Monday, May 19, 2008

Coding for Fun and Profit

Usually I'll read an article or letter to the editor and say to myself, "Boy, I really oughta write a Pulitzer Prize-winning blog post about that," and then immediately fail to do so. I've been pretty consistent about this, and in my mind at least, consistency counts for something. But this article seems to have done something to remove my thumb from its previously dark and comfortable resting place.

The gist of Ms. Atwell's piece: Looks like MCLA put on a secondary school programming contest and nobody came. Well, not nobody. A team from Pittsfield High came up, as did the Fightin' New Lebanese (I guess) from New Lebanon, NY. I mean, two schools.

public class WhatIsThis {
   public static void main (String args[]) {

You know what I'm talking about. If you don't, call a high schooler in New Lebanon.

I don't get it. I really don't. I've been working in IT for pretty much the last twenty years and I know of almost no other business where the only thing that matters is the quality of your output. You don't need to have gone to a great school, or married the boss' niece; you don't need good personal hygiene, social skills, or a wardrobe containing anything made after 2002. All you need is the chops, and you will be ridiculously employable for the foreseeable future.

One of the reasons programming jobs are being offshored is that thousands of Indian and Chinese secondary schools know something that apparently we do not: expertise in information technology work can transcend deficiencies in geography, capital, and infrastructure. It can be taught and learned cheaply, with minimal equipment, and the Internet--the greatest real-time educational resource ever created--gives you the ability to exercise and expand your skills any time, almost anywhere in the world. Seriously: if you can't find a code snippet to crib for your programming homework, you need to start thinking about bailing and taking a pottery class.

I have nothing against the hospitality, arts, arts management, or retail industries. But if America's rural and cash-strapped urban school systems started really pushing a practical IT curriculum they'd be giving immeasurable head starts to thousands of American kids. And if local governments spent as much time wooing IT-based businesses as they did big box stores, they'd be providing the head-of-household jobs that smaller municipalities need to grow and thrive.

I know a lot of folks got scared off by the bubble a few years back, but that doesn't blow the fundamentals of a good idea well executed by a smart company. The tech company money that vanished betwen 1999 and 2003 was mostly idiot money, and you could kinda tell the cranio-rectally inverted companies from the solid ones pretty quickly. Suffice to say that those times have shaken out and you're a whole lot less likely to be put through that again. Lack of confidence in the industry should not be a factor.

And coming up with that last pronoun gets me to thinking how there needs to be a push to get the girls into the game. I know a few great programmers who happen not to be in possession of a pair of testes--of their own, anyway--and anyone who tells you girls aren't as good at it is simply a few semicolons short of a successful compile. How exactly would we do that? Well, same way you get boys interested: raise awareness, incentivize, and above all, make it fun. Games are a great starting point, as are other non-stodgy stuff like social networking or multimedia. And try this angle: writing code is a form of creation, like art, music, or literature. Pitch it to the creative types as a medium--like watercolors or clay or the cello--and tell them that they can use it to generate things from the mundane to the outrageous; from the practical to the beautiful and everything between. And you can make a living at it. It's certainly easier trying to get paid for coding than it is for, say, sculpting.

The great advances we're seeing right here in North Adams and across western Massachusetts with laptops and connectivity should just be the tip of the iceberg. It is a good step to give our kids computers and teach them how to be end-users. It would be a GREAT step to teach them how to be programmers. It's so obviously the right thing to do that I'm really seriously interested in hearing from people who disagree with me on this, to see what sort of possible crackpot argument there could be against it.

And this is the perfect medium for it. Thank God for the Internet, eh? Well, no--thank a bunch of programmers.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


I thought the big news on the personal front this month was going to be the swapout of the old car for the new one, but the truth is much sadder than that. Last Monday the 5th, I got a call from my mother informing me of my father's passing.

The week that followed was pretty tough, as I'm sure anyone who's gone through it can attest. Like many of my gender I am not comfortable with big displays of emotion, and this sort of thing is just a minefield of grief and gratitude and compassion and concern, and boy, did I step on all of them.

I miss my father. I worry about my mother. I am grateful to my kind and caring wife and to all of my friends and family who've taken the time to console and commiserate. I grieve that my child will only know my father as an abstraction. I am soothed by the knowledge that his last moments were spent outside the house he had proudly bought and maintained with his own two hands for 39 years, on a warm spring evening, putting pebbles in the bottom of a window box into which he was about to plant a bunch of four o'clocks.

At the end of the day, though, there's no silver lining to it; no overarching life lesson to be gleaned; no redemption after having come out the other side. It's just sadness, and loss, and the unfailing presence of a hole in your soul that cannot ever be repaired.

Well...maybe there are a few things. Maybe there's some perspective to be gained, about appreciating life and the people in it (some of them, anyway). Or maybe there's a newfound appreciation for legacy and family. And the gaining of empathy. Or at the very least, you never have to dread that the next phone call from home will be the one that bears that particular Bad News.

But that is cold comfort, each thought more bitter than the last, and without even an imagined hint of sweet. The only thing I can reasonably do is simply what my father would have wanted me to do: live on fearlessly, raise my family lovingly, and teach my children to be as hard working, honest, and honorable as he wanted me to be.

So that's what I will do.

That, and I will plant those four o'clocks, opening up to face the sun on golden summer afternoons, in his memory.