Friday, September 02, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Labor Day Edition

I'm starting my Labor Day weekend a little early, since I have been felled by some sort of illness, caught from Petunia. I'm feeling a bit bad about having sent her to day care on Monday, given how I felt yesterday (which I think is roughly the same point in the course of the illness). However, I had to go to work yesterday- it was a big all-company meeting, and I had to present my work- so I guess it all evens out.

I feel better today, but not great, so I decided to take the day off to try to rest and recuperate. Clearly it is working, since I am now sitting up and typing on my computer, instead of lying on the sofa feeling sorry for myself.

Anyway, this week, in honor of Labor Day, I have a bunch of links about work:

First up, I found myself again agreeing with David Frum, in his article about how silly it is that we make partisan politics about President's vacations. I always thought that President Bush was setting a good example by actually taking vacations, and I think the same thing about President Obama. I know that a vacation sends me back to work rejuvenated and ready to tackle the big problems... here's hoping it does the same for Presidents.

Second, the Wall Street Journal reports on a small study that shows that web-surfing breaks boost worker productivity. I don't necessarily think the task used in the study (highlighting the letter e) is very representative of most people's work, but my own qualitative observation is that a brief blog-reading break between big tasks is very helpful for clearing my mind and letting me move on with more energy. So I guess I agree with the conclusion even if I have some quibbles with the methodology.

Next, I came across this Fast Company article about how to keep employees motivated via The Milliner's twitter feed. It rings very true to me- money certainly matters, but once I'm getting paid "enough", what keeps me motivated on my job is the feeling that I'm learning and that the work I'm doing is useful.

Finally, I have two apparently contradictory articles. In the first, Steve Denning explains why Amazon can't make its Kindles in the US- and why that matters. His basic argument is that as manufacturing moves overseas, so does a lot of the valuable engineering knowledge, and that eventually the company/industry that did the outsourcing will suffer. He argues that this is a failure in management, putting short term profits ahead of long term strategy. It is an interesting (but long) series of articles. I don't really know what I think. I have watched the outsourcing craze crest and then recede in IT- there is still a lot of software development that is outsourced, but people have realized that (1) it is not always cheaper and (2) it is a lot harder to manage. I am now watching outsourcing grow in drug discovery- a lot of chemical synthesis, for instance, is outsourced to China. I am sure that this craze will crest and recede, too, but, as with the IT outsourcing craze, it creates a lot of upheaval in people's lives and leaves a lot of bitter people behind. And from where I sit, I do think that a lot of companies have started focusing a little too much on short term profits- this could well be what drove the merger-mania that has been so detrimental to the pharmaceutical companies, for instance.

But speaking of software, Steve Denning's article referenced a more upbeat opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Marc Andreessen (one of the creators of the early web browser, Mosaic, and now a serial entrepreneur) about how software is taking over the world. Or maybe it is only upbeat if you know how to code and/or manage software projects? Regardless, it is an interesting piece.

I don't know whether or not software is taking over the world, but I do know that it is surprisingly hard to hire good software developers right now. I know of at least four open positions. A couple require specialized domain knowledge, but a couple are pure coding positions. All have had applicants, but none that were much good (i.e., they couldn't pass the code test). That has surprised me in this economy- I would have thought there would be more good developers out there on the market.  But Andreessen notes the same thing:

"...every company I work with is absolutely starved for talent. Qualified software engineers, managers, marketers and salespeople in Silicon Valley can rack up dozens of high-paying, high-upside job offers any time they want, while national unemployment and underemployment is sky high."

So maybe I should plan on teaching my kids how to code? 


  1. Anonymous3:20 PM

    Huh. Maybe we should give up this whole academia thing and move to Silicon Valley. I hope they're paying a premium for good programmers!

    Whether or not it'll find our kid(s) a job, we're planning on teaching them programming anyhow just because it's good for the brain and teaches patience and large-scale problem-solving skills (also neatness, communication... and lots of other universally positive attributes). I also plan to dig up a proof-based geometry book a few years from now since it looks like they've stopped teaching geometry proofs in school. (It went out of fashion when my sister hit 8th grade and hasn't come back in fashion, which makes me doubt it will in a few years either. It's hard to test proofs on a scantron exam.)

  2. "So maybe I should plan on teaching my kids how to code?" LOL!

    @nicoleandmaggie - "it looks like they've stopped teaching geometry proofs in school." Wait, what?? Seriously?? Gah, no wonder the US is so shitty in math.

  3. Anonymous4:26 PM

    This is my favorite text-book:

    I taught my sister geometry proofs out of it the summer before she moved to Catholic high school because if she didn't know proofs she'd have had to take geometry again (Her Catholic School kicks it old-style and they had a placement test... sadly the parochial school we're at has a crappy geometry text-- I checked it out at one of their open houses... I'm kind of wondering if they'd be amenable to a grant to replace their textbooks and teacher supplies in that class, though there are many years before that's a concern for us.)

    A world where you can't prove that two triangles are the same in a logical fashion using the assumptions given is a sad world indeed. That class was SO fun. And it was especially fun for kids who didn't like Algebra-- now it's no different than algebra with drawings. No escape.

    Mmmm math. (Note: #2 is not as infatuated with math as I am.)

  4. the milliner7:51 PM

    That Fast Company article hit me like a ton of bricks, in that it is totally gospel for me and I'm totally baffled that so many managers just don't get that about their workers.

    I love math (OK, love may be a strong word...I like it and I'm good at it, but it's more the means to an end for me), but I couldn't code my way out of a paper bag. Once upon a time I dabbled with trying to learn some simple code to create a blog (so it could look the way I wanted it to look). But it just ended up frustrating me, and I couldn't get the blog to have the look I wanted...the whole point of the exercise. So, um, yeah. DS will not learn to code from me.

    I do love the fact, however, that I use practical geometry calculations frequently when making hat patterns.

  5. I started to learn how to code in BASIC in 2nd grade (1981) and I firmly believe it *dramatically* improved my logic, problem solving, and just plain THINKING skills. I think a lot of the same thing happens when you teach a kid a 2nd language, but I don't have any proof, just pulling a theory out of my ass.

    Programming taught me about abstract concepts like variables, structuring a program and visualizing the flow of instructions, and breaking a problem down into its most basic parts.

    I took BASIC again at my crappy catholic high school in 1990 and used my knowledge from 2nd grade - didn't learn a single new thing.

    I guess it's not surprising I work for a huge software company now, given that I spent most of my childhood indoors, programming my Commodore 64. ;)

    I am so going to teach BabyT how to code as soon as she's old enough, but have no idea what language or tools "kids these days" should be learning. Sigh.

  6. I've been teaching 2nd year university students Matlab recently, as part of a Science class (ie it's not a programming class). I'm amazed at the diversity in comprehension, and low average comprehension, of basic things Anandi mentions- "abstract concepts like variables, structuring a program and visualizing the flow of instructions, and breaking a problem down into its most basic parts." A huge hunk of students just doesn't get it leading me to believe this isn't taught in schools and is something we should be teaching our kids.

  7. @nicoleandmaggie, I'm horrified to hear that geometry is being taught without proofs! That is all wrong. I actually spent a lot of my college calculus class doing proofs, too.

    @Anandi, I'd probably tell someone wanting to program now to start with Python and if they liked that, move to Java. Who knows what the languages will be by the time my girls are old enough to learn, though! But I think the important thing is to learn how programming works. The problem we're having with hiring programmers at my company isn't so much with the basics of any language as it is with the basics of how to structure a program.

  8. With regards to the difficulty finding good software developers, might I suggest the employers check out Stack Overflow Careers:

    Full disclosure: Stack Overflow is my husband's business. He too has noticed that the job market is great for software developers, in contrast to what you see in so many other fields.

    I am a scientist working in industry, and wish the outlook for science jobs looked so good. I sometimes wish I had learned how to code. Maybe someday.

  9. @Betsy - it is definitely not too late to learn, and there are a lot of related careers in the tech industry (like Project Management or Tech Writing) that don't require deep coding experience. I personally *love* working in Project Management at a software company, though I'm not a good enough programmer to work there as a developer.

  10. @Betsy- I know Stack Overflow. It is an awesome site. I think employers haven't really switched back to the "we have to go headhunting" mentality to fill positions, so they probably aren't using job sites like the one on Stack Overflow enough. It is probably time to start, though.


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