People on all sides of the equation (students and faculty) can agree that there are some important skills that are rarely taught in school or in corporate training, leaving most people to learn only from experience. To help us explore the topic, I spoke with Mark Herschberg about how we can fill these gaps for students and for those in higher ed leadership. Mark is the author of “The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You”, and has spent his career developing new ventures at startups, Fortune 500s, and in academia.
From tracking criminals and terrorists on the dark web to creating marketplaces and new authentication systems, Mark has spent his career launching and developing new ventures at startups and Fortune 500s and in academia. He even helped to start the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, dubbed MIT’s “Career Success Accelerator,” where he teaches annually.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. And if you'd like to listen to our conversation, you can do so here.
Ian Evenstar: I'm here with Mark Herschberg. Today, we'll be discussing Mark's vast experiences launching and developing new ventures at startups, Fortune 500s, and in academia. I'm excited to hear from him about his essential skill for success, the ones that no one taught you, and how his new book, The Career Toolkit, can help students and higher education leadership. Mark, welcome to the show.
Mark Herschberg: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
IE: Well, the first thing I want to do is just touch high level on your bio. You've done everything from tracking criminals and terrorists through the dark web, as well as creating marketplaces and new authentication systems. This is a very intriguing background, so for context, what would you like to add to this?
MH: I've had a dual career, where my day job has been building tech startup companies, and that's where I've done a lot of this work in marketplaces and authentication systems. And one of the companies was indeed doing intelligence work, gathering information on the dark web. And then we would sell that to companies, to their security teams, as well as various government agencies. But then in parallel for the past couple of decades, I've also been teaching primarily at MIT, but also occasionally at other schools on the professional development and career development skills that we're talking about today. So I've done these both in parallel, and the latter of course I turned into the book, and it's a lot of the speaking I do these days.
IE: Wow. It's like a tale of two cities, but you're right. We're going to focus more on the academia side and how you've really helped start up an undergraduate practice opportunities program. This was at MIT. I read that it's dubbed the MIT career success accelerator. This is also where you teach annually, and I get the sense that this is kind of where some of the thinking in the book evolved. But can you tell us just more about your program there at MIT, and maybe the courses that you teach?
MH: What we recognized at MIT is that while our students were obviously very strong academically, and certainly were going to be okay in terms of finding a job, they would wind up with the biggest cubicle, but not the corner office. And we wanted to help them succeed at the highest levels, not only for their own careers. But we knew the future involved more technology, and we had the thesis that it's easier to teach the technology people, the STEM people, these non-tech skills than to try and teach the non-technical people the tech skills they need to run a tech organization. But the MIT culture wasn't one that promoted it. Now, keep in mind MIT, we have a large humanities requirement. We require eight humanities classes, no matter what your major is.
I believe that's the highest requirement for humanities classes of any university. Nevertheless, we don't cover a lot of fundamental skills, nor do many other universities. Take networking, for example. We all have heard it's not what you know, it's who you know. It's really important to have a good network. Everyone keeps saying this is important, but no one actually teaches us how to do it. This is true not just at MIT, but elsewhere. So that skill, leadership, communication, all these skills we wanted to get into our students to help them succeed in the real world, and that's what motivated this class. And thankfully, an early grant by a man named Desh Deshpande helped us launch it.
IE: Excellent. And then is it fair to say then that what you're working on in this class is also almost one to one in some of the material that you're going to find within the book?
MH: Yes, indeed. Some of what's in the class come from my own training that I've developed, and as I helped create this program, I put it in there. Some of what's in the book, there were things I learned from having done this for 20 years and was able to incorporate some very useful skills and techniques, and so that's in the book. So yes, you'll learn a lot about the program from reading the book, but I'm also always happy to sit down and talk with the universities about what we do and how they can replicate that.
IE: Yeah, that's great. And we definitely want to get to that, considering our audience. The book, as people heard in the intro, it's The Career Toolkit, and you mentioned this was kind of 20 years in the making, 20 years of teaching. What was the genesis to write the book? If you already kind of had the curriculum within the MIT ecosystem, let's say, why were you kind of propelled out and going on this venture to write the book and release it?
MH: I had two motivations. First, I have encouraged MIT for years to spread this content. MIT of course pioneered online courseware. We're happy to give away our content for free. I said, "Well, we should do it with this program." For various reasons, we just didn't have the time to really do that. Second, this program, it's different than your standard college class. It is not us lecturing at the students. It is hands-on workshops and role-playing. So students are doing, which means they're not taking a lot of notes. And I would always encourage my students to write down some notes, but I know they don't always.
I really thought. I was spending lots of time sitting on planes, traveling for work a couple of years ago. I thought, "Let me just write up a couple of pages of notes, something I can hand out to the students, something we can maybe share online." And what I thought was going to be 20 pages quickly became 40, became 80. I started throwing in other things, not in the program that we just didn't have time to fit in, but I knew were important. Once it passed 100 pages, I said, "This is not a set of notes, this is an actual book. But let me get it out as a book, because we know these skills apply not just to MIT students, not just to engineers, but they are universally applicable, and I want to reach an audience far and wide."
IE: Yeah, makes a lot of sense, and I'm glad you went through that exercise of capturing your notes so you could see the value in that manuscript. Is there an example or two maybe you could share with us just on, say, the topic of leadership, how you would maybe conduct that module, or possibly how the book takes on that fairly broad domain of expertise?
MH: Let me give you an example from communication, because I think that's more illustrative of what we might do. We use the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument in our teaching. If you're not familiar with it, just think Myers Briggs, or DISC, or any of these many assessment tools. And it puts people in buckets, says you're more in this category versus another. This is not HBDI-specific. We do this with our students, and we teach our students about the fact that we all think differently, even among MIT students. I know to the outside world, you think, "Oh, you're engineers. You think like engineers." Even among engineers, we think differently. So with the HBDI model, there are four quadrants. There's quantitative, procedural, interpersonal, and holistic. Those are the four quadrants in which you get a score. And after we explain this to students, I explain the concept and we do the assessments, and they can look at their scores and we can discuss, we'll play a role-playing exercise.
In this exercise, we say, "Here's the deal. You're at a startup company, and the stock price just dropped from $200 to $1.83. So the board is saying, 'Well, we've got to cut costs. You're in charge of the R&D function. We want to get rid of R&D. We're just going to outsource it to another company.' You have to do a simple pitch. We're just going to give you a few minutes, because it's not really about your presentation techniques. We do focus on that in other areas, you've got a three-minute presentation to the board on why they shouldn't outsource your division, but here's the catch: We want you to pretend the board is homogeneously just in one of these four categories. You folks over here, your board's going to be nothing but quantitative people. And you folks, you're going to talk to the purely holistic people."
And they go up and they spend some time practicing their presentations, then they go and do it. And we watch as everyone gives the exact same message, but in completely different ways. And we start to understand, "I get it. I see how different it can be, and how I might be different from someone else."
IE: And then kind of by virtue of that realization, they find that leading others or communicating with others is possibly a little bit easier, or they feel a little more skillful in that category. Is that right?
MH: They begin to recognize maybe it's not, "Well, this is obvious to me how I said it. That's how I want to hear it. So why aren't you understanding?" They start to say, "Oh, maybe people are different." In fact, I had one student come back in the fall. We follow them through their whole sophomore year through their summer internship, and then we do a wrap-up in the fall. I had a student come in and say, "We had the executive team of the company. They all went up on stage and did some presentations. I was watching them. I said, 'Oh yeah, that guy, he's a procedural guy. That person, he's totally interpersonal,' and I could recognize their personalities as they were presenting."
Our goal with this program... Because you can spend not just a semester on leadership. You can spend a whole Ph.D. thesis on just one small aspect of leadership, or any of these other topics. Our goal is that if we can make the students aware and open the door, they can begin to further develop on their own. For example, before this communication module, that student would've just sat there in the presentation and listened to whatever they were saying. But once he recognized people communicate differently, he could start to notice it. He could then identify it, explore it, and continue to grow on his own in a way that was opaque to him prior to our class.
IE: Nice. And what is it then about that process or that activity that is unique or special? Or maybe the simpler question is how could a university or a college kind of leverage this approach to the content, or leverage these activities for their own curriculum or for their own classes?
MH: There are a few pieces to success for programs like this: MIT's UPOP program, our sister program in the junior and senior year, the GEL program, and the Gordon Engineering Leadership program. That one's a little more engineering-focused. And certainly, even undergrad, many of our modules are engineering-focused because that is the nature of our school, but they can all be generalized. The keys are it is not lecture-based. We have over the years reduced the number of direct lectures. Even when we set up a particular module, we'll have a little bit of introductory lecture, then it is the doing, then we have the debrief at the end from the presenter, from the lecturer. But then, this is key, having small group discussions. And in those discussions, we have facilitators. Those of us who present also help facilitate some of these small groups, because it's in that moment where the students start to get the idea that we want to really reflect on and especially how do we map it to the students.
The students themselves might not immediately say, "Well, I don't get how different communication styles really are." And whether it's helping the students draw out examples, "Oh, in my sorority, the other week we had a meeting, and I noticed these people were going back and forth. And now that I think of that, they had different styles," or having people say, "Well, look, here's an example of why this is important at my company. We are trying to do this, and these two people couldn't communicate, and it cost us a million dollars," that's what it helps really drive this home.
So the keys are making it interactive, not lecturing at them, but having them do and practice and even fail in many cases. It's that moment of failure where they're really open to trying to figure out, "Why couldn't I do something that seems simple?" And then that active debrief and that peer learning. The program itself throughout the year, we are fairly high touch. Our, I'm going to call it staff-to-student ratio, not simply the faculty, but the staff, the people who really interact with the students, is relatively high, because it's that kind of engagement that gets them to come to something they're a little dubious on, and helps them warm up and feel comfortable. Because you have to feel that you can participate, you can take chances, you can make mistakes, and it's not going to come back to bite you.
IE: That's great. So what I heard was kind of the keys, if you will, to borrow your word there, would be trying to make it interactive, allowing for an environment or for space for failure as well as successes to occur, having some active debriefing kind of throughout the entire process with that peer learning built-in, and then remaining high touch in the sense that there's a good instructor-to-student ratio. Given these four or five things that you've mentioned, are these the changes that you would also kind of prescribe to a university in making changes across the board, or do you feel that there are other changes that we need to make in courses, requirements, administration, and faculty?
MH: All right, that's a pretty broad question. And I have to recognize that at the outset, it's great to say high touch. Your budget might say otherwise. So as much as I'd like to say, "Yeah, high touch is great," we have to recognize the practicality. I would say when we look broadly at what universities have to do, there are a couple of different things. One is I do think we need more practical content, and doing so on two fronts. One front is the skills I talk about in the book, the ones we teach in this program, networking, leadership, team building, negotiating, and communication. Those are just some of the 10 that I talk about in the book. We do need to teach these practical skills that make people more effective. Second, I think we need to provide, in many cases, more vocational learning. And now, this surprises people because I come from one of the leading research universities in the country. And certainly for a school like MIT, for other tier-one research universities, teach the theory, teach the fundamentals. That's fine.
Or if you are, again, a top liberal arts school, it's fine to say, "We're just going to give you a liberal arts degree, but that's okay. You'll go on and become a consultant," and they really don't care what you studied anyway. However, as we go further down, and it's really not even that far down, I have seen cases time and again of people from top well-known national universities who then go on and manage a retail store. And that's fine, that is a great career, but that four-year liberal arts degree might have been less relevant than if we gave them some more practical training in some accounting, some marketing, some HR, some inventory management. And so finding a balance even for some liberal arts degree, saying, "Maybe also look at a practicum, some type of certificate program that gives you some skills, given where we know the people in this program tend to wind up."
But I'll say even when I think about my brother, my brother was a theater major at Northwestern. He is a fantastic actor, and has had a good career on stage. I don't think they taught him the first thing about how to think through his career, how to negotiate contracts, how to do anything practical. Great acting, great instruction, and he was good at it, but there were a lot of missing practical skills they never bothered to include, and I think that limits actors like him.
IE: Yeah. It feels very limiting across the board, regardless of your vocation or your career trajectory, which always raises the question in my mind: Why do you think schools aren't teaching students about these types of practical skill sets, and really looking at practicum as part of... Even if it's a lecture, looking at practicum as part of the lecture format?
MH: My belief as to why this happens, is it's because of the professors. And now obviously, I like professors. I work with them. I've taught at many universities, but let's understand how universities work. You have professors who have gone on to get PhDs. And certainly, as you get to certain more teaching universities [inaudible 00:18:51] research, you might not all have PhDs. It might just be master's. We know we have adjunct, but who's really setting the standards? It is the PhDs, and it is those tier-one universities who say, "This is what we think," and the colleges lower down to follow the guidelines or follow the standards of that particular discipline. So it's these professors who are deep and narrow who set what the skills are. So consider accounting.
Say, "Okay, well, if you want to be an accounting major, we've decided you have to take some basic accounting classes, and then we're going to give you some intermediate accounting classes. That would be useful. Maybe we'll require you to take something from the business school, some other general business stuff, and then a few advanced accounting classes. And if you do all this, we the accounting experts, the accounting professors, say you have accumulated enough knowledge that we will give you this piece of paper, which really only says you have accumulated accounting knowledge. It does not say you are a good accountant. It certainly doesn't say you are a good employee. It just says you have this level of knowledge." And now, that was sufficient going back 70-some years. When we think about companies mid-century, when workers were cogs in the machine and you were the accountant... I always have that vision from a movie around that time where you had just the rows of desks, and everyone sat there and they had their inbox and the outbox.
And the manager would come by and put something in your inbox, and you'd say, "Yes, sir." And you work on it, and then you put it in the outbox. All you had to know was accounting or marketing or engineering or your little task. But if you look at what's happened in the last... Maybe it's 70 years. Maybe you could argue it's been only 20 or 30 years. We gutted middle management. We moved to flatter structures. We moved to more dynamic organizations. We no longer say, "You're an accountant. Sit here until some work comes across your desk, do it, and then wait for your next assignment." We tell people, "You have to take initiative. And you're working on these cross-functional teams, and you have to figure out not just the answers, but the questions to ask." And that cannot just be done with the knowledge of accounting or chemistry or whatever your major is. So the world has changed, but universities, as we all know, they tend to move a little slowly, and have not caught up to adapt to this.
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IE: I see. We do know it moves slowly, and sometimes I guess maybe the slow-moving machine is insulated as well from some of those market pressures. Do you think the market pressure that parents possibly feel or students feel when they're looking at kind of the debt-to-return ratio... Do you think that's also maybe changing the tide a little bit, or changing the mindset that that PhD-level faculty member might need to introduce some practical skills in class? Or do you think they're still going to remain sort of adverse to this idea?
MH: I don't think the debt pressure has had the impact we have hoped, because we've been seeing for 10, 15 years all the articles saying, "You're going how much into debt for this degree, and what's it really going to pay you?" We've seen those articles, but it has not had, I don't think, a significant impact. What will have an impact, however, I think is the consequences of COVID. And I've seen this actually in multiple industries. It's the reason MIT put our courses online. If you are coming to MIT and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn F=ma, the rudimentary physics formula Newton came up with, you can learn that same information for pennies down at the community college. We don't have secret formulas no one else has. At MIT school, our value is not that we can tell you this formula.
That's not the value you get coming to MIT, and so we have to recognize it is not that information transfer that is a true value. This has been accelerated by the fact that we all said, "Well, I can do information transfer online." Now, we don't want to sit on Zoom all day. I'm not saying it's a perfect one-for-one mapping. There are plenty of limitations. But if it's just knowledge, I can get it other ways. Just to give you an analogy, I've argued in the conference industry no one should be going to conferences to hear talks anymore, because anything I can get at a conference as a talk, I can get elsewhere. I can read the same industry journals. I can read for our faculty. I can read the same scientific research journals. I can get that knowledge. I can get it from blog posts. I can get information from podcasts. I don't need to go to a conference to just hear information.
I go to a conference to network, to do deeper types of workshops and hands-on activities, or to do other types of events. But if you're just selling knowledge transfer, your conference is going to do poorly, and that is true for universities as well. If you're just saying, "Come here. You've spent X hours in a chair. We're going to hit you with enough knowledge," I can get that online at a cheaper rate, so what colleges need to offer is experiential development. Now, some of that we understand. It's why you have sports teams, because you do grow and learn when on a sports team. It's all the extracurricular activities you have. Even in a university, it's the late nights you spend in the dorm talking to your suitemates.
That's part of the college experience. That's part of the value. And I'm not saying we just have to say there's nothing come from that knowledge transfer. That is the core, but we have to recognize the value add beyond it. And if you don't, then people can say, "I can get the same knowledge elsewhere cheaper," and your value delivery really goes down. So I think that's going to be the change we're going to see, that you have to deliver more than just knowledge to the students.
IE: Yeah. I've heard, and I'm probably just parroting this back, but information equals knowledge, but knowledge doesn't equal intelligence. And it's the intelligence, I think, that you derive from what you call experiential development and learning that is really the core value. So are you saying then that universities and colleges and various programs, discrete programs, they should maybe find ways to be more efficient in just their pure information transfer, and then put more emphasis or maybe more attention to curriculum design that focuses on experiential learning or experiential development?
MH: I would say so. Now, how much more efficient you can get information delivery, that's going to vary a lot. If you take, for example, a philosophy class... I remember the ones I took. You have to read the book, and listen to the lecture. You have to have some level of discussion. I don't know if there's a way to really speed that up. Or in history class, you just have to go through a certain amount of history. Now, could you do things beyond that? Could you find ways to have the history you're learning see the applicability to some real-world problems, and to go deeper than what's in there? Yes, you can probably do that, but I don't know if you can get that much more efficient in that knowledge transfer. I'll leave that to the individual faculty members and schools to figure out. But we do need to find a way to go beyond and add more, whether in the class or in the overall university experience.
IE: Yep, makes a lot of sense. I agree 100%. Maybe we leave information transfer efficiency to Musk and Neuralink, but that's going to be some years in the future. How about these skills as they apply... Maybe not to the students. So I'm thinking of The Career Toolkit and these applicable skills and activities not just for the student, but also for the faculty, or also for the university's leadership. Do they transfer to those groups as well?
MH: 100%. And I actually reference in my book a fantastic book, certainly for any science or engineering Ph.D., including social sciences, maybe less so for humanities. There's a book called "A Ph.D. Is Not Enough!", and I read this years ago, even though I ultimately left without my Ph.D. If you think about what we do, we say... Okay, you learn some general skills in high school. And then you go to college, and you learn general skills in a discipline. And then you go to grad school, and you get even more narrow. So you finally get your Ph.D., where you say you are the world's leading expert on this one tiny, tiny area of your field. And if you do that, finally, you can go off and become faculty. You might even have to do some postdocs. You might be a PI at first.
There might be a few more steps, but you have gone from very broad in high school to get more and more and more narrow, and you get rewarded for being extremely good in an extremely narrow space. But then what happens when you become a professor? Now you're running... I pay more attention to engineering and science and research labs. I'm not as familiar with life for, say, an English professor. Now you're running a lab. You need to get grants. You need to hire staff. You need to recruit, and grab students. You need to manage them. You've got project management skills. You've got people management skills. No one ever taught you to do this. Your qualifiers didn't talk about what happens when your grad student and your PI started dating, and then broke up, and now are fighting and arguing and don't want to be in the same room together. How do you manage that? That's a management skill, but that wasn't in your Ph.D. research.
So we have to teach faculty these skills. We have to teach faculty that you can't just say, "Well, I wrote a paper. Hey, let's just hope everyone likes it." We tend to be very much on the political spectrum "Let my work speak for myself," but learning how to socialize and promote your research, your content has some value, because that's going to raise awareness of your work and maybe get you more research funding, whether it's from your own discipline or from outside sources as different industries say, "Oh, we have a problem. Maybe you can help us," and you find some new applicability for your research. So there are all these other skills faculty members can use to help their careers.
You don't think about career planning as much, because their career planning is "Get tenure, done," unless maybe you're thinking about going to administration. You don't really think of a career plan the way people do in the industry. But career planning isn't just about changing your title, it is about developing and growing in your skills to be more impactful. And so the skills in this book or the skills in "A Ph.D. Is Not Enough!" are very applicable to all faculty members.
IE: I love that. The quote you also just left us with, the skills needed to be more impactful, that resonated. It's not just about career goals necessarily, but the goal of creating your impact. And I think for all of us, we want to lead and live a life of meaning and purpose, and having some sense of our work matters and the impact that it makes, I think that also is kind of rationale for building into these softer skills.
MH: I talk about this with career planning. Again, we often think of bigger titles, and more salary, but that might not be your driver. You might care more about impact, whether it's within your field or within the world at large. And certainly, we know for faculty, you don't say, "I'm going here to become a multimillionaire," but you very much care about having an impact on your field. These skills help you do that, even if the path you've chosen, it's not going to give you significantly more money, but you care about the impact and you want to succeed in that goal.
IE: Yep, well said. I've heard you talk about learning beyond your role. Is this kind of what you're describing, or is that a separate concept entirely?
MH: That's a separate concept. What happens to many people is they show up to work and they say, "I'm going to sit at my desk, and I'm going to do my job." So many of the engineers who I manage, they show up and say, "Well, my job is to build this feature. I need to know how our software works." And then you ask them, "What does she do, your coworker who's sitting 30 feet away?" First, I typically hear, "I don't know. What's her name?" She's 30 feet from you. You've seen her every day for a year. Maybe not lately, but in pre-COVID times. You don't know her name. Or they say, "Oh yeah, I think she's in marketing." What does marketing do? "Well, they run our website. Maybe we have an email list," and that's all they know.
But in fact, if you understand what marketing does, they do events, they do lead generation, and they help to build awareness about your product. Is your product one where people understand what the product is, and they just have to convince people you're the best version of it? Or are you in a new space where they have to educate people on what the product does? No one even recognized this exists before. That's very different types of marketing. If you as an engineer can start to understand things like that, you could potentially be more effective. For example, I have a company where I'm an investor on their advisory board, and I said to them, "Think about who your users are. Your users are generally people who are about 25 years old, and they are generating..." It's an e-commerce-type play, so they're generating reports every month. Their manager's going to say, "Well, how much revenue did we get? What's the ROI?"
If you understand who your customer is, you then say, "You know what would help them look better? If we could give them that report. If we can in one click give them all these pretty charts and graphs, they can show their manager and help them to look like a hero." And now, ideally, your product people should understand this, but maybe they don't, or maybe they don't think you can generate such reports. So you as an engineer, if you understand this is what they need and you know you can build that easily, you can say, "Here's how we can deliver more value to our customers. Here's how I can help someone else in the company do a better job." And the more you do that, the more influence you have, and the more you will be seen as a leader in the company, and the faster you will rise.
IE: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think coming up through the ranks, again, regardless of what your career path is, you'll hear your boss or your client perhaps say, "We really need you to think big picture, and see the high level," and it's always a little ambiguous. Think big picture. What does that mean? Think more strategically. But when you put it in the context of learning beyond your role, that seems more tangible. That seems, in a way, more practical in terms of how you might pursue thinking big picture.
MH: When you understand all the parts of the system, you have a better understanding of how your part impacts the larger system as a whole, and that creates more opportunities for success or to decrease risk. And that's what companies want.
IE: Absolutely. So I have to ask you a branding question, since our agency specializes in branding, and I know how important it is for universities and programs to differentiate themselves. So your branding question is: After 20 years here in the making of this book, The Career Toolkit, covering a lot of soft skills, saying you need leadership, you need to know how to communicate, negotiate, market, et cetera, what differentiates this book from others that might be taking on similar topics?
MH: Great question. I have three things that differentiate me. First, there are a lot of books that just cover leadership or communication or one of these topics. And you can read 10 of these books and still get new information, I don't claim to be a last word on it, but rarely do we have books that put them all together. My book was designed... You can jump from chapter to chapter. You can start at chapter eight, then go to chapter three, then back to chapter six. You can grab it like a toolkit and just say, "I want this tool. I want to learn it," but they do relate to each other. I do cross-reference, and they build on each other. So I think that's relatively rare... I'm not saying I'm the only one, but the relatively rare approach to these skills.
Second, these skills come from having taught for 20-plus years at MIT, and from having used them in the field. It's a great thing about my book. The feedback I've gotten from many people say, "I'm reading a page, you're covering a topic, and then I have a question. And I turn the page, and there's the answer." Because I know from having taught it when I say this, here are the next three questions I'm going to get, so it's very field-tested. Third, my book has a free companion app. Now, this is something... It shocked me that this didn't exist. I didn't intend to create it. I thought someone must have done this, and I'll just go license it, but it didn't exist, so we filed a patent on it and created it. Here's how it works. Whenever you read a book like mine, you go, "Okay, great information," and then you forget 95% of it three weeks later. The same thing happens to our students, by the way. At the end of the semester, as soon as they walk out of that final, suddenly the information just falls out of their heads.
My job as an author is not to get you to buy paper, it's to change how you think and act. Our job when teaching is to change how you think. It's not to get you to take notes or do well on the test. We want to change how you think. And so using my knowledge and experience from working in media and technology, as well as education, I realized there's a very simple technique we could do that no one's doing. So the free companion app I created. Think of it as a daily affirmation. If you went through my book with a highlighter, if you took all the key quotes and tips and things you want to remember, that's what I put into the app. It's free from the Android and iPhone stores. You download it on your phone, and then you just set it at whatever time you want...
Once a day, it just pops up a notification with that reminder. Spaced repetition, we all know this technique. Now, there are flashcard apps out there, but here's the thing: No one's going to want to open a flashcard app each day. So the key thing that didn't exist, which really shocked me, is we just do the push notification. You only have to open the app once every 30 days so we know we haven't been just pestering you that tells us you're active, and that just pops up when you need it. Or you can open it up... Say you're walking into a networking event. "Oh, Mark had all these great tips, but I can't remember it." Open it up, look at the tips, flip through them, and get that refresher before you walk in.
And so what we need to do as authors, and frankly any content creator, including our classes, is to move from the linear experience of a semester of lectures or a series of pages, take that content, and first let it be accessed by the student when and where and how they want, which is what they can do before they walk into that event and open it up, but also find ways to passively help them retain the information, which is what that popup notification does. And so we're actually putting out a white-label version of this app in the next couple of months. We're going to start with some books, but also move into education and classes to help people better retain what they learn. So that's the third unique thing that my book has that, frankly, no one else has.
IE: I love that. And that was probably born just out of your experience as a faculty member, is how can I enhance the, say, linear experience or the linear course curriculum in a way that is non-linear, or has direct access or reminders kind of on the go and in the moment. Is that true?
MH: That's exactly right. My neighbor was chatting with me, and she said, "You should build an app for your book." Oh, okay. Yeah, good idea. What should the app do? Said, "I don't know. Build an app." Okay, yeah. That's helpful. "You should sell lots of books." Oh, good idea. Didn't think of that. So I sat there and thought, "Well, what would an app do?" I don't just want to wrap the PDF and say, "Here it is," because everyone can just get it on Kindle. You don't need that. So I started to think about what is it we want. What are the different techniques in learning to help people retain it? And then of course I could think of technological solutions for that. So she certainly sparked it, but it was the application of what I know about education crossed with my knowledge of technology that let me come up with this.
IE: And you'll probably sell more books. So if she had given you that advice as well, I guess she got a two-for-one on that.
MH: So that's what's great about this, is that from the user standpoint, they get their retention. It's no cost. I don't just mean the app is free. It is, but it's no real effort. They get that notification, they look at it, takes them three seconds, and swipe it away. From the content creator standpoint, certainly, if you are an author, you have their brand recognition. Now, if you're a professor, you hope they'll remember it, but it's not as though you're going to get paid more money if they remember it. If you are an author, a podcaster, some other type of content creator, better retention, better top of mind, better word of mouth, and that can translate into more money.
IE: Yeah, that's true. And then I'm thinking just in terms of who content creators are. Content creation happens at our major universities and institutions, so maybe this idea of the notification, that soft push as a reminder on other classes or maybe across an entire program, that could be a tactic to increase engagement and maybe even a differentiator for the university if they were to, say, roll out something like this in a more comprehensive way.
MH: Absolutely. It's easy to do. It's easy to implement, because while the white-label version that they can just put their content into, you can then quickly do A/B testing to do assessments. Does this help increase retention of information? Is it useful? And so that could be a differentiator for a university. We are running some pilots later this spring with some programs.
IE: Oh, that sounds exciting. We're going to, I think, look to close here and wrap up our discussion. It's been really great hearing the reasons why this is important, kind of what some of those limiting factors are. I just want to maybe revisit this idea of... If I'm signed off on what Mark is sharing with us today, how can we drive more change, maybe drive more toward those professional skills in our classrooms if we're a faculty member, or if we're a senior administration? What advice do you have, or what kind of encouragement would you give us?
MH: Absolutely go forward and do it. I think this is going to be so critical for education in the 21st century and for helping to differentiate your school and helping provide more value for the students. The way to do this, it's not simply saying, "We need to hire a professor who knows about molecular chemistry. We'll hire this person. Now we can do a molecular chemistry class." It's not that simple. It is about changing the nature, not simply the content, but the nature of how you provide experiences and knowledge to the students. So you want to talk to other universities, talk to people who have been through this, bring some on whether... If you are expanding your programs, you could hire someone with that experience. You can bring someone as a consultant, or even just talk to people. And again, I'm happy just to jump on a call and talk to any university, because I believe in this, and I believe in the mission of our universities to help educate our students. So don't just think you can copy and paste. There are a lot of subtleties in the implementation.
IE: Yeah, absolutely. And with that implementation, if we see more and more of this across, say, the landscape of higher education here within the United States, are you concerned at all, or do you face any resistance of colleges being seen as just job factories, and that there's too much emphasis on the marketability of students when they graduate? Is it a slippery slope?
MH: I'm certainly seen that in for-profit universities, and I've seen it with some of the... I'm not even sure. I can't think of the term. I've certainly seen it with the coding boot camps. And by the way, I was all in favor of the coding boot camps when they started, because I thought, "Oh, this is great. Software engineering is becoming more of a vocation. You don't necessarily need a four-year degree to do it, to get a high-paying job." I love that we have these coding boot camps, but unfortunately, they are these three or six-month programs that just don't do enough. They don't give enough of a foundation. And they just said, "Well, as long as we can get our students a job and we can show there's some positive ROI... You spend six months with us and pay us this money, we get you a job at this salary level. Come do it."
And I don't think they are providing all they could. In fact, they're doing a long-term disservice to a lot of their students. Now, in fairness, if the student was making minimum wage before, fantastic. The fact that they're on an $80,000 a year job now, that's a benefit, but they could do so much more. And so I do think we have to be careful, particularly with for-profit universities. And nonprofits could start to feel some of this pressure of just looking purely outcome-related, just "What's your starting salary? Or what's your debt level compared to others?" There is some argument for the fundamentals and for the long-term optimization that's not as easy to see in some of these metrics, so I think you raise a good point there.
IE: Yeah, something to at least be mindful of. We don't want the pendulum to swing too far, I think, to the right and then take out a lot of the somewhat formative experiences that happen, maybe that don't emphasize well how will this apply in the real world. Certainly something, I guess, just to be mindful of as we move forward. So I'm dying to ask... I mean, you have this illustrious background. You're a highly-decorated MIT alum. What is next? Now a soon-to-be best-selling author, if not already, what's next on the horizon for Mark?
MH: This past year, I mentioned that I do tech startup companies. I've been a fractional CTO, because that's given me the flexibility to, between clients or between meetings, go on podcasts like this, go out. I do speak at conferences, at companies, and at universities, and I expect to do more of that. That was a little muted this past year with COVID and Delta and Omicron spikes, so I expect to be doing a lot more of that in 2022. A lot of potential clients have said, We'll be back in person in 2022." I mentioned the app. As that comes out in the next few months, I expect we're going to see a lot of growth in that area. So I'll continue to do my fractional CTO work, the app, and then the speaking. Those are going to be my main focus for this year.
IE: Sounds like you have a full plate. I would expect nothing less. Is there a key takeaway you would like to leave us with?
MH: I will mention... I don't know if there's one key takeaway. I think we did talk about some of the key points earlier. For internal development, there is a free download on my website on the resources page. There are a number of resources related to the content. The very first download is a development guide, and this is something I give out to companies. I mentioned earlier I'm primarily a CTO, and I do get paid for speaking. I'm not an HR consultant. I'm not an executive coach. I don't try to get people to pay me for that stuff, so I give away a lot. And this training program, whereas others would say, "Oh yes, pay me lots of money and I'll teach you how to do it," I give it away for free, and it's how you can create a program to do peer learning to help develop these skills within your staff.
So this would be great for staff development, for faculty development. You can implement it yourself. It would actually work even well with grad students, because grad students are often self-directed. They get the concept of reading groups and peer learning groups and self-led seminars, so this is very easy to implement. Again, it's a free download from the website. I am happy just to jump on a call to just talk through how you might implement it, or some of these other programs we talked about. Always happy to help out universities, especially the nonprofit ones. So these are some resources you can use to help move your university ahead.
IE: Thank you for that. That's very generous. Give us the web address one more time, just so we have that.
MH: You can go to my website at thecareertoolkitbook.com. And there, of course, you can see more about the book, links to the app on the Android store for the free app, the resources page that has the download I just mentioned, as well as other resources, and then I have additional content I put out there. There's also a contact page if you want to get in touch with me, bring me as a speaker, or just follow me on social media, and that's all at thecareertoolkitbook.com.
IE: Excellent. And I'm assuming this is the best way to get in contact with you as well.
IE: Excellent. Mark, thank you for your time. Thanks for illuminating this conversation with all the reasons we should make a change like this. I can't wait to pick up your book. I can't wait to download the app and see if I can apply some of these methodologies in my own classroom. But it's just a delight to meet you, and I want to thank you for your effort.
MH: Thank you again for having me on the show, and good luck to the universities as you navigate education in the 21st century.
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