9 February 2014
So it’s the Year of Code. Schools will start teaching children to program computers in September because programming (or “coding” as it’s now called) is an essential skill for the future economy.
But the Year of Code’s director Lottie Dexter can’t program and hasn’t started to learn. Cue one car crash interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.
Now there are two things that would be really useful to lead a national campaign to teach everyone to program.
The first, of course, is knowing how to program. The second is knowing how to teach. Dexter doesn’t know either. Are these really that essential? In theory, no. But this is a high-profile PR campaign where image and credibility are everything. Dexter is lazy for not having taken the trouble to start programming before taking the hot seat opposite Paxman. She’s arrogant for thinking she could get away with it. But most of all, as a PR professional, she’s just downright incompetent for assuming it didn’t really matter. Now Dexter’s the story not the programming lessons.
I make no secret of despising Dexter’s business-tax-cutting, deregulating, state-shrinking politics and I’ve got my suspicions about the Year of Code’s wider motivations. But even on its own terms, Dexter’s leadership is a colossal omnishambles. Even if all that were required for the job were political nous and PR savvy, Dexter would be toast. Don’t let’s start getting into the detail of education policy.
And the rest of the Year of Code’s advisory board should go too.
Emma Mulqueeny of Young Rewired State has just quit the Year of Code board and her parting remarks are scathing.
Mulqueeny and the rest of the advisory board, sans Dexter, are all credible people. Any one of them could plausibly contribute something to the campaign. But the overall makeup of the board is so ludicrously narrow and unbalanced it’s a standing joke.
Tom Morris did some digging and found that only three members of the 23-member board appear to actually be programmers or have a technical background. So a campaign to drive home the importance of programming skills is predominantly made up of people who lack those very same skills.
The board doesn’t come close to representing the diversity of people who program or people who teach programming. It’s an employers' club. But it’s not even a particularly good one of those.
The entire board is drawn from the private sector. There’s no-one from the civil service or local government (both substantial employers of programmers), no-one from academia, no-one from the NHS.
There’s no-one from the voluntary sector.
This is a campaign aimed at state education. There are no schoolteachers on its advisory board.
There are no computer science researchers on the board. There are no researchers from other disciplines that program – everything from the hard sciences through the humanities to the visual arts.
There are no university admissions tutors – people who take a very keen interest in what gets taught in schools.
Yet there’s space on the board for three board members from Songkick, a Shoreditch website startup for live music info. Three Songkickers but not a single working scientist or schoolteacher.
Index Ventures, a tech investment firm, gets two seats on the board (one is also on the Songkick board). But there are no places for anyone from the British Computer Society or the Royal Academy of Engineering.
The poet Suli Breaks is the only artist on the board. There are no visual artists, no performing artists, musicians, sculptors or animators.
There are no architects or civil and mechanical engineers – huge industries that employ thousands of programmers.
Yet there are 14 entrepreneurs. Starting your own business is clearly a bigger thing in programming than actual programming, science, engineering, healthcare, government administration, the arts or teaching.
And this all comes back to the politics. The Year of Code has such a narrow ambition for the future of computing in Britain. It’d be easy to dismiss the whole thing as philistine – and I do. There’s no real space here for creativity outside the narrow confines of what might possibly find commercial success. But it’s worse than that. It’s not even a reasonable cross section of industry.
So even if you’re happy for the Year of Code to be run as an employers' club it needs to reflect its own rhetoric – that programming touches every aspect of our lives.
A credible board would draw substantially from the public, private and voluntary sectors.
It would include many people who program and many others who directly manage programming work.
It would have teachers and academics, scientists and artists. Data analysts and journalists.
And it would draw experience from all over the country, not just a tiny slice of London.
Instead, we get a roster of over a dozen London-based venture capital-backed startups and their investors, the strategy director of British Gas, and Martha Lane Fox.
A more obvious example of what George Monbiot calls the captive state would be hard to find. This is just a cabal of private businesses looking for a government subsidy to ensure their future profits. Corporate welfare, in other words.
The whole board should quit and a new board can be found that represents the interests of the country as a whole, not a tiny clique of business owners and their investors.