Indirect routes

I keep thinking that I’ve already spit out everything I can think of on this topic, but a comment I saw on Tim Bray’s blog reminded me of something else. There’s a lot of focus on a particular route to working with technology, running from early childhood computer use, to high school programming classes or college CS studies, then finally getting a real world job in the field. It’s the formal path for this, right? So then when we talk about how to get minorities actively contributing in the world o’ tech, we focus on smoothing that specific route. But in reality, a lot of us actually studied or worked in other fields at some point, and came to technology from elsewhere. In my case, I learned BASIC in grade school, played with computers tons all the way up, but didn’t take a single computer class in high school, and in college I majored in geography instead. The particular kind of technology work I do now mostly involves things I didn’t pursue until I was away from formal education systems.

I’ve heard similar stories from a lot of other people, too. Many real live computer programmers have a background in something other than CS. And that’s wonderful. I think it’s much easier to learn computer skills on the side than to get an in-depth look at many other fields that way, and a background in something else can give you so much material for what questions technology is needed to solve. So when we’re thinking about how to increase the diversity of who works in technology fields, it’s really important not to neglect the indirect routes. Many modern jobs involve computers in some way. We need to think about how to help people become not just passive consumers of technology, but active contributors. Even if all they do is write their own web page or a small script. Even customization of existing tools or just a good understanding of how they work is part of this.

Not everyone will want to get into the nitty gritty details with tech, and that’s okay too. I wrote a post after Recent Changes Camp about how organizations can recognize and support involvement at many different levels. But while there are many great reasons to reach out to as diverse a pool of kids and students as possible, to facilitate their future involvement, I don’t want to forget the adults who are already out there using these technologies on a daily basis, who may just need a nudge in the right direction to take a more active role.

And maybe we should also be talking about expanding our definition of who counts as a technology worker in the first place. Shouldn’t this include anyone who creates or modifies tech for their own needs, whether or not they’re working under the umbrella of IT or programming at the time? Not to make the numbers and diversity ratios look better, but to reach out to people who may not realize there’s any kind of community or resources connected to those activities.

More to think about.

One response to “Indirect routes

  1. I’ve been dwelling on this, and I think that the dominant school of thought is tied to this notion of 20th century-style capitalism, where you get a specialization and you do one thing all your life.
    And then I see the DIY culture (kitting! bicycle modification! growing your own food!). And I remember Open Source when it was young.
    I having trouble making this thought come together. Maybe what I mean is – it’s the Cathedral and the Bazaar all over again! What are we doing building Cathedrals?

    Education is the next nut to crack.