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Teachers and Features

My wife teaches Chemistry at a local Public High School. With that, we often discuss the schooling and education systems in America. I’m fascinated by many things in the broad subject. Last weekend, my wife commented on how difficult it is to have large classes. My wife explained that students do better in smaller class sizes. The extreme however: 1 student per class is not optimal. Students need a social atmosphere but at 30 students per class, teachers struggle to maintain an orderly classroom and grade assignments.

I started doing some math (just back-of-the-envelope stuff) to determine why class sizes are so large. A startling realization was how little schools benefit from increased production. Most manufacturers will recognize the biggest profits in economies of scale but for education this doesn’t work so well. The issues are numerous: locality, non-linearity (students learn at different rates), quality/standards, etc.

Having come to a realization that most educators already have, my wife further explained that the tradeoff is usually: smaller classes or cut after-school programs. In her experience, parents would be livid to learn that sports programs or special-interest clubs had been cut. But their not so upset to learn that class size has increased from 30 to 35. Reflecting on this, I realized that we’re most sensitive to the absence of a thing than to a degrade in quality.

There are interesting implications to this: you’ll pine for something you don’t have more than you’ll want a higher quality thing already in your possession. Not only is this exhibited in education but also more broadly in products.

I work at Microsoft and one of the best things we’ve got going for us are features. Features. Features. Features. Our big product units are all centered around delivering good customer experiences which we deliver through features. Compare our products with another software line and we’re likely to go straight to the features for a comparison. This strategy has been wildly successful. I think, in part, I now know why.

As much as we have features, we have bugs. Microsoft is always getting lambasted for poor quality. Though we work very hard to produce high quality products, we don’t always meet the bar. But somehow Microsoft is still making billions. The reason is this: too many missing features and you won’t buy but all the features you could dream of at poor quality and you’ll just buy it and complain.

I’m reminded of a story I heard about a conference that took place years ago. An upset man in the audience called out, “When are you going to stop producing this crap software?” The speaker responded, “As you soon as you stop buying it.”