Tracy's blog

I’m Tracy Au and I have graduated from the Professional Writing program from university. I am an aspiring screenwriter, so this blog is used to promote my writing and attract people who will hire me to write for your TV show or movie. I write a lot about writing, TV, movies, jokes, and my daily life and opinions. I have another blog promoting my TV project at

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"Dispelling tech's myth of the loner genius"/ coding education

Aug. 16, 2017 "Dispelling tech's myth of the loner genius": Today I found this article by Claire Cain Miller in the Globe and Mail

Computer-programmer stereotype can deter talented coders from industry that demands teamwork, communication and empathy

The Google engineer who was fired last week over his memo wrote that most women were biologically unsuited to working in tech because they were more focused on “feelings and aesthetics than ideas” and had “a stronger interest in people rather than things.”

Many scientists have said he got the biology wrong. But the job requirements of today’s programmers show he was also wrong about working in tech.

In fact, interpersonal skills such as collaboration, communication, empathy and emotional intelligence are essential to the job. The myth that programming is done by loner men who think only rationally and communicate only with their computers harms the tech industry in ways that cut straight to the bottom line.

The loner stereotype can deter talented people from the industry – not just women, but anyone who thinks that sounds like an unattractive job description. It can also result in dysfunctional teams and poorly performing products. Empathy, after all, is crucial to understanding consumers’ desires, and its absence leads to product mistakes.

Take digital assistants, such as Google Home or Amazon Echo. Their programmers need to be able to imagine a huge variety of home situations, whether households with roommates or abusive spouses or children – as made clear when a child ordered a $160 (U.S.) dollhouse and four pounds of sugar cookies on the Echo.

“Basically every step is very collaborative,” said Tracy Chou, who was an engineer at Pinterest and Quora and is now working on startups. “Building a big software system, you could have dozens or hundreds or thousands of engineers working on the same code base, and everything still has to work together.”

She added, “But not everyone is the same, and that’s where empathy and broader diversity really help.”

The memo distinguished between empathizing with other people’s feelings and analyzing and constructing systems, and said coding is about the latter. But it requires both, as do most of the jobs that are increasing in number and in wages, according to economic research.

Jobs that require a combination of math and social skills – such as computer science, financial management and nursing – have fared best in the modern economy, found David Deming, a professor at Harvard.

It’s true that programming can be a solitary activity in college computer science classes or entry-level positions. But soon after, it’s impossible to avoid teamwork – with the business or legal departments, but also with other engineers.

Computer programming was originally considered a woman’s job. Women were programmers of the ENIAC during the Second World War and at NASA, as shown in the film Hidden Figures. That began to change when programming professionalized in the 1960s. The stereotype of an eccentric genius who would rather work with machines than people was born, according to Nathan Ensmenger, a historian at Indiana University who studies the cultural history of the software industry.

Yet, that was never an accurate description of the job. It was social from the beginning, in university computer labs and, later, Silicon Valley garages, he said. The social circle just didn’t include women.

“For a lot of these young men, a certain computer culture becomes an expression of masculinity,” he said. “These are people who aren’t doing physical labour, aren’t playing professional sports.

But they can express their masculinity by intense competition, playing pranks on one another, demonstrating their technical prowess, in ways that don’t translate well to mixed-gender environments.”

The mythology of the antisocial programmer is self-perpetuating, said Yonatan Zunger, a senior engineering leader at Google until this month, when he joined Humu, a startup.

Early on, children who are less comfortable with social interaction – particularly boys, who are more likely to be socialized that way – are channelled toward science and engineering, he said. Teachers generally focus on the technical aspects and not the interpersonal ones. The result is a field filled with people who dislike social interactions and have been rewarded for it.

Silicon Valley culture encourages it. Google calls engineers who aren’t managers “individual contributors.” Technical skills are valued above soft skills or business skills. “Anyone who deals with a human being is considered less intelligent,” said Ellen Ullman, a software programmer and author of a new book, Life in Code.

“You would think it would be the other way around, but the more your work is just talking to the machine, the more valuable it is.”

Problems arise when engineers get to a point in their careers when they’re required to demonstrate social skills, Mr. Zunger said, such as understanding diverse points of view, building consensus and reading people’s subtle cues. “Suddenly they’re told that these skills that are their weak point might be really important,” he said. “Their own value is in question.”

In the tech industry, the lack of interpersonal skills has become a weakness and a liability.
Technical skills without empathy have resulted in products that have bombed in the market, because a vital step to building a product is the ability to imagine how someone else might think and feel.

“The failure rate in software development is enormous, but it almost never means the code doesn’t work,” Mr. Ensmenger said. “It doesn’t solve the problem that actually exists, or it imagines a user completely different from actual users.”

With Google Glass, for example, it was a technical feat to make a tiny computer you could wear as a pair of glasses. But the product wasn’t one that typical people needed or wanted.
When Apple introduced its Health app, it tracked sleep, exercise, food, medications and heart rate, but not menstrual cycle. Yet, period trackers are one of the most used health tools for women. (The app now includes it.)

Google Plus, the company’s social network, initially required that users make public their name, photo and gender. There was a technical argument for including gender – to construct sentences such as “She shared a photo with you” – but it also exposed women to online harassment.

“The team that made this decision was entirely male,” said Mr. Zunger, who was the chief architect of social networking at Google at the time. “It was a really clear case of getting things wrong, for the simple reason that the people in the room weren’t diverse enough to notice an obvious problem.”

When engineers build products with empathy, it can seem like magic: Technology seems to predict what people want before they know they want it. That was part of Steve Jobs’s genius. Just look at the number of people connected to their phones.

One way to develop empathy at companies is by hiring diverse teams, because people bring different perspectives and life experiences. But the more widespread the stereotypes like those in the Google memo, the harder it becomes.

When people hear negative stereotypes about the skills of a group to which they belong, they are less likely to pursue those skills, according to a variety of research. In a study by Shelley Correll, a sociologist at Stanford, when participants were told that men had a higher ability to complete a task, women said they were less competent at the task and less likely to enter a field that required it. When they were told that men and women were equally good at it, those differences disappeared.

“That nerd identity is really damaging to women,” Mr. Ensmenger said, “but it’s also damaging to minorities and to a lot of men who don’t want to subsume their identity in that.”
That’s why the consequences of the Google engineer’s memo could reach far beyond the particular case, influencing which young people choose to go into technology, and which products they make that affect every aspect of our lives.

Aug. 26, 2017 "Coding education reboots as camps close": Today I found this article by Steve Lohr in the Globe and Mail:

The existing business model for digital skills development is in flux as purveyors find industry requirements of graduates are shifting

In the past five years, dozens of schools have popped up offering an unusual promise: Even humanities graduates can learn how to code in a few months and join the high-paying digital economy. Students and their hopeful parents shelled out as much as $26,000 (U.S.) seeking to jumpstart a career.

But the coding boot-camp field now faces a sobering moment, as two large schools in the United States have announced plans to shut down this year – despite backing by major for-profit education companies, Kaplan and the Apollo Education Group, the parent of the University of Phoenix.

The closings are a sign that years of heady growth led to a boot-camp glut, and that the field could be in the early stages of a shakeout.

“You can imagine this becoming a big industry, but not for 90 companies,” said Michael Horn, a principal consultant at Entangled Solutions, an education research and consulting firm.

The demand from employers is shifting and the schools must adapt. Many boot camps have not evolved beyond courses in basic web development, but companies are now often looking for more advanced coding skills.

One of the casualties, Dev Bootcamp, was a pioneer. It started in San Francisco in 2012 and grew to six schools with more than 3,000 graduates. Only three years ago, Kaplan, the biggest supplier of test-preparation courses, bought Dev Bootcamp and pledged bold expansion.

It is now closing at the end of the year.

Also closing is the Iron Yard, a boot camp that was founded in Greenville, S.C., in 2013 and swiftly spread to 15 campuses, from Las Vegas to Washington. Its main financial backer is the Apollo Education Group.

Since 2013, the number of bootcamp schools in the United States has tripled to more than 90 and the number of graduates will reach nearly 23,000 in 2017, a 10fold jump from 2013, according to Course Report, which tracks the industry.

Tarlin Ray, who became president of Dev Bootcamp in April, said in an e-mail that the school offered “a high-quality program” that helped thousands of people join the high-tech economy. “But we were simply unable to find a sustainable business model,” he wrote.

Iron Yard echoed that theme. In an e-mail, Lelia King, a spokeswoman, said that while students benefited, the company was “ultimately unable to sustain our current business model.”

Boot-camp courses, aimed at adults, vary in length and cost. Some can take 26 weeks or more, and tuition can reach $26,000. The average course length is a little more than 14 weeks and the average cost is $11,400, according to Course Report.

The successful schools, analysts say, will increasingly be ones that expand their programs to suit the changing needs of employers. Some have already added courses such as data science, artificial intelligence, digital marketing and project management. Other steps include tailoring courses for corporations, who need to update the skills of their workers, or develop online courses.

Ryan Craig, a managing director at University Ventures, which invests in education startups, including Galvanize, a large boot camp, predicted that the overall market would still grow. But students, he said, would become more concentrated in the schools with the best reputations and job-placement rates.

The promise of boot camps is that they are on-ramps to good jobs. But rapid expansion into new cities can leave little time to forge ties with nearby companies, the hiring market for boot-camp graduates, said Liz Eggleston, cofounder of Course Report.

That message was underlined by Mr. Ray of Dev Bootcamp. While he would not discuss specifics about what happened to his school, he wrote: “We do think that as the boot-camp industry continues on, it will be important to create stronger alignment with employers.”

Some boot camps cater directly to corporate customers. General Assembly, which operates 20 coding campuses and has raised $119-million in venture financing, now works with more than 100 large companies on programs to equip their employees with digital skills

“Employer-paid programs are now a big slice of the pie” for General Assembly, about half of its business, said Jake Schwartz, its chief executive.

At Galvanize, Jim Deters, the chairman, said he recently stepped aside as chief executive to concentrate on getting more business from corporations. This year, Galvanize will have 2,000 students who pay their own tuition, and about 1,500 people in its programs tailored to – and paid for by – companies such as IBM, Allstate and McKesson.

“The business reskilling marketplace has become one of our biggest drivers of growth,” Mr. Deters said.

Kaplan is not closing Metis, a data science boot camp, which has corporate training programs.

Several boot camps are deploying “blended” models with both in-person and online teaching. Entirely online courses, in theory, could deliver rapid, profitable growth. But that is a different model from the immersive, faceto-face learning that has been the hallmark of the boot-camp experience.

“Online boot camp is an oxymoron,” said Mr. Craig of University Ventures. “No one has figured out how to do that yet.”

The Flatiron School in New York may have discovered one path. Founded in 2012, Flatiron has a single campus in downtown Manhattan and its main offering is a 15-week immersive coding program with a $15,000 price tag. More than 95 per cent of its 1,000 graduates there have landed coding jobs.


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