Rock paper scissors. Skills beat paper.

by Terence Tan

Let us play Rock, Paper, Scissors. Ready? One, two, three! I have scissors, you have paper. Who wins? “Scissors, because scissors cut paper” would probably be your answer and indeed is an explanation that has satisfied many a child, but let’s put Rock, Paper, Scissors aside awhile and look at another game people play. It’s called Paperchase.

Paperchase is a game played by people of all ages, from primary school all the way to university. The game goes like this: collect as many A’s on exam papers, report cards, university transcripts and remember to collect as many certificates from activities and institutions as you can. Finally, graduate and exchange the papers for a bright and happy future. The game is flawed, however. Sadly, by themselves, the papers are worthless.

As harsh as it may sound, I often tell my Engineering Programming students, “My job is to make sure that when you pass this unit, it means you can walk out and confidently say, ‘I can programme’. Vice versa, if you can’t write a simple code, then my job is to make sure you fail.”

Likewise, a student who scores an A in an English essay should be a skilled writer not a parrot who has memorised long strings of text and churns them out in an exam.

Should a student boast of a piece of paper that overrates his skill? This game of collecting paper qualifications without earning the actual qualification is a loser’s game.

Let me propose a better game. The game is called Skillchase and is for all ages.

Alex Goh, my fellow facilitator for the MDeC-Curtin Ignite the Spark ICT Camp at Curtin Sarawak on 12 and 13 March 2011, posted on Facebook: “Today I taught 13-year-old kids how to write Android applications”. During the camp, we equipped secondary school students to enter a world of application development and entrepreneurship. In fact, the event Facebook group is filled with the participants’ comments like: “How can I sell my apps for profit?”, “Anyone interested in developing apps as fundraisers for the earthquake?” and “I wanna beat Bill Gates. ICT world, watch out. Imma rock your world.”

Consider the following two cases. On the one hand, this semester, our first-year student engineers will learn Google SketchUp to create 3D engineering models for the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Challenge. Some students struggle to master it while others just do the bare minimum.

On the other hand, from the ICT Camp, I know of one fifth former who uses SketchUp to craft intricate 3D models. She has uploaded 52 of these models online. Search for ‘cantek 3D warehouse’ to see her work. The tools are available for all. It is a matter of whether you are willing to pick up the skills or not.

Professions are defined by skills, not paper. A footballer kicks deftly, a chef cooks intuitively, an engineer engineers innovatively and a musician plays soul-stirring music. Traditionally, after you attain the necessary skills, you are awarded a certificate in recognition of this achievement. You graduate, get a job and retire. Times have changed. Everyone graduates with a similar certificate. Furthermore, now you don’t want just a job – you want to find a fulfilling and challenging job that is sometimes untraditional.

A chef who can perform can star in his own TV show. A chef with a creative mind can publish a series of recipe books. A chef with a strong passion for social work can spearhead a campaign for healthy food in schools. Or you can do all three and be Jamie Oliver.

Mechanical engineer Chia, a Curtin graduate, works in a biomechanical firm combining her engineering knowledge and programming skills to work as software developer. Two medical doctors, Dr. Greg Zeschuk and Dr. Ray Muzyka, started BioWare, the game company that delivered Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Tan Swee Yeong graduated from University of Sydney with first class honours in chemical engineering and commerce, worked in an Australian bank, came back to Malaysia, started a mobile entertainment content provider and is now a millionaire angel investor. These individuals exemplify the fact that your future is not determined by the paper qualification you hold but by the skills you possess. If you don’t have the skills, chase after it.

Parents ask, “What course should my son or daughter study that guarantees he or she will have a job?” My answer is, “Any course. Just be the best at it.”

If you insist on looking at job opportunities, then consider the ICT industry. Currently, Jobstreet has thousands of open vacancies. The Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC), the agency responsible for the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC Malaysia), says that 85,000 ICT jobs will be created by 2015. And yet, at the same time, we hear of many ICT graduates who remain unemployed.  Why this mismatch?

Imagine a student who goes to a culinary school and passes exam after exam simply by memorising recipes. When it comes to practical work, the student submits a fellow student’s roasted chicken and gets an A. The student graduates with distinction. At the job interview, he can’t differentiate between sauté and salted. When asked to demonstrate his skills, he burns the kitchen. Get it right the first time. Focus on learning, not on passing exam papers.

Whatever the profession, play smart and play the Skillchase game. It will give you a stronger chance for a fulfilling career. Stop chasing paper. After all, when you win in Skillchase, you also win in Paperchase.

Let’s end this with a game. Ready? One, two, three! You have skills, I have paper. Who wins? Skills, because skills beat paper.

Terence Tan is a senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, School of Engineering and Science, at Curtin Sarawak. He holds a MEng. degree in computing from the prestigious Imperial College London, and MSc. degree in international business economics from City University London. He started his teaching career at Curtin Sarawak in 2005 and his credentials include winning Curtin’s Excellence and Innovation in Teaching (EIT) Award in 2008 and Student Choice Award for three consecutive years from 2006 to 2008. His research interests are genetic algorithms timetable scheduling and research in education, on which he has co-authored a number of research publications and conference papers. Terence can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 3833 or by e-mail to