Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Educational bits and bytes

I read with pleasure today that the Government seems to be finally waking up to the realisation that you can't actually operate a modern country inhabited only by people who studied politics, classics or media studies. You need a few people that can create stuff! The skills shortage in this country for talented computer scientists and programmers is chronic. I run my own software business and I'm looking for people all the time, I might realistically see 2 or 3 really good CV's per year and whilst the rest aren't necessarily bad they often need a lot of investment before becoming fully productive and even then, most aren't tuned into what you need to be an "innovator".

Education in information technology these days seems to be limited to something called "ICT" which to me looks confined to learning how to operate computer software (mostly MS Office) that other people create rather than learning to create it for yourself. For those not au fait with all this stuff the closest analogy I can think of is that it's like teaching English by instructing children in reading but not writing. Of course no one would seriously create their own word processing software on a whim just because they need to compose an email, just as it's true that not everyone is a William Shakespeare, but I believe the real challenge for us is not so much an operational one, it's about innovation.

Software is at the heart of most things these days, most of it invisible and unseen, but over the last 20 years it has gradually crept in unnoticed. Everyday items like cars, washing machines, phones, TV's all contains tons of it and more and more we live big parts of our private and working lives in the virtual world of the internet using tools like email, business systems, social networking applications and consuming  music, books, films etc.. If we lose the skills required to author original software then we lose the ability to fully compete in the market for most new products and services because most things have software in them! Sure, we can "outsource" but since software is so fundamental to most things (it's not like a paint-job) then over time we simply become a workforce of managers and accountants shuffling foreign resources around in applications written by Indians and Bulgarians. I have a couple of concerns with this approach, firstly it's no fun! where is the job satisfaction? and secondly what happens when the people who control the means of production decide that they'd prefer to manage themselves or want to take a bigger slice of the action, what leverage will we have?

I think it's a great idea that we teach kids how to write software, not just software of course, we need to teach them to build models, write stories, paint pictures and tinker with engines, this is the essence of innovation, not just in the field of computer science but in every field! Whilst consumption can be very satisfying, I for one certainly don't want to just "consume" and whilst obviously innovation and invention isn't for everyone, unless we allow kids to try it they'll never know.

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