IEEE PULSE presents

Best If Used by Date

State of the Art March/April 2021
Author: Art Johnson

We have likely all seen the dates stamped on food packages in the United States that say “Best if used by …” or “Sell by …” or some other phrase that suggests that the food item is not to be consumed after the date specified. It is not really clear by the phrase used if the food item becomes poison after this date, or if the food quality declines after this date, or if the date is just a convenience for the seller to move the product. There is a great deal of confusion about what to do with the product after the date given. Should it be thrown away or can it still be consumed safely but with some degradation of its quality?

I have often wondered whether a “use by” date also ought to be assigned to the learning that a college-educated professional acquires as a student in university. Certainly, a good deal of the technological details learned in college cannot be valid for long because of the rapid pace of technological change. I have heard various estimates of the half-life of the validity of engineering education acquired as an undergraduate to be five, ten, or maybe a few more years. After that, new information needs to be learned to replace outdated information that was learned in school.

Some of the updated information will be encountered naturally on the job as new experiences are encountered. There are other kinds of information, especially with sudden jumps in technological paradigms, where post-graduate training is required. For these, it is often helpful to make use of courses offered online or through professional societies. This is one good reason to join a professional society of one’s choice and to become active in its affairs.

One would hope that basic principles taught in school would retain validity throughout one’s entire career. A good deal of engineering judgment is based on adherence to an understanding of these basic principles. As long as the principles are sound then the decisions based on them should be also. That is why a lot of the most important education that an engineer obtains in school should be the basic principles taught in some of the core course taken. Upper-level courses are more likely to contain information of current interest, but of less permanence.

It is clear that a usual feature of a long career is the smaller likelihood of modern technological familiarity as the career progresses. That is one reason to hire new graduates, who are automatically abreast of the latest technologies. But, the older employee, while perhaps not as astute technologically as the younger employee, can compensate by developing better judgment than is usually possessed by the younger employee.

But, I have seen it happen over and over, there comes a time in most lifetimes when there is a freeze in technological knowledge, or even awareness. The truly old person loses interest in new methods and tries to maintain, as best as he or she can, the status quo using the technology he or she is most familiar with. And that technology can be many years old. For that person, a change in technology, forced against one’s will, can be a very traumatic experience. Gone is the familiarity of habit built up over many years. The victim of this inclination wonders why a change must be made when, for this person, everything was going well just as it always did. The reason for the technology update is not at all important for the person who has not changed for years.

Whatever one’s age and experience, updating technological knowledge is usually necessary in order to perform satisfactorily on the job. Even in a management position, some perfunctory knowledge about what is trending is needed to make proper judgments about assigning monetary or personnel resources to a project. Learning should never end.

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