The Zeitgeist of the Coder

When I go to see a film with my wife, we always stick around for the credits, and the list has got longer and longer over the years … Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Stuntman, Grips, Special Effects … and we’ve only just started. Five minutes later and we are still watching the credits! There is something admirable about this respect for the different contributions made to the end product. The degree of differentiation of competence in a film’s credits is something that few other projects can match.

Now imagine the film reel for a typical IT project … Project Manager, Business Analyst, Systems Architect, Coder, Tester and we’re almost done, get your coat. Here, there is the opposite extreme; a complete failure to identify, recognise and document the different competencies that surely must exist in something as complex as a software project. Why is this?

For many, the key role on this very short credits list is the ‘coder’. There is this zeitgeist of the coders – a modern day priesthood – that conflates their role with every other conceivable role that could or should exist on the roll of honour.

A good analogy for this would be the small scale general builder. They imagine they can perform any skill: they can fit a waterproof membrance on a flat roof; they can repair the leadwork around the chimney; they can mend the lime mortar on that Cotswold stone property. Of course, each of these requires deep knowledge and experience of the materials, tools and methods needed to plan and execute them right.  A generalist will overestimate their abilities and underestimate the difficulties, and so they will always make mistakes.

The all purpose ‘coder’ is no different, but has become the touchstone for our digital rennaissance. ‘Coding’ is the skill that trumps all others in the minds of the commentariat.

Politicians, always keen to jump on the next bandwagon, have for some years now been falling over themselves to extol the virtues of coding as a skill that should be promoted in schools, in order to advance the economy.  Everyone talks about it, imagining it offers a kind of holy grail for growing the digital economy.  But can it be true? Is coding really the path to wealth and glory, for our children and our economy?

Forgetting for a moment that coding is just one of the skills required on a longer list of credits, why do we all need to become one?

Not everyone is an automotive engineer, even though cars are ubiquitous, so why would driving a car mean we all have to be able to design and build one? Surely only a few of us need that skill. In fact, whilst cars – in the days when we called them old bangers – did require a lot of roadside fixing, they are now so good we are discouraged from tinkering with them at all.  We the consumers have become de-skilled, while the cars have become super-skilled.

But apparently, every kid now needs to be able to code, because we all use Apps. Of course, it’s nonsense, for much the same reasons it is nonsense that all car drivers need to be automotive engineers. And as we decarbonise our economy Electric Vehicles will take over, placing many of the automotive skills in the dustbin. Battery engineers anyone?

So why is this even worth discussing in the context of the knowledge economy? We do need to understand if coding has any role in the management of our information and knowledge, and if not, what are the skills we require. We need to know how many engineers are required, and crucially, what type of engineers.

But lets stick with ‘coding’ for a little while longer. I would like to take you back to the very birth of computing, to deconstruct the wording ‘coding’ and place into context. The word coding originates the time when programming a computer meant knowing the very basic operations expressed as ‘machine code’ – Move a byte to this memory location, Add these two bytes, Shift everything left by 2 bytes – which was completely indecipherable to the uninitiated. It also had a serious drawback in that a program would have to be re-written to run on another machine, with its own particular machine code. Since computers were evolving fast, and software needed to be migrated from old to new machines, this was clearly problematic.

Grace Hooper came up with the idea of a compiler in 1952, quite early in the development of computers. Programs would then be written in a machine-agnostic ‘high level language’ (which was designed to be readable, almost like a natural language, but with a simple syntax to  allow logic to be expressed … If (A = B) Then [do-this] Else [do-that]). A compiler on a machine would take a program written in a high-level language and ‘compile’ it into the machine code that could run on that machine.  The same program could thereby run on all machines.

In place of ‘coders’ writing programs in machine code, there were now ‘programmers’ doing this in high-level language such as Cobol or FORTRAN (both of which were invented in the 1950s), and later ones as they evolved.

So why people still talk about ‘coders’ rather than ‘programmers’ is a mystery to me. Were it just an annoying misnomer, one could perhaps ignore it as an irritant, but it reveals a deeper and more serious misunderstanding.

Coding … I mean Programming … is not enough, in so many ways.  When the politician pictures a youthful ‘coder’ in their bedroom, they imagine the next billionaire creating an App that will revolutionize another area of our lives, like Amazon and Uber have done.

But it is by no means clear that programming as currently understood, is the right skill  for the knowledge economy.  As Gottfried Sehringer wrote in an article “Should we really try to teach everyone to code?” in WiRED, even within the narrow context of building Apps:

“In order to empower everyone to build apps, we need to focus on bringing greater abstraction and automation to the app development process. We need to remove code — and all its complexity — from the equation.”

In other words, just as Grace Hooper saw the need to move from Coding to Programming, we need to move from Programming to something else. Let’s call it Composing: a visually interactive way to construct Apps with minimal need to write lines of text to express logical operations. Of course, just as Hooper faced resistance from the Coders, who poured scorn on the dumbing down of their art, the same will happen with the Programmers, who will claim it cannot be done.

But the world of digital is much greater than the creation of ‘Apps’. The vast majority of the time spent doing IT in this world is in implementing pre-built commercial packages.  If one is implementing them as intended, then they are configured using quite simple configuration tools that aim to eliminate the need to do any programming at all. Ok, so someone in SAP or Oracle or elsewhere had to program the applications in the software package, but they are a relatively small population of technical staff when compared to the numbers who go out to implement these solutions in the field.

Of course it can all go wrong, and often does. I am thinking of a bank that was in trouble because their creaking old core banking system – written in COBOL decades ago by programmers in the bank – was no longer fit for purpose. Every time changes were made to financial legislation, such as tax, the system needed tweaking. But it was now a mess, and when one bug was fixed, another took its place.

So the company decided to implement an off-the-shelf package, which would do everything they needed, and more. The promise was the ability to become a  really ‘agile’ bank. They would be able to introduce new products to market rapidly in response to market needs or to respond to new legislation. It would take just a few weeks, rather than the 6 months it was currently taking. All they needed to do was to do some configurations of the package so that it would work just as they needed it too.

The big bosses approved the big budget then left everyone to it. They kept on being told everything was going well, and so much wanted to believe this, so failed to ask the right questions of the team. Well, guess what, it was a complete disaster. After 18 months and everything running over time and over budget, what emerged?  The departmental managers had insisted on keeping all the functionality from their beloved but creaking old system; the big consultancy was being paid for man-hours of programming so did not seem to mind that the off-shored programmers were having to stretch and bend the new package out of shape to make it look like the old system. And the internal project management was so weak, they were unable to call out the issues, even if they had fully understood them.

Instead of merely configuration, the implementation had large chunks of custom programming bolted onto the package, making it just as unstable and difficult to maintain as the old system. Worse still, it made it very difficult to upgrade the package; to install the latest version (to derive benefits from new features), given the way it had been implemented. There was now a large support bill just to keep the new behmoth alive.

In a sense, nothing had changed.

Far from ‘coding’ being the great advance for our economy, it is often, as in this sorry tale, a great drag on it, because this is how many large system implementations fail.

Schools, Colleges and Universities train everyone to ‘code’, so what will they do when in the field? Like a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, even when a precision milling machine was the right tool to use.

Shouldn’t the student be taught how to reframe their thinking to use different skills that are appropriate to the task in hand? Today we have too many Coders and not enough Composers, and its seems everyone is to blame, because we are all seduced by this zeitgeist of the ‘coder’.

When we consider the actual skills needed to implement, say, a large, data-oriented software package – like that banking package – one finds that activities needed are, for example: Requirements Analysis, Data Modelling, Project Management, Testing, Training, and yes of course, Composing.  Programming should be restricted to those areas such as data interfaces to other systems, where it must be quarantined, so as not to undermine the upgradeability of the software package that has been deployed.

So what are the skills required to define and deploy information management solutions, which are document-oriented, aimed at capturing, preserving and reusing the knowledge within an organization?

Let the credits roll: Project Manager; Information Strategist; Business Analyst; Process Architect; Information Architect; Taxonomist; Meta-Data Manager; Records Manager; Archivist; Document Management Expert; Document Designer; Data Visualizer; Package Configurer; Website Composer; … and not a Coder, or even a Programmer, in sight.

The vision of everyone becoming coders is not only the wrong answer to the question; its also the wrong question. The diversity of backgrounds needed to build a knowledge economy is very great. It is a world beyond ‘coding’ which is richer and more interesting, open to those with backgrounds in software of course, but also in science and the humanities. We need linguists as much as it we need engineers; philosophers as much we need data analysts; lawyers as much as we need graphics artists.

To build a true ‘knowledge economy’ worthy of that name, we need to differentiate and explore a much richer range of competencies to address all the issues we will face than the way in which information professionals are narrowly defined today.

(C) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

——

Note:

In his essay I am referring to business and institutional applications of information management. Of course there will be areas such as scientific research or military systems which will always require heavy duty, specialist software engineering; but this is another world when compared to the vast need in institutions for repeatable solutions to common problems, where other skills are argued to be much more relevant and important to success.

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Filed under Essay, Information Management, Software Development

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