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.

Other writing – May 2018

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote



Stuff I curated



Book review: Habeas Data

What does modern technology say about you? What can the police or other government agencies learn? What checks on their power exist? These questions are the subject of a new book from technology reporter Cyrus Farivar.

Habeas Data (affiliate link) explores the jurisprudence that has come to define modern privacy law. With interviews with lawyers, police officers, professors, and others who have shaped the precedent. What makes this such an interesting subject is the very nature of American privacy law. Almost nothing is explicitly defined by legislation. Instead, legal notions of privacy come from how courts interpret the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This gives government officials the incentive to push as far as they can in the hopes that no court cases arise to challenge their methods.

For the first two centuries or so, this served the republic fairly well. Search and seizure were constrained to the physical realm. Technological advances did little to improve the efficiency of law enforcement. This started to change with the advent of the telegraph and then the telephone, but it’s the rapid advances in computing and mobility that have rendered this unworkable.

As slow as legislatures can be to react to technological advances, courts are even slower. And while higher court rulings have generally been more favorable to a privacy-oriented view, not everyone agrees. The broad question that courts must grapple with is which matters more: the practical effects of the technology changes or the philosophical underpinnings?

To his credit, Farivar does not claim to have an answer. Ultimately, it’s a matter of what society determines is the appropriate balance between individual rights and the needs of the society at large. Farivar has his opinions, to be sure, but Habeas Data does not read like an advocacy piece. It is written by a seasoned reporter looking to inform the populace. Only by understanding the issues can the citizenry make an informed decision.

With that in mind, Habeas Data is an excellent book. Someone looking for fiery advocacy will likely be disappointed, but for anyone looking to understand the issue, it’s a great fit. Technology law and ethics courses would be well-advised to use this book as part of the curriculum. It is deep and well-researched while still remaining readable.

It has its faults, too. The flow of chapters seems a little haphazard at times. On the other hand, they can largely be treated as standalone studies on particular issues. And the book needed one more copy editing pass. I saw a few typographic errors, which is bound to happen in any first-run book, but was jarred by a phrase that appeared to have been accidentally copy/pasted in the middle of a word.

None of this should be used as a reason to pass on this book. I strongly recommend Habeas Data to anyone interested in the law and policy of technology, and even more strongly to those who aren’t interested. The shape that privacy law takes in the next few years will have impacts for decades to come.

Google Duplex and the future of phone calls

For the longest time, I would just drop by the barber shop in the hopes they had an opening. Why? Because I didn’t want to make a phone call to schedule an appointment. I hate making phone calls. What if they don’t answer and I have to leave a voicemail? What if they do answer and I have to talk to someone? I’m fine with in-person interactions, but there’s something about phones. Yuck. So I initially greeted the news that Google Duplex would handle phone calls for me with great glee.

Of course it’s not that simple. A voice-enabled AI that can pass for human is ripe for abuse. Imagine the phone scams you could pull.

I recently called a local non-profit that I support to increase my monthly donation. They did not verify my identity in any way. So that’s one very obvious way for causing mischief. I could also see tech support scammers using this as a tool in their arsenal — if not to actually conduct the fraud then to pre-screen victims so that humans only have to talk to likely victims. It’s efficient!

Anil Dash, among many others, pointed out the apparent lack of consent in Google Duplex:

The fact that Google inserted “um” and other verbal placeholders into Duplex makes it seem like they’re trying to hide the fact that it’s an AI. In response to the blowback, Google has said it will disclose when a bot is calling:

That helps, but I wonder how much abuse consideration Google has given this. It will definitely be helpful to people with disabilities that make using the phone difficult. It can be a time-saver for the Very Important Business Person™, too. But will it be used to expand the scale of phone fraud? Could it execute a denial of service attack against a business’s phone lines? Could it be used to harass journalists, advocates, abuse victims, etc?

As I read news coverage of this, I realized that my initial reaction didn’t consider abuse scenarios. That’s one of the many reasons diverse product teams are essential. It’s easy for folks who have a great deal of privilege to be blind to the ways technology can be misused. I think my conclusion is a pretty solid one:

The tech sector still has a lot to learn about ethics.

I was discussing this with some other attendees at the Advanced Scale Forum last week. Too many computer science and related programs do not require any coursework in ethics, philosophy, etc. Most of computing has nothing to do with computers, but instead with the humans and societies that the computers interact with. We see the effects play out in open source communities, too: anything that’s not code is immediately devalued. But the last few years should teach us that code without consideration is dangerous.

Ben Thompson had a great article in Stratechery last week comparing the approaches of Apple and Microsoft versus Google and Facebook. In short: Apple and Microsoft are working on AI that enhances what people can do while Google and Facebook are working on AI to do things so people don’t have to. Both are needed, but the latter would seem to have a much greater level of ethical concerns.

There are no easy answers yet, and it’s likely that in a few years tools like Google Duplex will not even be noticeable because they’ve become so ubiquitous. The ethical issues will be addressed at some point. The only question is if it will be proactive or reactive.



LISA wants you: submit your proposal today

I have the great honor of being on the organizing committee for the LISA conference this year. If you’ve followed me for a while, you know how much I enjoy LISA. It’s a great conference for anyone with a professional interest in sysadmin/DevOps/SRE. This year’s LISA is being held in Nashville, Tennessee, and the committee wants your submission.

As in years past, LISA content is focused on three tracks: architecture, culture, and engineering. There’s great technical content (one year I learned about Linux filesystem tuning from the guy who maintains the ext filesystems), but there’s also great non-technical content. The latter is a feature more conferences need to adopt.

I’d love to see you submit a talk or tutorial about how you solve the everyday (and not-so-everyday) problems in your job. Do you use containers? Databases? Microservices? Cloud? Whatever you do, there’s a space for your proposal.

Submit your talk to https://www.usenix.org/conference/lisa18/call-for-participation by 11:59 PM Pacific on Thursday, May 24. Or talk one of your coworkers into it. Better yet, do both! LISA can only remain a great conference with your participation.

Facebook, but for dating

Women who have received unsolicited…solicitations… on Facebook may be surprised to learn this, but Facebook doesn’t have a way for lonely singles in your area to meet each other. Or at least it didn’t. Mark Zuckerberg got on stage last week at F8 and announced to the world that Facebook is entering the matchmaking game.

This may seem pretty tone deaf, coming just weeks after we learned about Cambridge Analytica. Rest assured, it only seems that way because it is. And even though #deletefacebook seems to have been more bark than bite, it doesn’t seem like a great time to roll out a service that gets more directly at people’s most personal parts of life. So why would anyone use this?


Creep factor

The creep factor is definitely in play here. I’m not talking about the rando you get matched up with, but the service itself. Facebook took some PR damage from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Given what Facebook already knows (or surmises) about us, do we really want to feed it more information?

Morality play

From what I understand from other reporting, this is only available to people who indicate they are single. I know several couples who are openly polyamorous, which means I probably know twice as many who quietly polyamorous. It seems like Facebook is missing out on that demographic. I guess they figure it’s worth alienating that group to avoid being the place where non-poly folks go to commit adultery?

It’s 2018

The matching is done by having people select nearby events and places they’re interested in. This means matching only happens with geographic proximity. I’ll grant that it’s generally easier to have a long-term relationship when you’re nearby, but online dating has been a thing for a while now. Users should be able to select the radius that’s appropriate for them.

In a relationship

But not everything about is bad. Facebook gets it right on a few points, too.


Facebook is explicitly not matching people to their friends. The assumption being that if you wanted to date someone you already know, you have a means of doing that. That’s probably a wise course of action. Unrequited desire could make life awkward for everyone.

Courage in (no) profiles

A person’s dating profile will not be generally visible. That strikes me as a positive, because it means you can’t go trawling through profiles. And if you have something embarrassing in there (say you’re interested in a Nickelback concert), your friends won’t see it.

It’s complicated

The markets are betting that this new service spells danger for competitors. The company that owns Match.com, Tinder, and other dating services broke up with 20% of its share price the day of the announcement. After a day and a half of trading, it’s down over 26%. By the time this post publishes, who knows where it will be?

But I’m thinking that now might be a good time to pick up the stock on the cheap. People aren’t running away from Facebook, but that doesn’t mean they’ll jump onto this new service when it rolls out. And given the aging Facebook user base, there may be less of an audience than they think.

Other writing – April 2018

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?



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.