Everyone needs to know how to program, or not

A common refrain I’ve heard over the years is “everyone needs to know how to program”. Computers are pervasive in both work and leisure. Knowing how to make them do what the humans want is valuable both from a practical standpoint and from a financial standpoint. But does everyone really need to know how to program?

This topic has been on my list for a long time, but I got a convenient nudge on Twitter earlier this week. My friend, speaking about science communication, exactly captured my feelings:

The spectrum of computer skills is very broad. At the high end is computer science (which doesn’t necessarily translate to practical computer usage skills). As my friend Dave describes it, CS “is a branch of mathematics built around complexity.” This is clearly beyond the level that everyone needs. At the low end is basic computer literacy like using standard desktop software. That seems to be a safe bar for “everyone”.

So we know the high end is too high. The low end is a bare minimum. Where’s right spot in the space between those two extremes? I’m inclined to lean toward the low end. Programming, and thus automation, has applications in almost every profession. But that doesn’t mean it’s a key skill for every profession. In my current job, I have almost no need for programming skills. Basic use and troubleshooting of the applications I use is all I need. I wouldn’t tell someone looking to get into product marketing to not learn programming, but I wouldn’t say they have to in order to be successful in the role.

I’m generally skeptical of using the education system as vocational training. Especially in fast-moving fields like technology, curricula can’t keep up with the changes in the field. How much of what you teach a 7th grader about programming in a particular language will be relevant by the time they enter the work force? At best, you can teach broad concepts.

If you asked me what’s driving this push for coding in the classroom, I’d say it’s two things. First, policymakers who don’t understand technology themselves see this as a way to drive economic growth and help the fortunes of their constituents. Second, technology companies are seeing a shortage of workers with the skills they want and so are looking to get the public to fund their job training programs. I don’t see similar efforts to teach electrical or plumbing work to everyone, even though they’re both well-paid and also highly practical to those outside the profession.

So let’s put more computer literacy into the curriculum. But let’s not assume that means programming. If anything involving computers and education needs to change, it’s that computer science and programming curricula need to include ethics courses.

Sidebar: one area where programming in education may help

The main area I see a true benefit for adding programming into primary and secondary education is helping under-indexed minorities get involved. Tech has more than just a “pipeline problem”, to be sure. But while the cultural problems are worked on, it can only help to get more under-indexed minorities interested. If nothing else, it will help dilute the bros.

You’re an SEO company

Business owners, regardless of their industry, often view themselves in terms of what their business does. “We’re a bookstore, a coffee shop, a web design company,” or whatever goods or services that customers pay money for. But a recent conversation made me realize that most small businesses in a mature market are really a search engine optimization (SEO) company.

Okay, there are a few caveats here. I’m thinking of mature markets as fields where there are many small or small-ish players that are attempting to serve a large number of users. Think generally of the early and late majority sections of the technology adoption life cycle. Ride sharing, for example, is out of scope. It’s pretty solidly in the middle of the bell curve, but it has three players: Uber, Lyft, and everyone else.

The subject of the conversation was a VPN service. A friend was using VPN software and observed that it would be easy to share his server with others for a fee. All the other challenges of running a business aside, I immediately asked what his differentiation is.

VPN services may not be mainstream exactly, but the market is mainstream enough. And there are a lot of players with no one particularly dominant. So how does a new entry set itself apart? There’s a little bit of room to differentiate on price, location, service, etc, but not much. So the best way to differentiate and get new customers is to be better at search engine optimization than the rest of the field.

In essence, making a business successful requires skills entirely unrelated to the business itself. When you can’t easily differentiate your product, you have to differentiate your marketing.

Disrupting our way to the old days

My coworker recently shared an article from The Economist about changes in insurance. As more workers forego traditional employment to participate in the so-called “gig economy”, they find they’re in need of insurance. So companies are working with insurance companies to provide part-time insurance coverage.

Some of these cases make sense. Couriers are ride share drivers may not have auto insurance that covers their job-related use of the car. A pay-per-minute model of relevant insurance that’s in effect when the app is in use makes sense. What I struggle to understand is how coverage “against illness, disability and death” works under such a model.  The article mentions an agreement between Uber and an insurance broker that charges on a per-mile basis, but is coverage similarly rated?

But what gets me is how this brings the gig economy a little closer to traditional jobs. Gig economy companies have fought very hard to have participants labeled as contractors, not employees. But by offering benefits, aren’t they weakening that claim? In the same way that ride sharing companies have re-discovered the concept of buses, I look forward to the day when they’re indistinguishable from traditional employers. Of course, they’ll find a way to boast about how disruptive their 401(k) matching and generous paid time off plans are.

Be like Harry

Editor’s note: This is a lightly-edited version of the introduction to my most recent newsletter. I’m reproducing it here in the interests of having #content on this blog and because Harry Anderson meant more to me than I realized.

Last week was rough for famous people. R. Lee Ermey, Carl Kasell, Barbara Bush, Avicii, and Verne Troyer all passed away. But one name stood out for me: Harry Anderson. I first got to “know” Harry when I was young. My parents would often watch the TV series “Dave’s World”. Since we only had one TV, that meant I watched it, too. I have no real memories of the show, but I remember being amused by it.

The memory that sticks out most is a recollection from a road trip to visit my grandfather in Florida. It was a two-day drive for us, and I remember one particular time we stopped in a motel on the way down. My parents turned the TV on to distract us kids while they got the room ready and the toothbrushes unpacked. I saw Harry Anderson and said “oh good! ‘Dave’s World’ is on.” It was actually “Night Court”.

Years later, I began watching “Night Court” in earnest, largely through clips on YouTube until my wife started a tradition of buying me a season on DVD for each Gift-Giving Occasion™. The show is an absolute gem of popular culture. Some of the jokes were probably funnier 30 years ago, but most of it holds up well.

Part of what makes it so great is Anderson as the goofball Judge Stone. Stone is not perfect – he’s a real jerk sometimes – but he’s fundamentally a decent person who wants to do right by everyone. Harry Stone had the ability to see the best in people and bring it out of them. Funny one moment, sappy the next, Harry Stone wasn’t just someone you could aspire to be, he was someone you could be.

I don’t know what Harry Anderson was like as a person, but I’d like to think he was a lot like his Harry Stone character. I think we should all be a little more like Harry Stone.

The lies we tell ourselves

Not long ago, I was catching up with a friend who lives overseas. She works for an environmental non-profit, and she’s a believer in their mission. At some point in our wandering, hour-long conversation, she mentioned how she doesn’t do something she knows she should. But it’s okay because of where she works. It balances out right?

I agreed with her somewhat self-deprecating observation. I tend to be a pragmatic guy, and I understand that we can’t do all the things we should do, even in support of the causes we care about. I said “oh, the lies we tell ourselves.” And maybe it is a lie, but it can be a necessary lie.

My family primarily uses a hybrid car. We recycle heavily and compost our food waste. We keep the house cool in the winter and warm in the summer. We line dry our clothes. it’s okay that we waste energy sometimes, right? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But we tell ourselves that it is because otherwise we’d go mad. It’s always possible to do a little bit more.

In a similar vein, I often tell myself lies about work. I got a degree in meteorology partly out of self-interest (storms are cool!) but also because meteorologists do important work that save people’s lives. When I ended up working in IT instead, I told myself that it was better that way. Sure, I could be a reasonably competent forecaster and do my part. But by supporting researchers at the university, I was enabling people much smarter than me to do work that could have a much broader impact.

When I left my departmental sysadmin job for a role on the central research computing group, that impact became even larger. I wasn’t making a direct impact, but there were now hundreds of professors and graduate students working to solve real problems not only in meteorology but in engineering, agriculture, and more.

And then I left for the private sector. While my company was enabling life sciences researchers to develop new pharmaceuticals and study genetics, most of the customers I worked closely with were in financial services. I was helping insurance companies make slightly more money. Now that I work in marketing, I’m even further removed from the work that makes the world a better place.

But I still find ways to convince myself that I’m taking my meager skills and using them to magnify the work of those smarter than me in order to make the world a better place. I have to or else I’ll go mad.

The economics of bourbon

Could President Trump’s proposed tariffs help bourbon drinkers? Maybe! I’m no whiskeyologist, nor am I an economist, but this plays out sensibly in my head. As you may have heard, President Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum. The European Union has threatened retaliation. One good they would impose a tariff on: Kentucky bourbon.

If American bourbon distillers suddenly find themselves uncompetitive in Europe, they might lower prices. This would be good news for domestic bourbon drinkers such as myself. But it’s not quite so simple. Bourbon is not a perishable good. In fact it gets better with age. So distillers who can afford a short term loss of revenue may choose to hold their liquor until the tariff situation is worked out. Then they’d have a product that they might even be able to sell for more than they can now.

Of course, if they’re holding more back and losing money, they’re not going to invest in warehouse expansion. That means they’d need to cut back on production. Since bourbon takes several years to age, a trade war of any non-trivial length could result in bourbon shortages a few years down the line.

But the fact that bourbon takes time to age also means the impact on sales in Europe might not be so dramatic. Certainly some may choose to go with other whiskeys (Scotch is a thing, I hear) or different alcohol altogether. But others who prefer bourbon may continue to buy at the higher price. The time it takes to first build out distilling capacity and then age the whiskey means it’s unlikely that production will meaningfully increase in the short term. But if distillers outside the United States ramp up production, we could be looking at a glut in a few years time.

So if the European Union imposes a tariff on bourbon, it may or may not have an immediate impact. A few years from now, if the tariff lasts, we’ll either have very cheap or very expensive bourbon.

Who knows? Even now, it’s hard to predict. That’s why the sudden popularity of Blanton’s means I can’t get one of my favorite bourbons and it may be a few years before it’s as readily available as it used to be. I’d better stock up on my other favorites now, just in case.

Don’t tell me ahead of time

I used to think advanced notice was a good thing. As I grow older, busier, whatever-ier, I’m less inclined to hold that opinion. It turns out I draw a distinction between things I need to think about and things I need to do.

If I need to think about something, then by all means give me some time. Unlimited lead time isn’t the answer, but I prefer to have time to weigh my options. In fact, I will probably over-weigh them. But still, if I need to make a decision about something, I’d prefer some time to consider it first. Whatever I may be good at, my first instinct is often reactive and hot-tempered. (Though my no-time-to-prepare reactions when I was a floor supervisor at McDonald’s were often pretty good. I may be best-suited for that job.)

On the other hand, if I just need to do something that doesn’t require preparation, don’t tell me until I can act on it. My employer is currently running a regular company-wide survey to gauge morale and the factors that contribute to it. I received no fewer than four emails in the week prior letting me know that this survey was coming up and that I should take it. This included messages from the survey team as well as various levels of my management chain.

Now I get that this is important. But they didn’t give us the survey questions ahead of time (nor did they need to), and the survey period runs for a few weeks. Why put so much effort into telling people about it before they could act on it? That’s a good way to get them to forget to do it.

Similarly, a non-profit organization that I’m a member of sent me an email last night letting me know that it’s time to vote for the open board seats. Or rather it’s almost time. Voting starts today, which wasn’t made clear until I clicked the submit button at the end. (The dates didn’t specify a time zone, so I figured it was probably UTC.)

In both cases, I put a reminder on my to-do list with an appropriate due date. It’s just a little bit frustrating to have to do that. Instead of being able to act immediately, I had to take an intermediate step. That’s not a very friendly way to run things. I’ll stop yelling at clouds now.

Social Security numbers: the next IPv4

Wednesday night I dreamed about Social Security numbers. Exciting, yeah? In my dream, we were running out of SSNs. I was apparently involved in the project to figure out how to address it. Some people suggested making them longer or adding alphabetic characters. “No”, I told them, “think about all of the validation that will break.”

Social Security numbers pretty quickly went from being used by the Social Security Administration to being used by everyone. These days, if it involves government or money, your SSN is likely involved at some point. My junior high school used SSNs as student ID numbers (they no longer do this). They’ve become a de facto unique identifier for Americans.

But the supply is limited. At most, there are a billion numbers in the address space. That’s less than the population of India. But in practice, the supply is smaller. Numbers that begin with 666 won’t be used. Originally one of the digits was a check digit. And like IPv4, the space was divided into suballocations based on geography. Some areas were just a few years away from exhaustion while others had plenty.

In 2011, the Social Security Administration made some changes to how numbers are allocated. It removed the geographic allocations and make number assignment random. This buys some time, but we’ll run out of numbers eventually. The SSA could decide to end the policy of not (intentionally) reusing numbers, but even then that only pushes the exhaustion further out. And it could cause all kinds of trouble.

So like IPv4 addresses, SSNs are not going to last forever. Unlike IPv4, it’s much more difficult to bring a new protocol along in parallel. IPv6 and IPv4 can coexist quite nicely, which is part of the reason that IPv6 adoption is so low decades on. Changing SSNs requires updating systems at government agencies of all levels, banks, employers, schools, etc. It’s possible to have SSNv2 alongside SSNv1, but everything will need to support it before anyone begins using it.

A friend did a quick calculation that we have another 100+ years before the current SSN system fills up. In other words: before IPv4 goes away.

Using Kickstarter to raise money for businesses

Earlier this week, my local newspaper ran an article about a beloved coffee shop launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund its renovation. My immediate reaction was one of minor disgust. It seems wrong for an established business to crowdfund an investment in the business. And let’s be clear, that’s what this renovation is.

The Kickstarter rules don’t expressly prohibit this. In fact, they seem to invite it. And a neighborhood coffee shop is not the same as a national chain. Nonetheless, it’s counter to what I view as the intent of Kickstarter.

In my mind, Kickstarter and similar sites are for funding creative, independent works that the creator can’t get traditional funding for. An established business should be able to secure a loan if what they’re doing makes sense, no?

I am perhaps being a little hypocritical, though. The first Kickstarter project I backed was LeVar Burton’s revival of “Reading Rainbow”. That was certainly a business endeavor that he could have probably obtained money for (or perhaps he could have self-funded it). The nostalgia certainly helped open my wallet.

Kickstarter is a unique, though. A fully-funded project is not guaranteed to be successful. Many games and hardware projects have fizzled, leaving backers with little to show for their money. In that sense, it’s like an investment, except for the part where there’s no equity. Maybe it’s more like a donation. But why donate to a for-profit project?

Edited on January 12, 2018 at 12am EST: As Dave points out below, Greyhouse is a not-for-profit. This makes it more confusing, since donations would have tax benefits to the donor and enable Greyhouse to take advantage of employer matching. Using Kickstarter seems like a less-beneficial route for them. It’s also possible that Greyhouse is just saying they’re a not-for-profit without obtaining any IRS status. The Campus House organization that founded Greyhouse is a 501(c)(3), but it’s not immediately clear to me if Greyhouse is a legally-distinct entity or not.

Book review: Inside the Tornado

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm is perhaps the single most influential technology marketing book. When I first read it a few years ago, everything in it made sense and it gave me a better feel for where my company was (spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily where we thought we were). So when several people recommended Inside the Tornadoa sequel of sorts – I was ready to dig in and love it.

But I didn’t love it. It’s not because Moore is wrong. I don’t claim to know enough to assert that, and in fact I think he’s probably right on the whole. My dislike for the book instead is a matter of literary and ethical concerns.

The literary concern is what struck me first, so I’ll start there. Whereas the metaphor in Chasm is very straightforward, Tornado is a mess. You start in the bowling alley and then a tornado develops and eventually you end up on Main Street. Also, you want to be a gorilla or maybe a chimpanzee, but probably not a monkey. In fairness to Mr. Moore, some of this is because the concepts he tried to communicate became more complex in Tornado. Instead of the broad concepts of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, he focuses on the more intricate motions that happen on a smaller scale. As a meteorologist, I can appreciate this. Nonetheless, the roughness of the metaphor distracted me from the message of the book.

I’m also not particularly keen on what Moore tells us we must do to achieve dominance in the market. “To hell with quality or what your customer wants” may be the best way to achieve the market position you want when conditions are favorable to you. That doesn’t mean it’s what I want to do. Reading this book made me think of Don McLean’s third-most popular song: “if winning is what matters I respect the ones who fail.”

I suppose it may be a disconnect between my goals and what Moore assumes my goals are. Although I am a very competitive person, I am not interested in winning for winning’s sake. I want to do work that makes the world better, and if we’re in second or third place, that just means that others are also making the world a better place. That doesn’t seem like losing to me.

Inside the Tornado is one of those books that every technology marketer should read. But that doesn’t mean I recommend it.