somehow MindSumo introduced me to problems faced in marketing, finance, insurance, public health, and retail. It pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Where else would I be forced to come up with ideas on things like
- Developing new insurance products to attract younger customers
- Creating concepts for personal care products which allow a person to better handle sweat
- Redesigning windows to reduce the disadvantages of a traditional screen
- Suggesting strategies to better address public health challenges through social media
- Applying concepts from my mathematics courses to speed up delivery of pizza
- Marketing plans for tea, for use both in the Middle East and elsewhere
On insurance, I learned about the web of laws which regulate the industry, making it difficult to redesign products. I learned about how Tinder was fueling an STI epidemic and how poor sex education was allowing diseases to spread. I learned of how tight the margins are for pizza drivers, meaning that even delivering an extra pizza every two hours could improve their take home income by 20-30%.
Yet I would have completely failed on many of these challenges if I relied solely research and did not take inspiration from a diverse set of sources. One challenge asked for a new idea for lubricating safety razors. My solution came from when I was casually taking apart a pen and noticed that the ink was forced out by pressurized nitrogen.
On another challenge about wearable temperature regulation, a frozen Coke bottle inspired my solution. I noticed how ice had filled every crack and crevice to the point that the plastic had been stretched to how the bottle became squeezable again once the temperature had increased.
Had I not adopted this problem solver’s mindset, I would have completely missed these opportunities to learn and develop useful skills.
Going back to the words of my professor, here are the dangers that I have identified for anyone that believes domain expertise is enough to be successful in a future job:
- In an internet era, most knowledge is freely available to anyone. MIT makes virtually all its course materials available on the internet free of charge. You want to have the same technical knowledge as an MIT engineer? You can, just follow this link. Anyone can learn what the top engineering school in the world is teaching if they have access to the internet. Therefore, you cannot stand out with just knowledge.
- Technology makes it so that the world is your competition. Anyone connected to the internet can now offer their services online. When knowledge is a commodity, the company will go for the lowest cost option and you don’t want to be competing on price with the world.
- Domains now change rapidly. Entire industries you grew up with no longer exist. New industries rose to take their place. The average person will have 4-5 careers over the course of their life. They will need to learn all sorts of new technologies. What you learn in a degree program will become out of date as time passes.
- Any job which is repetitive in nature or just requires simple adaptations to master is likely to disappear to a robot or to a simple AI.
Companies and recruiters understand this. Take this graph created by Bloomberg on what attributes are most desired and how common they are among employees (see complete report)
Image Source: Bloomberg
I want to finish by saying that in a dynamic world, it is more important than ever to be a curious problem solver and not merely familiar with a certain subset of knowledge. My ask to all of you is to be curious and start thinking about how you can develop that problem-solving skill set (psst… try MindSumo).
This story was written by Matthew Gaiser, a computer engineering student from Queen’s University in Canada. He is currently the number 1 ranked user on MindSumo and has helped dozens of companies uncover innovative solutions to problems.