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The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.

On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.

Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.

Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**

Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.

Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.

There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.

There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.

It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.

There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.

When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****

If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sectors/technology/net-results-digital-economy-begins-with-teaching-kids-coding-1.1340843
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/could-inaccurate-use-of-the-term-tech-sector-be-misguiding-education-policy/
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/
**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/
***** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

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http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2012/0628/1224318887148.html

A complex computer system has spectacularly crashed with spectacular consequences. I’m sure that there are IT failures of this type very regularly. This one has received public attention for obvious reasons.

Reaction to it, however, has at times seemed crazy, especially the demands and deadlines for it to be fixed. There seems little appreciation of engineering reality. There is moreover the likelihood that senior managers share this blinkered perspective and have taken decisions based on “best practice” in financial and administrative terms.

It is completely daft to demand that it be fixed, to try to impose deadlines for its being fixed or to enquire into in isolation. This is a breakdown, a failure, no one knows exactly what caused it and no one knows exactly when it will be fixed.

Here’s a reasonable news article setting out the difficulties: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/jun/25/how-natwest-it-meltdown?fb=optOut

In detail it is complex. And, we find ourselves a long way down the road in terms of dependence on these systems. The fundamental issues are however simple. Over the years basic mistakes have been made by senior managers who did not realise what they were doing and were under pressure from competitors. The public was uninvolved because the issue was thought to be too complex for public discussion. That’s how elites take control and that’s often ok when those taking control really do know what they are doing.

Take this from the Guardian article linked above:  “This was not inevitable – you can always avoid problems like this if you test sufficiently,” said David Silverstone, delivery and solutions manager for NMQA, which provides automated testing software to a number of banks, though not RBS/NatWest. “But unless you keep an army of people who know exactly how the system works, there may be problems maintaining it.”

Here’s something worth bearing in mind. Despite stunning improvements in testing, anything beyond the most basic software CANNOT be fully tested before it is put into service because the number of variables is too great.  That’s why David Silverstone said “sufficiently” and not “fully”. The user runs with it and hopes for the best. “Software maintenance” has always been a risible concept. What it means is that the customer runs the tests as day to day usage and pays the developer to patch whatever is discovered. It’s not a scam; there’s no other way.

The problem now is compounded in that complex programmes are being run in parallel with and on top of older applications. The last couple of decades saw a problematic coincidence.  At a time when the overall systems became more complex and more ambitious there was a management fashion to offload not IT operators but real software developers and to buy in “turn-key” applications which may have been modified to give the appearance of bespoke systems. It’s a recipe for profound crashes, and everyone in engineering generally and anyone who has given serious thought to complex systems has been watching it develop over the years.

In most large organisations there are problems such as this waiting to happen. There’s no easy fix at this stage; we are too far gone. Fundamentally wrong management decisions have been made and cannot be undone quickly or perhaps at all.