Results tagged “education”

Learn to Code Switch Before You Learn to Code

December 9, 2013

[Update: I got a lot of very helpful feedback from people who corrected the narrowness of my focus here, particularly in regard to those for whom code switching is a burden rather than a choice. To be clear: The onus is on the tech industry to meet the needs of those whom it has underserved and excluded, and to learn their language. I've added some comment and explanation below. ]

Today, President Obama urged every American to spend an hour learning to code. As part of the initiative, it's a well-intentioned effort to promote Computer Science Education week. And as a supporter of efforts like Black Girls Code, CodeNow and Girl Develop It, I do think there's a lot of value in teaching people, especially young people, about how software works. It's particularly important as more of our lives are influenced by choices made by technologists.

But there's an increasing backlash from within the tech industry against the reflexive promotion of "just learn to code!" as a solution to a wide range of societal ills. Even the opportunity to participate in the fantastic coding education programs that exist are heavily constrained by economic and personal constraints that many in the tech industry have not yet begun to address first.

Even if we taught every disadvantaged young person to code, they would still not have access to the opportunities that today's successful programmers and technology experts enjoy.

Switching It Up

The biggest obstacle to bringing underrepresented groups into the technology industry is that deep insularity and exclusionary culture that pervades much of the fastest-growing, highest-profile parts of the industry, especially the companies that create social web apps and consumer technology.

We have already seen that qualified candidates who are women, or non-Asian minorities, or persons who have varying physical and mental skills, face significant systemic exclusion from the tech industry, even as it loudly proclaims how critical its need for programming talent is. There are similar barriers to those who not geographically located in a small handful of big cities, not to mention the obvious challenges with engaging with talent from outside of the United States.

But even if a candidate can navigate this formidable set of obstacles, they might well end up in a career that's unfulfilling, marginalized within the companies they'd worked so hard to join. The simple reason why? These candidates speak a different language.

I don't just mean tech jargon — as off-putting as acronyms and tech talk can be, many people can make the leap to learning the vocabulary needed for the work that they do. Rather, there's a challenge in being fluent in the cultural assumptions and social context in which the tech industry exists. Even more broadly, there's the challenge of literacy in the business world overall.

For as famously open-minded as the technology industry is about fashion (insert brief digression here for me to sartorially eviscerate Zuckerberg for his hoodies once more), there's an extremely rigid linguistic uniform within the tech industry. Whether it's fluency in meme culture, familiarity with Reddit or Hacker News in-jokes, obsessive literacy in the minutia of Steve Jobs' life, or a preternatural interest in screen resolutions, the tropes of programmer culture today are deeply insular. Move to the executive suite, add in a healthy dose of MBA jargon and peacocking from the old boys' network, and it becomes clear that the ability to read and write Python pales in comparison to reading and writing tech corporatese.

Keep in mind, the groups that most need to access these tech opportunities have fewer chances to learn the lingo of corporate America, and will be judged on far less forgiving grounds if they are in the process of learning it. So simply waving the promise of great jobs in front of those who are economically or socially disadvantaged, without addressing the cultural barriers they're likely to face, is irresponsible.

Code For America

The answer, then, is to encourage our young people to learn to code switch. Code switching, as explained so well by NPR's "Code Switch" blog, is a simple matter of being fluent in multiple cultures:

[M]any of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.

When you're attuned to the phenomenon of code-switching, you start to see it everywhere, and you begin to see the way race, ethnicity and culture plays out all over the place.

The ability to seamlessly code switch between different cultural contexts is an ability that the President is extremely familiar with. And as we move to a culture where no one racial or political group is a majority, it becomes increasingly valuable and important.

What's more, technology changes extremely quickly — the programming skills we're teaching our young people today will largely be obsoleted in just a few years unless they're accompanied by the social skills to keep learning on top of those fundamentals.

For those who are underrepresented in technology today, a long-term career in coding is predicated on being an expert at code switching.

Going Further

This focus on code switching isn't to pooh-pooh the idea that technology in general, or programming in particular, could be a valuable leg up for those who are on the wrong side of our society's increasing economic gap. I do think the enormous concentration of wealth in the tech industry could be directed toward broadening opportunity. But to truly do so in a meaningful way, those of us who are already in tech have to focus on a few important goals:

  • We have to, counterintuitively, build a good support system and funding infrastructure for less efficient startups. Yes, less efficient. Because current efficiency models for tech startups count on creating a few rich winners and a mass of very poor underemployed workers, but very few long-term sustainable middle class jobs. We're going to have to articulate, and pursue, different goals in our tech startups if we're going to make enough solid jobs for the folks we're encouraging to learn coding.
  • Similarly, we have to embrace the idea of blue collar coders. If we succeed in bringing all of these new young people to the tech industry, we're going to necessarily undo the image of programming as the exclusive domain of a rarified coterie of high priests. Instead, we have to see it as a useful trade that is a meaningful path toward the middle class for those who are struggling to get there, akin to the blue collar trades that honorably served that purpose in the last century.
  • We have to aggressively, and uncompromisingly, attack the pernicious lie that the technology industry is a meritocracy. Perpetuating this myth only serves to bolster the egos of those who have succeeded already, at the expense of saying that people who are underrepresented in tech today aren't present because they aren't good. We cannot tell most Americans that they're bad at technology, then ask them to spend an hour learning to program, and then wonder why it didn't work. And we can't just tell them to follow the same ten tips that worked for most of the big tech success stories in the past.
  • Most fundamentally, the way we get young people to engage with technology, and to consider programming as a potential career path, is to talk about our values and our communities. Tech changes constantly, and what's currently in fashion as a programming language or technology platform will change countless times during a person's career. We do have a chance to break out of the current systems of exclusion and return to software's origins as an industry led by women, or to embrace the global reality where people of every race and social class are finding opportunities in technology outside the United States.

Reaching the true potential of the technology industry, both from the standpoint of creating meaningful jobs for many people, as well as inventing valuable new products and services to help people, is an important goal. But the ability to read and write code is the end result of a process, not the starting point.

If our goal is for more young people who speak programming languages, then the tech industry must go at least halfway in speaking their language.

More Voices

After I originally published this post, I got some terrific feedback from a few people who showed very effectively how my phrasing here appears to put the burden on the excluded to learn the language of those running the industry, which was the opposite of my intent.

Corvida Raven offered up a detailed, and brilliant, critique of my framing of this piece; You should follow her for more complete context. But her key pointis essential:

Nordette Adams refined and clarified my core point more cogently than I was able to:

Which is to say: There are people in power in the tech industry right now, and they're not inclined to let others in. If you're one of those others, you have to understand the language they're speaking, even if you might not choose to speak it yourself.

Which leads into April Davis' insight:

She's right of course; The issues of power and access are much broader than language.

But what's been perhaps most instructive to me is the way that different communities see the role, and the implications, of "code switching". As the child of immigrants who wasn't really born into any community of people with similar experiences, code switching isn't an option for me, it just is.

By contrast, communities which are better established, or who have more of a history of systematic denigration of their speech or language, have a much more fraught history with code switching, which I glossed over in my piece. There, I was wrong to suggest that they "learn the language" of power because, as I've mentioned here before, it doesn't matter how well they speak or how literate they are in geek culture — many in power will be unwilling to share or relinquish power no matter how these new entrants to the industry communicate.

As this response shows, my piece here probably suffered a bit for my tendency to become enamored of my own clever ("clever"?) wordplay:

I hope those who've found this piece useful, and especially those who found it infuriating, will focus on the few bullet points I listed above, about how those already in power in the tech industry need to do more to connect with those who have been excluded. Not just learning their language, but helping them become part of the fundamental structure of the industry.

In the end, the core point remains: We should be careful, critical and skeptical of "teach kids to code" as an overly glib recommendation, as the current path puts many of them on a path to careers where they'll be constrained from seizing the opportunity that's being promised. That's something we can all work to fix.

The Blue Collar Coder

October 5, 2012

Much of the conversation about the shortage of technology talent in the United States focuses on how we can encourage more young people to go to college to become Computer Science graduates. Those programs are admirable and should be encouraged, but I suggest we need to focus on some other key areas in order to encourage the sustainability of our tech industry:

  • Education which teaches mid-level programming as a skilled trade, suitable for apprenticeship and advancement in a way that parallels traditional trade skills like HVAC or welding
  • Less of a focus on "the next Zuckerberg", in favor of encouraging solid middle-class tech jobs that may be entrepreneurial, but are primarily focused on creating and maintaining technology infrastructure in non-tech companies
  • Changing the conversation about recruiting technologists from the existing narrow priesthood of highly-skilled experts constantly chasing new technologies to productive workers getting the most out of widely-deployed platforms and frameworks

Put another way, our industry can grow in a very meaningful way by giving lots of young people at a high school level the knowledge they need to learn jQuery straight out of high school, or teaching maintenance on a MySQL database at a trade school without having to get a graduate degree in computer science. That's not to say that CS students aren't also important — we'll need the breakthroughs and innovations they discover. But someone has to run that intranet app at an insurance company, and somebody has to maintain the internal iOS app at a law firm, and those are solid, respectable jobs that are as key to our economy as a 22-year-old trying to pivot and iterate their way into an acqu-hire.

High Tech Vo Tech

High schools have long offered vocational education, preparing graduates for practical careers by making them proficient in valuable technical skill sets which they can put to use directly in the job market right after graduation. Vocational-technical schools (vo-tech) provide trained workers in important fields such as healthcare, construction trades, and core business functions like accounting. For a significant number of my high school peers, vo-tech was the best path to a professional job that would pay well over the duration of an entire career.

Now it's time that vo-tech programs broadly add internet and web technologies to the mix. We need web dev vo-tech.

I'm happy about other efforts being made to teach kids to become tech entrepreneurs; As I write this I'm a few blocks from the Academy for Software Engineering. And it's enormously valuable to teach that school's students about coding and building companies.

But in other schools in America, and outside of big cities like my own, and for kids who aren't going to go all-in by attending a tech-focused high school, we need better options. There are many small-town jobs to be built around hands-on technology implementations.

Part of our challenge is that the tech sector has to acknowledge and accept that a broad swath of jobs in the middle of our industry require skills but need not be predicated on a full liberal arts education at a high-end university. The Stanford CS grads are always going to be fine; It's the people who can't go into the same trade as their dad, or who are smart but not interested in the eating-ramen-and-working-100-hours-a-week startup orthodoxy who we need to bring along with us into tech.

Middle Class Jobs

Though I know there are many more implications to choosing the phrase "blue collar" to describe these jobs, it's a deliberate choice. First, there's a broad and noble history of blue collar workers organize to strengthen workers' rights and improve working conditions for their peers; It's a tradition we'll do well to maintain in the tech world.

More importantly, though, we must confront the fact that our current investment infrastructure for tech companies optimizes for a distribution of opportunity and wealth that looks almost feudal. As I mentioned broadly in To Less Efficient Startups, venture capital today generally strives to make a handful of early founders and employees of a company enormously wealthy (alongside the investors, of course), and then to have a subset of employees profit when there's a liquidity event.

But that's a recipe for continued income inequality. I am proud of, and impressed by, Craigslist's ability to serve hundreds of millions of users with a few dozen employees. But I want the next Craigslist to optimize for providing dozens of jobs in each of the towns it serves, and I want educators in those cities to prepare young people to step into those jobs.

Public education serves many roles in society, from the intrinsic social value of having an educated populace to make decisions about elections to the indispensable role it serves in introducing many kids to the arts, music, science and other fundamental aspects of culture.

Today, most Americans also rely on our public schools to prepare their children for their careers, too. And if we in the tech industry want to keep claiming that we'll continue to be the biggest driver of those new jobs, then we have to engage in a significant conversation about how the public high schools of our country can help prepare just as many future employees of our companies as the handful of highly regarded computer science programs in the country do today.

A Last Chance to Donate to Music Education

October 27, 2007

The Donors Choose Bloggers Challenge that I wrote about a few weeks ago is almost over, and that means you only have a few days to help support the Notes for Class Challenge, an effort to help fund music education programs that have been proposed by the teachers who will be overseeing them.

As I mentioned earlier, I'll be personally matching 10% of all donations -- the incredibly generous readers of my site have already contributed over two thousand dollars, supporting music education programs for nearly 1700 kids. It's pretty astounding, but we're not that far away from nearly doubling the number of students we can help. Take a look at efforts like the Music Bingo proposal in North Carolina: If just a few more of you donate, my matching donation for the Challenge will help us sponsor a project that helps 1000 more students.

I've been blogging over 8 years now, and in all that time, I've never personally endorsed a campaign like this or committed to matching donations in this way. So I hope any of you who've found the writing I've done on my blog over the years to be useful or valuable will take a few minutes to make a donation. For reference, the over 6,700 posts on this blog (and my old Daily Links blog), along with the comments that have responded to them, add up to over 1.2 million words. That's the equivalent of 20 or so printed books, so if you wanted to pay just $1 per book-length section of blog inanity, you could easily justify a $20 donation.

And, if four more of you donate to the Notes for Class Challenge before October 31, I'll also create some new sections on my site to make it easier to find the stuff you'd actually want to read. Make me proud, people!

Almost There!

October 5, 2007

We're really close to funding music education in Cassell Elementary School in Chicago -- you should contribute a couple of bucks! As MetBlogs Chicago kindly mentioned, I am gonna match 10% of whatever you give. I promise I'll get back to blogging about other topics as well next week, but I think there's a really great chance to have a direct impact, and I hope you'll join me.

Of course, if you like any of the other proposals in the Notes for Class challenge, I'm happy to match those donations, too. One that jumped out at me is from right near my wife's hometown: Music Bingo sounds like a great effort, at Salem Elementary School where they're moving to a year-round class schedule and need some help to expand their lessons in the new schedule.

South Side Sounds

October 2, 2007

I've gotten a lot of really good questions (and some fantastically generous donations!) about the Donors Choose blogger challenge I wrote about yesterday, but by far the most common is "what should I do?" There are a lot of options, so let me make it easy: Let's help kids on the South Side of Chicago.

Help Us Listen to the Music is a great example of how you can participate. A teacher at Cassell Elementary school writes:

In the upcoming year I would like to have a music listening center in the classroom where students could go and listen to music of various genres, styles, and composers. Eventually this music listening center will include classical music, Jazz, world music, early childhood music, and electronic music. While at the music listening center, students would analyze and describe music, identify instruments, recognize musical elements in music, and complete other listening activities.

All you've gotta do is chip in a few bucks. Throw in the five bucks you were going to spend at Starbucks today, or chip in $25 bucks to buy a couple of CDs. And as I mentioned yesterday, I'll personally match 10% of whatever you donate -- if ten of you pony up $30, we'll have this proposal covered and kids from kindergarten up to 8th grade will be making their first steps towards learning music appreciation and music theory.

Choosing to Help Kids

October 1, 2007

I've been a big fan of Donors Choose for some time. It's a charity my readers may well have heard of, which helps students in public schools by letting regular folks like us directly fund the requests that teachers make for classroom essentials.

I'm supporting Donors Choose with a campaign called Notes for Class, which is designed to support music initiatives in schools.

There are a lot of elements of that model that appeal to someone like me, who's familiar with technology and more than a little skeptical of the level of accountability in traditional charities. Instead of my money contributing to some nebulous "good deeds", I can choose exactly how I want to have an impact: Which schools, which students, which projects. Donors Choose and its work have been so compelling that I've been eager to help promote and participate in the Blogger Challenge initiative.

But that's not the only reason that I found it easy to support Donors Choose. I've also had the opportunity, a few times now, to meet Charles Best, CEO and Founder of Donors Choose. He's a former school teacher, an incredibly charismatic yet modest guy, and most importantly, he's a true believer. It makes it clear, from the top down, that the entire organization really believes in what they're doing. I didn't realize how much that mattered to me until I saw it.

So, I'm urging all of you to participate. First, go to the Notes for Class page, and pick an effort that you think is worth sponsoring. And then, for every $10 you donate to any of the proposals, I'll add another dollar on top of yours. Donate $100? I'll add $10. Donate $1000? I'll add $100. I'll be matching every donation from my readers, up to $10,000. (That's a $1000 contribution.)

I do have an agenda here, of course. I want to show people what I've seen: That the blogging community I've had the privilege of belonging to is one of the most generous communities anywhere. I believe it, and I'm putting my money where my mouth is. I'm also helping out with promoting this effort at Six Apart, where we've promoted the Blogger Challenge to our communities on LiveJournal, Vox, TypePad and Movable Type. In fact, for a few more hours, you can email us at and request a $30 gift certificate for making a donation to Donors Choose as well.

I'm hoping we can do a great job of showing the world the positive side of what the blogging community can accomplish. And I'm really hoping we can help fund that tenor saxophone or any of the other needs that teachers have listed on the site.

Me? In a Classroom?

December 3, 2006

Those who know me well know that I never really loved being in a classroom while I was in school; The whole experience, combined with my own lack of discipline at the time made grade school and high school unpleasant enough that it was inevitable I wouldn't stay in college very long. And I haven't had a chance to revisit that opinion until recently.


As I mentioned before, though, my job these days is mostly education. I'd visited one or two of Clay Shirky's ITP classes at NYU, and just a few weeks ago spoke to some students at the Haas School at Berkeley. But the most fun I've had recently was in talking to David Silver's class at USF. Now, I have coworkers and family members who go to USF, and I live only a few miles from the campus, but somehow I'd never found the chance to get up there until this past Thursday.

To my delight, the people in the class were as willing to share their thoughts and ideas with me as I was with them. David's writeup captures some of the topics we talked about, but I just wanted to make a note to myself so I can remember how much I enjoyed it. Thanks to everybody in the class not just for spending the time, but for helping remind me just how cool a classroom can be.