Software Development Literacy – Wave of the Future or Doomsday Device?

A few months ago, I read a newspaper article – which unfortunately I can’t find – about the idea that software development literacy may someday seem as normal as reading literacy is today. I didn’t think it was far-fetched at all. In today’s world *everyone* touches a computer in some way, even if it’s only the chip that runs the fare collector on public transportation. (This isn’t a discussion about rich and poor – I tried to come up with the most benign example I could. Admittedly, it’s more a first world example.)

Today there was an article in the Boston Globe about a company called FreeCause here in Boston that is doing something unique. The story explained that…

…29-year-old company chief executive Michael Jaconi told all 60 of his employees that they had to learn the programming language JavaScript. The idea is not to turn everyone into an engineer, but to give employees — from accountants to designers to salespeople — a better understanding of what goes into developing the company’s software.

Jaconi’s initiative is a recognition that technology has inserted itself into almost every aspect of modern life, and it’s a subject people increasingly need to know. In many companies, technology often creates barriers that separate technical from nontechnical workers.   “There’s a pretty big divide between engineers and nonengineers, and what I wanted to do was bring those two camps closer together,” said Jaconi, a serial entrepreneur and former political campaign worker who is learning to code along with his employees. “I thought that this would facilitate more efficiency, bring teams closer together, and ultimately make our company perform better.”

Oddly, unless I’m really out of it, there’s a bug in the example the article showed in one of the accompanying pictures. Bonus points if you spot it.

Learning JavaScript

Image from the Boston Globe Web site

I tweeted a link. (Through the wonders of HootSuite – the awesome social media tool I prefer over all the others – I also posted it to Facebook and LinkedIn at the same time.)

The fastest response I got on Twitter was from my friend Dan Antion (@DAntion):

I expected I’d hear something similar from a good number of the developers who follow me on Twitter, and eventually I did hear from quite a few with what amounted to disparaging comments about the idea. At best they were, like Dan’s, a sort of “uh-oh”.

I think it’s more complex than that initial reaction and also more important. Let me explain my thoughts.

As a consultant, I am paid to be an expert in some things. What many of my clients don’t realize, though, is that because I don’t specialize in any particular industry and I’ve been in consulting a very long time, I also have to know at least something about a lot of things: car manufacturing, stock trading, theme parks, higher education, pharmaceutical discovery, and the list goes on. (Those are all examples of real projects I’ve worked on over the years.) I have enough humility to know that I’m not an expert in fields out of my chosen one, but I have to know *something* about others in order to advise in a useful way and to write useful solutions.

Think about your major in college. Do you “do” that thing now as your everyday activity? I majored in Mathematics, and it’s pretty rare that I “do” math. I studied all kinds of things in college: psychology, chemistry, film making, rocks for jocks [geology], etc. I don’t “do” any of those things on a daily or even yearly basis. But I’ll argue with anyone who says that a liberal arts education – wherein one studies a wide range of things – doesn’t add up to a well-rounded, multi-talented individual. (Full disclosure: my major was actually called “Computer Mathematics”. The last time I came up with an interesting, computer-based  way to factor primes was in college, though.)

Another thing I’ve seen over my years of consulting is that, generally speaking, the teams that I’ve seen be most effective share some traits. They are usually cross-functional, highly motivated, and inquisitive about each other’s knowledge. I’d take a team with those traits over specific, homogeneous knowledge any day. Note that I mentioned “inquisitive about each other’s knowledge”. That means that they want to learn a little something about what the others know. This helps them to work together more effectively.

As software development becomes more and more pervasive, what’s wrong with everyone having basic literacy in it?

We might be able to interact with technical customer support better. We may be able to understand what to do or not do to avoid infecting our computers with viruses. We may be able to save unending time by not doing things that cause our work to be lost, requiring us to recreate it. We might understand what we’re asking each other for just a little bit better, making us more able to collaborate on the important parts of the task at hand rather than level setting every time.

Simple programming knowledge (I almost said “basic programming knowledge”, but that would be too specific) is an excellent idea. To apply knowledge management principles to “using a computer”, if we can identify what the key things the high performers know that make them good at it and can teach the low performers just a scintilla of that knowledge, everyone’s competency rises. By knowing something about what’s going on under the hood, I posit we all become better digital denizens.

Also note that nothing in the article said that the accountant or the salesperson has to become a software developer. They just have to learn the basics – enough for “every FreeCause employee develop a product such as a Web page or toolbar component that could potentially be integrated into the company’s loyalty rewards software.” That’s potentially. Not definitely, and not absolutely.

I’m going to go with Jaconi’s idea as a wave of the future, and one I welcome. There’s plenty of other stuff to worry about in the doomsday category, and this isn’t one of them.

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