Thursday, June 4, 2015

No Minced Words & a Few Sniffles Were Detected at UX Speakeasy

Some people were feeling emotional at last night's UX Speakeasy.  If the amazing artwork didn't get you, the starry sky would have done it for sure. It was a lovely outdoor venue at SILO in Maker's Quarter in the heart of downtown San Diego. Perfect setting for this particular event. Last night was primarily a going away celebration for Aaron Irizarry who is one of the founding members of the group.

About 3 years ago, Aaron was one of 13 women and men who decided that San Diego really needed to build community for  UX (User Experience) professionals. I've been told there was a feeling that
something was missing - people worked in UX in San Diego but didn't know each other, didn't hang out together, didn't realize there were quite a few jobs in UX, didn't recognize the opportunities to build a career here in UX.

Clearly they were on to something because in no time the group was maxing out space in larger and larger venues. These days we have to regularly put limits on monthly meetings in the range of 80-100 people because it's hard to find space to fit everyone interested in attending. The original group of 13 put themselves out in pursuit of a vision, and according to a tribute last night, Aaron was in the thick of all the early activities, taking leadership positions sometimes on short notice. In those days, there weren't the teams of volunteers and enthusiastic members there are today.

So when Aaron spoke about his experiences here, and said to the crowd "Be grateful you have a community of people you can connect with on a regular basis" I wasn't surprised to see some people looking almost teary eyed.

A secondary, and related reason for the meetup last night was the coincidentally timed release of Aaron's Book "Discussing Design". An overarching theme of his conversation about it was the importance of learning to have the "right" conversations. By way of example, Aaron explained how community contributed to the appearance of this book. He said that a casual conversation led to a blog post, which led to a conference proposal, which led to the book being written. Things happen when we share and explore ideas, pursue opportunities and do it with others in community.

Sometimes it wasn't clear to me when Aaron was speaking about the book or on a wider scale, but it doesn't really matter because the point is the same: it's critically important that technical professionals learn how to communicate better about our work. When people speak in buzz words or stock phrases no one knows what is really going on.

Aaron said he wanted to vomit - or something to that effect - when someone says "Can you make that pop more?".  Rather...find out: What is working, not working exactly? What is it that makes you feel it isn't going to work for our persona?

Never one to mince words, Aaron continued,

 "We need to set the ground work for those conversations. We need to learn how to talk about our work. It doesn't matter how skilled you are, you'll just be another talented asshole".

Although he was focused on Design, I was thinking more broadly. Conversations are hard; confrontations suck (that's Aaron again being direct about what we all know). I'd like to read Aaron's book because it appears to be about the topic of setting the ground for those hard conversations. I'd like to read Aaron's perspective on the matter. I'd like to see how it is similar and different from other writings on technical and science communication.

Bringing the conversation back around to why all 80+ of us were there last night, Aaron wrapped up his farewell remarks by reminding everyone that they need to understand the value of this community; it's not just a monthly party. It's an opportunity for support and finding new ways to frame important conversations.

Friday, May 15, 2015

An Innocent Visit to a Women in Tech Group Leads to An Unplanned Time Warp

Why are we still asking the same questions about women and technology?

Somewhere along the line when I wasn't paying attention, I passed through an unseen door into a place where I'm now looking backwards as much as forward when it comes to women in tech. I have been noticing this for quite some time but it really smacked me in the face a few weeks ago when I attended a meeting of a new, small, group of mostly tech industry professionals. Women, the vast majority of whom were in their 20s and 30s.

Without planning it, the few of us who were not Millennials found ourselves clumping together randomly throughout the evening. Not all at once, but over and over I found myself having similar conversations with post 40-somethings about differences in our perspective about the issues and concerns of women in tech. We compared notes about what happens when you've been around long enough to see what lies beyond the ideal of a meritocracy in tech.

The larger group formed, from what I can tell, rather spontaneously, as a result of a few women wanting a smaller more intimate space for women than currently exists in larger social & networking groups. This was their second meeting and part of the conversation was about what topics they cared most about. Creating a female oriented space. Work-Life Balance. Designing Your Environment (where "environment" is broadly defined to refer to "world" and "life").  Several people noted that they weren't into some of the more traditionally male associated networking activities that center around "hanging out and drinking and kegs".

Now that I find myself a holder of "institutional memory" I am having weird flashbacks.

Back in the 1980s (the oh so distant past when it comes to tech) I remember having very similar discussions from the context of wanting to break into the tech industry, to be accepted for what I could do rather than what I might look like (i.e. female). Business wasn't about social activism was it? I flip flopped from wanting to be one of the guys in order to be accepted, to wanting to have a place to talk about why that approach never seemed to really work. Determined to succeed by being the best technically and assuming that if I ignored my gender everyone else would have to as well.

Anyone remember Andrew Dice Clay? The guys in my group of developers thought he was hysterical and watched his misogynist Stand Up at off site socializing events, checking with me to see if I was going to fit in by laughing along with them. I remember "Lisa, what do you think? He's funny, right? ... See, Lisa is ok with it". I was offended but didn't say a word. I had lots of reasons. Reason: I needed a job. Reason: I should let things roll off. Reason: I was afraid of not being accepted. However, I was a feminist outside of the office. I once took off for a weekend to attend a rally in Washington DC and when I came back, someone found out, and two of the guys refused to speak to me for weeks. It was a lousy way to tackle work life balance.

There was a divided opinion at the recent women's meeting about whether it was better to go along with male dominated structures and systems, or whether it was better to take explicitly women focused approaches when working for change. The arguments pro and con were the same ones I heard 25 years ago. The concerns about the effect on men were the same ones I heard 25 years ago. The implicit fears about what taking a stand or speaking out would mean for one's career were the same ones I heard 25 years ago.

Several of the women at the meeting worked for a company that makes a cutting edge tech product for athletes. They were discussing their jobs enthusiastically. One of the women listening to them pointed out that the demographic for that company's products is 18-30 year old males. A discussion ensued about why that was, and if the company could expand their market demographic in order to stay competitive. No longer the only player in their market, the competition is heating up. The entire group discussed what men or women might do with the company's products. No one in the room (that I remember) had bought the product for themselves, although a few had bought it for a male they knew. It seemed clear to me that here was an opportunity to do something good for business and for women in tech by, at the very least, changing the product's marketing.

As I later surmised, fears of rocking the boat are sometimes subtle. There wasn't much enthusiasm for altering the existing product or marketing. So I asked if any of the women working in this male dominated tech company on a male oriented product, had any thoughts about the contradiction (?) of their employment situation while we were sitting here in a group explicitly devoted to supporting women in the tech design business?

The initial response was a shocked look and a pause. Then "We have to focus on our target user". Oh, to know history! In a competitive environment, that phrase is the reason many initially successful companies decline and become irrelevant. Nothing related specifically to gender there; it's a business and marketing basic.  Yet someone added, unprompted and dismissively : "It isn't a business issue".  I had to restrain myself from beating my head on the table.

Sadly, that wasn't the last of my throwback moments. Later in the same discussion someone said, as a reason for not changing the existing product / marketing: "Women aren't interested in technology". As Millennials love to say: OMG.

If I had ever been in doubt about whether or not there were still serious issues for women starting out in tech, (and for the record, I wasn't), the fact that we are having the same conversations, the same fears and denials as we had in the 80s would have dispelled them.

By the way, in the 1980s I remember women who were then in their 40s and 50s saying the same darned things about how they were hearing many of the same darned questions and conversations they heard in the 1960s about women with career ambitions in business.

Oddly enough, I initially attended this meeting not knowing if this was the right place for me. It had not so much to do with the idea of a women focused group, but more because of the fact that I felt so much older than most of the women there. I have experiences and perspective that only come with having been around the block a few times.  I wasn't sure if there was a place for me in this group of women. How ironic. After decades spent as one of very few women in my tech world, I found myself one of very few mid career professionals in a room full of tech women. Neither situation is ideal or particularly comfortable.

Well...I come away from that meeting with more questions and more to think about than I came in with. But one thing I am more sure about than ever: as long as people (women or men) are still asking the same questions about women and technology in a male dominated environment, groups like this one are needed. I hope we can find a way to move forward so that 25 years from now the current group of women in tech don't find themselves having the same deja vu.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The San Diego Women's Hackathon Codes++

Just over 65 young women descended upon several computer labs and their adjoining classrooms at California State University San Marcos on Saturday. Yes, it was the third instantiation of the San Diego Women's Hackathon. The event was organized and implemented so that everything appeared seamless by Dr. Youwen Ouyang, a Professor in the Computer Science Department, and Shauna Ruyle, a marketing consultant and Cal State San Marcos graduate. They were supported by approximately 10 student volunteers and 18 adult mentors, many of whom were themselves technical women.

The Hackathon has been growing at quite a clip since I wrote about the inaugural event a year ago, as witnessed in part by the growing list of sponsors, which included the Gormally family, Intuit Corporation, Equinox Center, Girl Develop IT, 4BoneHealth and CompTIA. Students came from as away as Riverside County and the south side of San Diego proper. Grouped into teams, and given the choice of two coding tasks that aim to make the world a better place, they hit the ground running.

Sporting my "Media" badge I spent the day zipping around talking to the participants, student volunteers and mentors. Much of the time however, I hung out and observed the dynamics of the coders that were so noticeably different from the dynamics in the computer labs I've spent so many hours in over the years.

The coding challenges were supplied by two of the event sponsors: 4BoneHealth and the Equinox Center. The teams that chose the first challenge had to create an app or game to educate their peers about the importance of getting enough calcium - and how to do so. The teams that chose the second challenge had to create an app to help people learn about the current drought in southern California. As if to encourage conversation about the usual lack of precipitation, Saturday it rained all day.

According to the official website, Hackathon participants were age 16 and up. However, I'm pretty sure I saw two girls who looked to be about 9 and 11. They were both firmly attached to mice and keyboards and one of them was right smack in the middle of a group of older participants as they all plotted and strategized. Go Girls! In addition, there were at least a few women who were returning to school to study computer science after having spent some years working in other occupations. They too were seamlessly integrated into their teams. 

So why did these women decide to get up in the dark, drive as much as an hour or more in the rain to hang out on a college campus? On a Saturday? The slightly older ones had a variety of reasons, but many of the younger first time participants said things like this: "I had nothing else to do" "My teacher told me about it" "I'm going to take a class in it". Interesting.

Would they have come today if boys had been participants too? "NO". That much was quite clear. One of them added: "You mean to a normal one?"  Hmmm.

A few hours later, what did these same, younger first time participants have to say? "At first it made
no sense, but now these lines of code make sense". "It's cool". Aha...

Many of the groups spontaneously formed into organizational patterns that closely mimicked a technique known in pedagogical circles as Pair Programming. Well researched, this cooperative approach to learning to code has been shown to have many benefits for learning. Especially in many non-traditional populations. Read: women and girls. Yet, in traditional classrooms there is often resistance to Pair Programming because it defies the stereotypical solo, competitive, programmer behavior.

The vast majority of the groups I observed functioned amazingly well, without overt or even subtle power plays and jockying for dominance. I watched them resolving differences of opinion by sharing
and compromising, rather than having one person aggressively attempt to take control. If you have spent any amount of time in the sometimes anti-social world of male dominated tech, you know just how unusual this can be.

There were poignant moments. I spoke with one participant who seemed a bit sad. She told me she was "passionate about everything" related to engineering and computer science and felt that she should know already what aspect of these she wanted to pursue. Mind you, this young woman was in high school. We talked for a few minutes and I hope that by the end of our conversation she was able to view her wide ranging interests as the valuable and often unique interdisciplinary perspective that it is. In our globally interconnected technical world, we need young women like her.

There is a lesson in that encounter for those of us who have "succeeded" and now want to nurture and mentor those coming along after us.

At the end of the day, everyone piled into a room to eat dinner and watch the project presentations. Each group got up on stage and made a pitch to the audience and the judges. They fielded questions from the judges about their technical choices, most difficult moments, how they resolved team challenges and why they made certain design decisions. Every group had completed a significant portion of a project, even those groups whose members had little to no prior coding experience. They were justifiably proud of themselves. I noted as well how virtually every group made sure each member presented a portion of their pitch. It had been a very long day but energy radiated from the stage.

I asked many of the participants if they would attend another hackathon? Yes...definitely, absolutely, I can't wait. But not if boys are there. Why not? They just looked at me like I was slightly odd for even asking.

Fortunately, the next San Diego Women's Hackathon in October is a mere 6 months away.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

UX Speakeasy Confessions

I just have five grand
Make me an iPhone UI? 
Who am I, Steve Jobs?!

Ponder it.


It should resonate at a sub-cellular level.

Not yet? Were you there last night? No matter. It will come to you. 

This motivational Haiku (5 - 7 - 5) was the product of the Black group's UX Confession at last night's
San Diego UX Speakeasy meetup. Their task was to discuss and divulge about experiences when "The person who hired you wanted to design it them-self" and report back out to the larger group.

No more needs to be said. It should all be as clear and satiating as the ever present snow melt flowing from the Sierra Nevada range.

Get back to me with your revelations. This team took the Silver (2nd Place) award so you know their creation was profound. 

One of the other groups contained a recruiter who was no doubt the inspiration for that team's Bronze (3rd Place) win. Unfortunately I can't report what they said because it was so deep I was awash in the avalanche of buzz word nouns liberally dusted with high powered adjectives and superlatives. Superbly done team Bronze!

 I can only presume (hope) this was the Purple group whose discussion and presentation task was around "Your new client or boss insisted that UX and UI were the same". 

AKA: A statement leading to The Resume Kiss of Death. 

Oh... Bronze winning Purple's job descriptions were an April Fool's Joke. They were, right?

Then there was the  Gold (1st Place) winning confessional entry. Most appropriately it went to a team
that tightly and with laser focus captured the essence of the Crazed Boss. That person we all know who doesn't understand ... well you decide:

The essence of this group's meme was captured shorthand in a chirpy UX Speakeasy twitter feed post: 5 pm Friday Product Manager says: Design it Enterprise social mobile sexy it has to pop design it and code it by Monday. No Sweat

Poetic in its own right isn't it? I think their prompt was "Your boss wanted the UI to be as intuitive as their iPhone". Oh wait... that sounds like the iPhone Haiku. Perhaps it was "The person who hired you wanted to design it them-self". No wait... We used that on already. Should we have? With only a little imagination it could apply to "When you got negative user feedback and a manager said "the user opted in, they asked for it!". But maybe closer to "Your product team insists that epics and user stories are the same".

Incredible how so many of last night's confessional prompts apply to so many situations with so little cognitive effort. 

Having thought at great and complex length about the matter, I suspect that the actual cue was: "When the product manager wanted mockups before any requirements were defined"

Keep pondering the meaning of this profound instructional creation and get back to me with your revelations. Especially if your memory of the evening is somewhat altered from mine. After all, it isn't often we get such an educational and deeply stimulating experience wrapped up in the guise of something as innocently innocuous as hanging out at an Irish Pub.

But don't sweat the little stuff: If you don't see all the pieces falling into place - ask around the meetup attendees. They all seemed to get it. By the way: last night was our 400th meetup. Something to be very proud of. We've grown in a few short years from 13 starry eyed visionaries to some 4 digit and growing kick butt professionals. Cheers!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

SIGCSE2015 Comings & Goings in New Directions

It's that time at SIGCSE, when the sheer volume of coffee and unhealthy food is starting to catch up with me. This morning's egg and cheese on bagel put me over the top. Thank goodness I am not having a cholesterol test any time soon. However, all that protein is good brain food for processing the deluge of activity of the past few days.

There have been some real patterns. I started my teaching career in the community college system and I have never lost a feeling of affinity with them. So I really noticed this year that the Community College contingent is out in force at the conference. The palindromic ACM Committee for Computing Education in Community Colleges (CCECC) has been swooping in to help community college teachers network with one another, work on curriculum development in cyber security, talk about articulation with CS2013 curricular guidelines, host a large networking lunch, and give presentations and workshops in a way that I haven't seen in all the many long years I've been coming to SIGCSE. If you are a community college faculty or know some community college faculty in the computing field, and want to find like minds, I'd definitely recommend dropping them a line. They are active all year, and from what I've been told are planning on ramping up opportunities to stay connected.

There has also been a lot of talk about the enrollment surge at many if not most CS departments in the US. I don't have the full picture yet on what the situation is like outside the US, but all but one person I have spoken to from the US has told me they are experiencing record demand for CS courses. Great on one hand, highly problematic on the other hand because personnel and resources are so strained.

I attended a panel on the subject of the enrollment surge and capacity problems yesterday. The dominant theme was stress and worry. There are many ways to respond to the jump in numbers and many of them are not healthy for students or faculty. The way in which different institutions respond is tied to many things including institutional historical context, what part of the school the department is in (Arts & Sciences, Engineering, Business etc), attitude of administration, budgets, public or private. It is clear however that already there are some short sighted and non sustainable responses such as requiring overloads, increasing class sizes dramatically, enrollment caps and GPA minimums, eliminating non-major classes and electives.

What I didn't hear, and this worries me significantly, were creative think outside the box ideas for strategically tackling the capacity problem. It's hard to think creatively and strategically when you are being pressured from all sides on a daily basis to take on more and more. I also noticed that there was a divide in the audience about whether or not this boom is simply the third Bubble, or permanent as a result of economic changes and the ubiquity of computing. When asked, 1/3 of the audience said they thought this a Bubble, 1/3 said long term/permanent, 1/3 had no idea.

Whether or not you think the boom is a short term phenomenon or not is important because it affects how you react to it. We also have to look at history. We've been here before; if you were around in the 80s you remember the enrollment surges then and similar responses. As a result of historical memory and contemporary experience and research on the subject, we know that diversity is negatively impacted when we blindly fall back on a "best and the brightest" set of class and programmatic filters. Yet another reason to find a way to get the mental space to come up with creative responses. And to be proactive about sharing those ideas.

I'm on an active search to find people willing to speak out about healthy and creative ways to address the capacity surge. If you have ideas, whether or not they've been implemented, especially if your idea is different from the run of the mill ideas, contact me. 

On another note, I'm noticing a generation gap, so to speak, among those at the conference who are plugged in to social media as a mode of communication and those who are not. If you can hold onto your seats until June, you can read in my next ACM Inroads column about why you should pay attention to how communication about our science is taking place on social media. But meanwhile, I'll point out that there is an active Twitter feed going about this conference #SIGCSE2015 and there you can read a somewhat random but interesting and often informative stream of info about things going on. More importantly, you can get a sense of what people consider important, what they choose to share with others. This matters. Taking the pulse of the community is important to understanding what people care about, what their perspective is, where they are headed.

But when I meet the twitter folk, they are almost always the younger contingent of the SIGCSE conference crowd. Sure, perhaps predictable, and I can only say "YES KEEP COMMUNICATING!"

For the rest of you, those for whom social media is not your best friend and constant companion, consider coming up to speed with some aspect of it. If you want to be plugged in to current and future thought leaders and decision makers and rabble rousers alike, this is a place to go. There is a whole aspect of SIGCSE going on virtually. I've met several new and interesting people via SIGCSE twitter exchanges the past few days. We've then met in person. People I'd never have met and perspectives I would never have heard. I value all these perspectives. I can, and do, plan on bringing what I have heard into the in person meetings and committees I attend.

Meanwhile, I'm going to get out of this chair and go to...lunch. I hope there is lots of leafy green salad.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mind Stretching at ACM SIGCAS (Computers & Society) Meeting

Hidden Near a Freeway Old Meets New

As always, my SIGCSE (ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education) week hit the ground running. Barely had I gotten to my hotel room and hooked up with my roomie than she and I were plotting and planning. So far this year we have not blown up anything or needed to call hotel mechanics. Such a shame.

My day today started off with a bone chilling walk to explore the Kansas City area in search of...whatever. Bone chilling mostly because it was below 20F and I didn't have winter clothes. My eyebrow had just about frozen together along with the freezing of my knuckles as I kept whipping out my camera to capture something just too good to pass up (see archaeology picture above) when I ran into three guys with no jackets at all (they must be natives because they didn't look half as brittle as I did in my fleece jacket) who directed me to a local independent coffee shop where I recuperated while supporting free trade coffee.

Some time later I found myself (by design) in the SIGCAS meeting (Special Interest Group on Computers and Society) which traditionally takes place the day before the start of the SIGCSE Technical Symposium. One interesting presentation after another about incorporating socially beneficial projects and activities into the computer science curriculum. Some projects were very local and some were global. From Latina community concerns to water scarcity allocation modeling to Bangladesh. By the end of the afternoon all sorts of ideas were flying through my head.

For example...

What makes a "Good" computing professional? We're talking "good" in the sense of socially beneficial, rather than technically good. More to the point, how do we know? How do we evaluate this term? (Do we want to evaluate it? Define it?) It's interesting to think about this because if we want to encourage the integration of socially / environmentally beneficial considerations into the very heart of the curriculum, how do we know we are doing it well? If we want computing professionals to integrate a social consciousness into their work how do we determine what that looks like? Or, do we even want to do this? It is worth pondering from a first principles perspective.

How are Codes of Conduct interpreted across cultures? Several global organizations such as ACM and IEEE have codes of conduct that professional members are asked to adhere to. It hadn't occured to me until today that this could be tricky due to differences in cultural interpretations of what is ethical. The idea was planted in my head because one of the presenters today said a segment of their students (economically disadvantaged, from some developing nations) said the hardest part of these Codes to adhere to would be the prohibition on taking bribes. Really? The hardest. Well, when you think about cultures where taking bribes is endemic, and business is done that way, ... sure it might be really hard to imagine bucking the system. I ask might one determine how "bad" this activity really is? Might one for example need to follow the chain reaction effect of individual bribes? How bad is it if it gets things done? Whoa....

We know that story telling, making content personal, is an effective way of making material (academic in this case) engaging and accessible. Some programming languages, (many?) don't, by their very nature, lend themselves to story telling. Java comes to mind. Python. Scratch? As opposed to a language like Alice. So, how might we talk about incorporating story telling into teaching introductory programming? This sounds like a really interesting challenge. Can it be done? I'd love to see ideas kicked around about this.

I gotta say that this was one dynamic meeting. The group made some decisions about action items to take, which, darn it, I missed due to having to boogie off to a meeting of the ACM Education Council. However, I'll find out and report back on this at a later date with a followup.

Tomorrow, the SIGCSE conference starts. Turbo charged. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Fact is, Sticking Intently to Facts is Not Enough

Maybe there was a time in my life when I believed that science, that logic, that being rationale was what would lead people to make the "right" decision. Especially about how the world worked and how it could work. Because once you had all the facts lined up, the answers about what to do would be clear. I believed the real problem was that people just needed to be shown the facts. Facts were neutral and told the truth of the matter. I learned that in great part from my dad, for whom logic backed up by facts ruled when it came to decision making.

Dad loved a good debate, especially when it came to science - he was an academic to the core and he loved to tell you what he thought was the logical thing to do based on science and logic. He wanted to hear your side as well. If you had greater solid evidence than he did, he'd graciously concede. But it was very difficult to win an argument with my dad because he never took on a topic until he had more facts and data behind him than most people could ever hope to marshal. When dad advocated for a position he usually came out on top. If he didn't have the facts, he'd defer the conversation until he could find them. 

I thought of dad this morning after listening to Noah Diffenbaugh at the live-streamed panel "Scientists Communicating Challenging Issues"  at the AAAS meeting. Diffenbaugh, a Stanford climate science researcher, called himself a "fundamentalist" about sticking to the facts, much like my dad. Also like my dad, Diffenbaugh said he was pleased to tell you if he didn't know anything about a topic; I took this to mean he too would not engage in speculation about it. Finally, both Diffenbaugh and my dad felt that scientists were best positioned to rigorously discover the way the world worked and explain it to whoever wanted to know. 

But here's where Diffenbaugh and my dad would have diverged:  Diffenbaugh believes that scientists lose credibility when they suggest policy, or positions, or actions based upon their scientific findings. He lumps the entire spectrum of expressing  an opinion or making a suggestion into advocacy and advocacy as a bad thing. I'll speculate that my dad wouldn't have liked the word advocacy either, but he certainly believed that he, as a scientist, had a responsibility to recommend actions to solve humanity's problems when the science provided facts to support those recommendations.

Diffenbaugh appears to be operating (and here I'm speculating) under the historically debunked idea that if people stay out of the way and don't get involved in politics, good things will happen. Or at least nothing bad will happen. In his somewhat strange example of talking to a US Senator and climate change skeptic, Diffenbaugh explained how after an hour of answering questions with facts, the Senator told his aid to have him "taken off the list". He didn't know what "the list" was and didn't seem particularly interested in knowing, rather, pointing out he believed he had "balanced the conversation", and by implication swayed the Congressman's skepticism of climate change. And, by extension, effected how that Senator would act on the matter in the future.

Lots of assumptions without sufficient facts to back them up. Lots of hopeful thinking that facts would change strongly held views, which, as other panelists pointed out, the research shows is simply not the case. Lots of wishful thinking that staying neutral will earn deep and lasting respect from others. Need we trot out history to drive home this point?

My dad perhaps knew better than anyone that people are irrational beings. As a young boy my father was caught up in Stalin's ambitions for what the world should look like, spending part of his childhood in Siberia and the rest of it in refugee camps across the Middle East. I suspect the trauma of this experience had a lot to do with why he became an academic and wanted to understand how the world worked. I suspect it also explains why he chose the sciences, where logic and reason provided a well defined and stable framework for understanding the world. 

But most importantly, I believe that early confrontation with reality led my father to believe he had a responsibility to society to take a stand on societal and environmental issues and to defend them as strongly as he could. Credibly. With Science. With Facts. 

You can study history for endless examples of how refusing to express opinions (political or otherwise) had little effect on other people's attitudes or behavior. Check the research for the peer reviewed studies on human behavior to back it up. 

It's not merely an academic conversation. It's about understanding how the world works and acting on that knowledge. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Who thinks Computer Science is less relevant than Physics?

Find all the interesting Computer Science in this picture

Computer Science is different from Physics; we don't have examples that we can bring to a presentation that will be relevant to a large population.

If that's the case we're screwed. 

Recently, I heard someone say that. If I believed him I might as well hang it all up and go live on a dairy farm. I wanted to do that after I graduated from high school but my parents had other ideas in mind. I still have a soft spot for dairy cows but I'm in computer science for the long haul now and I don't believe him.
Computers are ubiquitous; they hold together our global economy. What aspect of your daily life does not depend in some way upon computer systems or software? Hmm? Let's see...brain dump...

Get up in the morning, eat a banana, eat a bowl of cereal, answer email, have a conference call with a client, take part in a virtual meeting, drive in my car to another meeting, work out of a coffee shop for a while, take part in a twitter conversation, brainstorm a conference presentation, respond to an email from my mother, pay some bills, make a doctor appointment, remind clients that they need to send out the surveys I created for them... is it lunch time yet?

Which of those activities ARE NOT tightly connected to the global computing infrastructure and which of those types of activity ARE NOT relevant to a large population? Let's say YES for connected and NO for not connected.

Get up in the morning: if I use my smart phone to set the alarm: YES

Eat a banana: that banana arrived from Ecuador in the San Diego harbor on a boat that was almost entirely loaded and unloaded by robots: YES

Eat a bowl of cereal: the bowl was hand thrown by an artist in Texas, so perhaps: NO; the cereal was grown, harvested, packaged and shipped efficiently (or perhaps not) using vast software tracking systems: YES

Answer email: YES (need I say more?)

Have a conference call/take part in a virtual meeting: Skype, Google+, the beep beep beep of telephone software: YES

Drive my car: The vehicle would gather dust in a nearby canyon without that little chip the mechanics charge an arm and a leg to plug into for diagnostic purposes: YES

Work out of a coffee shop: Free wi-fi: YES. Computerized receipt generation: YES

Twitter conversations, answering mom's email, online bill pay, annoying automatically generated paper bills anyway, making appointments via the tangled electronic phone tree: YES

Creating surveys, and emailing clients... ditto conference call note above. YES

Now, is any of this relevant to a large population listening to our hypothetical presentation? In other words are these types of activities interesting beyond my and my clients' and colleagues' worlds? Of course. Why wouldn't they be? Let's give people credit.

If one thinks that economics, history, communication, relationships, nature, biology, and caffeine aren't relevant to a large swath of the population, then we aren't thinking very creatively. We all eat, drink and communicate. Most of us drive, make appointments and (however regretfully) pay bills. 

The issue of relevance is more than an intellectual exercise, it is a communication exercise. 

If computer scientists, educators, researchers, want to make our field relevant, first we have to see for ourselves that computer science is relevant and interesting. 

We must believe that computer science is, can be, should be, relevant and interesting to a large population. 

We have to get out there and tell the story of the relevance of computer science in a way that speaks to our audience.  

 Or else we're screwed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Having a Technical Impact Goes Beyond the Bits

Technical Communication Failure
I'm contemplating the human and personal side of science, particularly computer science, more than ever. Both of the courses I taught this past Fall at Harvey Mudd College, Computer Science Education Research (co-taught with Colleen Lewis) and Great Papers in Computer Science, had a pervasive emphasis on the human and the personal along with the technical. I posted about the CS Ed Research class earlier this year, tweeted about it regularly, and my next column in ACM Inroads Magazine (March 2015) will be about that course.

The Great Papers class was perhaps a poster child for the how and the why we need to understand the non-technical factors swirling in and around computer science, and our need as professionals in the field to be able to communicate well about them to diverse audiences. We should talk more about how scientific and technological advances are communicated, understood, accepted or rejected. I suspect most of us recognize that those seminal articles we may take for granted had a significant impact only partially because of their technical merit.

It's about being the right person, in the right place, at the right time, saying the right thing. That last point (saying the right thing) is where we find the technical most heavily, although even there, the "right thing" is more nuanced than the bits and bytes of the matter. If we pause and take a look at the contextual big picture of any one of the technical innovations that have shaped our field, we see the truth of the matter. A range of social, historic, economic and psychological factors either inhibit or increase the visibility and impact of any technical work.

For example, in the domain of computer architecture, Howard Aiken's  "The Proposed Automatic Calculating Machine" (1937)  deservedly takes a spot in the annals of the most impactful papers in the field. Yet the paper that led to the creation of the Harvard Mark I was not a shoo-in; if not for a complex series of historical and economic factors the ideas presented in the proposal might well have languished in the "Don't call me, I'll call you" dustbin.  Then there was Aiken's ability to assemble a rock solid team. Grace Hopper, herself no intellectual or personal pushover, was on that team. Aiken did not succeed in a vacuum.

Psychological factors leading to technological change are blindingly obvious in the infamous 1968 Dijkstra Letter to the Editor of the Communications of the ACM entitled "Go To Statement Considered Harmful". Dijkstra effectively and efficiently communicated the potential negative technical consequences of an unbridled use of the "Go To" statement. However, he used arguably tactless language, upset a lot of people, and his comments went viral 1960s style*.  Dykstra wasn't the first person to argue against using Go To statements but he often gets the credit for the ideas that led to eventual changes in coding practice.

By spending a semester delving into issues such as these, I hope that students will come away with more than increased intellectual breadth and depth in the field of CS. I hope they will have a greater understanding of the deep connections between society and technological success and failure. I hope they will appreciate the importance of successful communication about complicated technical subject matter to technical and non-technical audiences alike. It's not just for people in Marketing - it's for them too.

I just got back my teaching evaluations - feedback to me about where I successfully communicated all these things to them and where there is room for work. It cuts both ways - I'm feeling good about that.

*In class I make a point to spend a few minutes discussing why, in spite of Dijkstra's technical brilliance and fame, pissing people off is not professionally wise.