Freesteel Blog » Newspapers can talk about programming, but only if it’s corporate enough

Newspapers can talk about programming, but only if it’s corporate enough

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008 at 11:27 pm Written by:

To be fair, there was also a human interest angle in this “working life of a software engineer story” to make it media-noteworthy enough: the software engineer in question was deaf.

Now, there are many activities in the world which it is more challenging to do if you are deaf than if you are not, and programming computers is probably not one of them. Nor is playing badminton for that matter, even though there is a whole squad of competition players, vastly outnumbering the negligable membership of the deaf lug (linux user group) mailing list, for example.

What if it is the case that careers counselling, as it is experienced in our schools and universities, systematically steers students away from free open source software businesses, and into the traditional channel of vocational training, followed by proper old-fashioned employment in a real company that does things the capitalist way where they talk only about how much money they’re making from the start to the end of their annual report? The company directors not even slightly interested in anything else.

I’d be willing to posit that people with disabilities probably get more than their fair share of careers counselling, and this would result in an under-representation of perfectly agreeable deaf programmers in the open source sector, compared to their peer group who will have been allowed to muddle along a bit more at the start of their lives.

Generally career counsellors are going to want you to seek employment with respectable and astonishingly expensive education software suppliers with notoriously bad service, bogus security regimes, tightly closed software, and who combine this with the willingness to convert these major customer disadvantages into financial vitality that makes them qualified to apply through the government’s gratuitously complex procurement systems that at no time take any account of coding quality or long term vision (except the vision to make more money).

So it was that the Guardian’s photography correspondent, Leo Bendictus, interviewed Xander Hurley, who also features on the net as a Deaflymic Badminton champion. The article begins:

So … I pause, because this is a question I have dreaded asking. Erm … what does a software engineer actually do? Xander Hurley stares quizzically across the table. He is a long-limbed young man, with floppy blond hair and blue shirt. He has already explained how he meets clients, discusses with them what they need, and then goes out and makes it for them.

“Can I borrow your pad?” he asks. I slide it over, with a pen. “For example, if I was to create a calculator to add two numbers together.” He pauses, looking suddenly concerned. “I hope this doesn’t sound patronising?” Not at all, I assure him, and probably impossible. “OK. Bear in mind I’m using C#, which is a language, part of Microsoft .NET.” Consider it borne.

Hurley writes “value1 = 10” on my pad, followed by “value2 = 20”. “This is pseudocode, by the way,” he explains, “not actual code.” I nod fraudulently. “Now I want the code to take these two numbers and add them together.” He writes “int result = value1 + value2”. “Now, ‘int’ stands for integer. It’s a whole number. And that,” he points to the word “result”, “is a placeholder, which is like a bracket for holding numbers. It’s just a name. It could be anything.” He crosses out “result” and replaces it with “Xander”.

“So you add value1 to value2, and that gets assigned into there.” My pen hops about the page in his large hand. “So ‘Xander’, after doing this, will contain 30.” He looks up like a maths teacher who has just made everything clear, and sees, as maths teachers must often do, an expression of poorly simulated comprehension looking back at him. What I am still struggling to decide is whether software engineering is in fact much simpler than I had hitherto imagined. Or far, far more complicated.

Certainly what Hurley does with C# most of the time would be beyond me. He is a member of the data exchange team at RM, a large education software company, in the dowdy bowels of whose Oxfordshire headquarters we are sitting now. Here Hurley spends most of his days building computer programs to help schools manage their information. At the moment he is working on a way of enabling pupils and parents to access their own data themselves.

The reporter went on to explain how Hurley took six years to get through his software engineering course at university because of the difficulty lip-reading the lecturers from 20 metres away, and how he pulled out of exams at the last minute twice to avoid getting a bad marks in his final degree.

Now, I know a lot of programmers, and this is not how any of us learned our trade. Exams in software engineering the butt of jokes. When I used to work for a company and we had to hire somebody, we’d give them a one page coding quiz and that pretty much sorted everything out. Oddly, this was not standard practice in other companies, as though their chosen criteria for the job of being a programmer did not include the ability to programme. I flunked every single job I’ve ever applied for, and one thing I can do well is programme.

Programmers generally teach one another one on one. We practice for hours, sometimes all night long. We debug other people’s code. We search for answers on usenet. And, at the last resort, we RTFM. All this social activity over the decades has given rise to the open source community from which the whole world has benefited.

The ironic thing is that Hurley is permitted to talk about actual in the boundary of a newspaper story, but he works for RM in Oxford, one of the notoriously evil PFI contractors which doesn’t care one jot about code. Check out their web-page and any news. It’s all about money money money money money.

For contrast, you could inspect the website for moodle which is the leading competitor of RM for software to run schools. One click and they’re talking about the code, the features, what they’re trying to do with it, and how you can learn about it and use it. It’s all about friendship, not business. In a business, they occasionally take a break from the money and talk about people. Watch this video where some lobotomized zombies unfortunate enough to have been TUPED across to RM’s PFI business explain how they’re having a wonderful time doing exactly the same job as before for exactly the same pay and conditions while only costing the taxpayers only four times as much for a lot of senseless paperwork and stagnant technology.

The PFI system bundles up the publicly utilized IT infrastructure into a system of bogus shell companies and tax-efficient asset vehicles, such as Local Education Partnerships (LEP), using the same crooked logic of obscuring things illustrated with the sub-prime loan banking crisis. While the job of installing an operating system or wiring a network router is something that fundamentally anyone can do and is only ever going to get easier as the hardware and (open source) software technology improves, the result of packaging this work within the exclusive remit of one particular trade employee of one particular company for the next thirty years is only going to make things cost much more than they should. That’s what big profits are all about — the ability to invoice for much more than something is worth. It used to be that we’d laugh about how many union workers it took to change a lightbulb, because the union was only ever interested in preserving jobs. Now the question is going to be: how much money is it going to cost to change a lightbulb? The act of changing the lightbulb is going to be done perfectly efficiently, but you will pay. That’s because it’ll be declared as an Emergency and this will cause the need for Unprogrammed Maintenance.

It’s all there in the ICT Services Contract for Partnership for Schools:

8.8.8 If, as a result of an Emergency, the need arises for Unprogrammed Maintenance, the LEP may carry out such Unprogrammed Maintenance provided that the LEP informs a member of the senior management of the School(s) affected by the Unprogrammed Maintenance as soon as possible and the LEP notifies the Authority’s Representative as soon as possible (and in any event within five (5) Business Days of the occurrence of the Emergency) of the extent of the necessary Unprogrammed Maintenance and the reasons for such Unprogrammed Maintenance. The LEP shall take all reasonable steps to minimise the duration of, and any interference caused by, such Unprogrammed Maintenance.

8.8.9 The carrying out of Unprogrammed Maintenance shall not be construed as relieving the LEP from providing the ICT Services or as entitling the LEP to any relief from Deductions.

8.8.10 Notwithstanding that there has been no objection to a schedule of Programmed Maintenance submitted in accordance with clause 8.8.3 (Maintenance of the ICT Assets), the Authority’s Representative may, at any time, require the LEP to accelerate or defer any Programmed Maintenance by giving written notice to the LEP, (unless otherwise agreed) not less than forty (40) Business Days prior to the scheduled date for carrying out such Programmed Maintenance (where applicable, as accelerated), which notice shall set out the time and/or periods at or during which the Authority requires the Programmed Maintenance to be performed. The LEP shall, within ten (10) Business Days, notify the Authority of the amount of any additional reasonable costs which it will incur as a direct consequence of such acceleration or deferment (the Estimated Increased Maintenance Costs). The Authority shall, within a further period of ten (10) Business Days following receipt by the Authority of notification of the amount of the Estimated Increased Maintenance Costs, at its option, either confirm or withdraw its request to accelerate or defer the Schedule of Programmed Maintenance. If the Authority does not respond within this ten (10) Business Day period, the request shall be deemed to have been confirmed. The Authority shall reimburse the LEP the direct and reasonable costs actually incurred by the LEP as a consequence of such acceleration or deferment up to, but not exceeding, the amount of the Estimated Increased Maintenance Costs.

The Guardian article ends with a story of how Hurley was once called home by his mother to fix her computer and how he travelled two and a half hours only to discover that all he needed to do was turn on the plug. We smile at this comical situation, because it has often happened to us. It’s a weakness when humans and computers come into contact. The problem of the plug being turned off is common even to a desk lamp, but because there were so many other things that could go wrong with the computer it is easy to over-look it.

As with any other human weakness in our interaction with the modern world, our economic system is designed to reward entrepreneurs who prey on and exploit it to the maximum extent the law allows. We have a bad intuition with probabilities: mega-casinos. Our appetite is satisfied by cheap processed food that will kill us: McDonalds. We get addicted to chemicals and ape what the stars do in the movies: Tobacco. We are greedy to make lots of money for nothing: Ponzi schemes. (There are regulations outlawing overt versions of the Ponzi scheme because it is so damaging to the economy, but they didn’t catch up in time to prevent the current financial crisis.)

These vast PFI service contracts now gobbling up the public sector IT are merely institutionalizing the lack of knowledge at the current state of technology, locking it down as effectively and systematically as Coca-cola targets children, getting them hooked on the brand and the sugar while they’re young and impressionable. The fundamental purpose is to disempower people.

Think about it: any employee unfortunate to work for one of these companies is basically forbidden from talking to anyone about the “company secrets”. What are these company secrets? Well, they’re often on the face of them secrets kept from the customer about how they could do things themselves. It is not in the company’s commercial interest for these secrets to get out, or it will no longer be able to charge people for doing things for them.

This is fundamentally the opposite attitude to open source programming which is why it is doomed in the long run.

It would help, however, if newspaper reporters were able to stoop to the level of talking about what programming is all about with open source people for a change. But they won’t because it’s deemed too boring and geeky.

Unless it is framed in terms of making money.

Or it intersects with something worthy, like deaf culture. Hacker culture just doesn’t deserve respect.

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