Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"Everyone Should Learn to Code"

I've been hearing this sentiment a lot lately. As someone who has been developing software for a living for almost a decade, I like the audacity of the statement. As if software development is a skill that is applicable in all cases, to everyone, everywhere.

Balderdash.

If not everyone, then who should learn to code?

Easy: Anyone curious to learn about how software works and how it's created.

Maybe this applies to everyone, but I doubt it. Most people will never have a use for software development skills. And most people are not curious about things they do not understand.

And why stop at software? Whoever you might be, you really should be trying lots of things. Try starting a business. Try skydiving. Try eating authentic Japanese food.

A better maxim to spread around to people might be: "All the world's a playground."

In truth, software is going to become more and more pervasive in our lives in the coming couple of decades. People who are capable of writing software, and writing it well, are going to have their choice of jobs for years to come. For that reason alone, I encourage anyone with even a trepid curiosity about coding to give it a shot. If the craft of writing software happens to get your rocks off, it's an absolutely wonderful way to earn a living.

I'd love to see the attrition rates of people who have tried it. My guess is that most people poke at some "hello world" code for a few hours, then wander off to do other things. It's really not for everyone, much in the same way that teaching, firefighting, or any number of other professions aren't for everyone.

If you're curious about coding, try it. If you don't like it, don't force it. And if it's not to your liking, and you abandon it, and by some coincidence you become my boss in the future, please don't pretend that you understand it. =)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Edumacation

When I was in 9th grade, I had an English teacher who insisted that if we wrote in-class essays in pen, that we correct our mistakes with Whiteout.

"Why can't we just cross out our mistakes and write a correction next to it? Isn't that the same thing as using Whiteout?" I asked. I mean, regardless of how you fix it, if you notice your own error and correct it, what does it matter?

"Because," she replied. It was followed by some muted brass notes like in The Peanuts.

So I wrote an in-class essay, in pen, then went over the entire sheet with Whiteout, and wrote all of the words again, on top of the dried Whiteout. If you're old enough to remember what Whiteout is like, then you can imagine how this turned out. It was a big, heavy sheet covered in crumbly white flaky material and pen scratchings that you couldn't read at all.

"Why did you do this?" she asked.

"I screwed up every word on the page," I offered. I think I got a zero on the assignment.

In 10th grade, I had an English teacher who would make us read things, then spend entire class periods asking us Socratic questions about the material. This wasn't terrible, but the tone of her voice with every question was dripping with the sentiment of, "Say, is it Happy Hour yet?" It was obvious to all of us that she didn't care one wit about the questions she was asking, our answers, or the godforsaken crap she was forcing us to read. (Although I did read The Count of Monte Cristo the following summer because of her, which I was happy about.)

In 11th grade, the English teacher had a PhD, in what I can only assume was English, and he insisted that we call him "Dr." Not "MR."..."DR." He was making us read Hemingway or something, and he wanted us to call him doctor as though he had helped develop a polio vaccine.

One day an essay we were supposed to have written was due, and I hadn't done it. Instead I turned in an old paper I had written and turned in the week before, already graded and marked up by him, and about a completely different subject. I just crossed out the grade at the top with a big "X" and passed it to the front.

He asked me to stay after class. After everyone else had shuffled out, he held up the paper. "This isn't the assignment, and I've already graded this one."

"I know," I said, shrugging.

He explained to me why this was unacceptable, and lectured me on having the nerve to try and "trick" him. This was more tedious than just getting a zero on that assignment.

My final year in high school, the English teacher used to find tons of things she didn't like about my phrasing or diction in my papers. She would assign 5 pages, and I'd write 5 pages, but you can find a lot of things wrong in 5 pages, especially if you're pedantic about how people express themselves with the language. So I'd get -30 points for all my little mistakes, in aggregate.

My friends would turn in half a page that they'd written during passing time just before class started, and she'd just write "Too short : -5 points" and that was it. This happened all year.

I asked her about this. Perhaps after teaching for 30+ years, she was downright sick of reading high school senior English papers, and if she was cutting my friends some slack because they weren't being as verbose as I was. I don't really remember what she said, but she told me I'd better not start writing short papers just to get a better grade, because she wouldn't give me one.

I never did learn to read, write, or appreciate literature during high school. I learned those things on my own, in varying degrees and stages, before and after that time in my life.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

To An Aspiring Programmer

If you asked me what advice I would give to a young person who is planning to spend their career in a technology-related field, here is what I would offer:
  1. Take initiative.
  2. Make things.
To elaborate on these two points a little: put yourself out there. You have no idea what you are capable of until you do. Start things. Persist in them even when they get difficult.

Sure, that is not all you need to do in order to be successful. There are other things to consider. You need to figure out how to earn a living. You need to figure out how you work best with other people in the various settings you will find yourself in. You need to figure out (warning: thought-stopping cliché ahead) what you are really passionate about. And so on.

The details will depend on who you are and your environment.

But if you do the two items listed above, you will have no trouble figuring everything else out when you need to.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Limits

In the movie Solaris, psychologist Chris Kelvin is sent to a space station orbiting a distant planet to investigate an odd phenomenon: deceased loved ones of the crew members are appearing on the ship. So, the planet they're orbiting reads Kelvin's mind, learns everything it can about his late wife, and replicates her.

What makes this story really interesting is that the replicants are not complete recreations; they are based merely on the memories of those who remember them. I generally don't pay any attention to movie critics, but I found the following except from Roger Ebert's review of the 2002 remake to be surprisingly poetic:

"In other words, Kelvin gets back not his dead wife, but a being who incorporates all he knows about his dead wife, and nothing else, and starts over from there. She has no secrets because he did not know her secrets...The deep irony here is that all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that...We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them. Even empathy is perhaps of no use; we think it helps us understand how other people feel, but maybe it only tells us how we would feel, if we were them."

Friday, August 31, 2012

"I Am Determined to Make this Work"

There are two different flavors of creativity.

The first is the one with which most of us are both intuitively and empirically familiar: the "aha" moment. It is the spark that comes from talking to a bunch of strangers in an evening with varying interests. It is no secret that cross-germination of ideas between people with different professions is a good way to generate ideas. And we are delighted when something shiny and new arrives in our head, seemingly out of nowhere. (Even though most ideas are derivative of something that has come before, whether we know or readily acknowledge this.)

The second kind: focus. It is picking a particular "aha" moment and running with it. It is the attitude of "I am determined to make this work". It is a willingness to stare a difficult problem in the face, even when it seems insurmountable, and to refuse to back down. This is the kind of creativity that builds careers and companies.

If you need ideas, go engage people who are different than you in conversation and listen to what they say. Ideas will eventually come; that is the easy part. It is much harder to commit, to move past the one-night stand brand of ideation, to asking a single idea out on a series of dates.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

When Business Ain't Great

In attending meetup groups and business mixers, you meet a lot of people. I'm fortunate enough to meet the kinds of people who have upped and started their own small businesses, whether they're full-time or just a hobby on the side. I learn a lot from these people.

The tone of these conversations is generally extremely positive, but sometimes, you will meet someone who is complaining about how tough it is out there. It might be the purveyor of a used bookstore talking about how people are just reading everything on their Kindles these days, so for their shop, business is suffering.

When I encounter this kind of conversation, I have a question that I like to ask: "Over the course of the past year, what have you learned from your customers, and what are you doing differently now as a result of that feedback?"

It's a selfish question. I don't offer it in order to send a subtle message to the person I'm talking to. (I'm not the guy who should be giving advice about how to run a business.) I offer the question because it changes the tone of the conversation from a gripe session to something structured from which I might be able to learn something. If the person offers a story about customer feedback that changed the way they ran their business, there could be a great takeaway for me in that.

And if they don't have an answer to the question, then it brings about an end to the conversation. Just as well...if that's the case, then I'm not convinced they've earned the right to complain.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Unbottled Water

Bottled water, as an idea and as a reality, is ridiculous. I know this. So does everyone else.

And yet, there are several empty and full plastic bottles of water in my home and the place where I work.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the bottled water industry, which seems to be insanely profitable despite the fact that they're packaging something that any of us could get for free. So where's the value added? Why buy?

I think there are two answers: convenience and esteem. It's easier to pop into a 7-Eleven, buy a bottle, and carry it with us than to have an empty container that we must fill from a publicly available source. And we do feel like we're spoiling ourselves, in a good way. It's a minuscule psychological reward we treat ourselves with for good behavior.

The "Unbottled Movement" has a long uphill battle ahead of it, because the power of social marketing, in the name of environmental sustainability, is very weak compared to the net benefit to each individual. It's a liquid tragedy of the commons. And the industry itself is large enough that any legislation designed to curb the advance of bottled water is unlikely to be implemented or very effective.

So how to push back? I'd like to see more people standing up in their communities and asking their mayors for more drinking fountains. If publicly available water, free of charge, is readily available, people are less likely to buy a bottle.

I'd like to see the manufacturers of drinking fountains push models that make filling a water bottle easier. Have you ever tilted a bottle with a tiny mouth over a traditional drinking fountain and attempted to fill it from that tiny stream with an arc of three inches? It's hard to do. There should be a separate spout on the side of all drinking fountains that allow you to fill a bottle without doing that inconvenient dance.

I'd like to drink tap water, make it known without having to explicitly tell people, and not have to appear pious in the process. Deciding to forgo bottled water in favor of tap water is an invisible activity, and the only way to make it known is by telling other people that you're doing it. This almost always comes off as righteous indignation, which is very unbecoming behavior for most of us.

Lastly, I think finding a good use for all that extra plastic helps. I think this town in Lithuania and the artist they commissioned are brilliant.