Saturday, February 08, 2014

Year of Code boss Lottie Dexter is a car crash. Is coding the new Latin?

‘Year of Code’ is as sure a sign as any that something has been hyped into hubris. Last night, on Newsnight, the Director of ‘Year of Code’, Lottie Dexter, car crashed in a Paxman interview. He knows a fool when he hears one and couldn’t believe the rubbish she was spouting. For Paxman, it was like pulling the plug on a shortcircuited robot that had started to spit out gibberish. She was the perfect example of that age-old coding adage GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Paxman begins to smell a rat and rips her apart. Watch this from 5.36 in. I’ll use direct quotes (Lottisms) to explain the hubris:
"You can do very little in less time”
This was one of Lottie’s wonderfully confused pieces of advice. Forget the fact that she can’t code, she can’t talk. The one thing I do know about coding is that is needs a crisp, rational mind with some grasp of logic. Poor Lottie can barely express herself in English, never mind code.
“I can’t code… I don’t know how to code”
You could say, well she can learn, but the fact that someone has made no effort to learn how to code at all is an admission up there with Paul Flowers performance in the Select Committee, where he clearly had no idea about finance and how a bank actually works. This is the new age – where, as George Orwell said, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
"It doesn’t mean anything to you or me”
Forget the fact that experience and a modicum of knowledge on a subject should be pre-requisite for heading up an initiative on that one subject alone, to admit that ‘it doesn’t mean anything to me’ is an astounding admission of pure ignorance. You’re heading up and organization and initiative that means nothing to you? This says it all – nepotism and political favours rule over merit and skills.
“3rs and a C”
Coding is NOT equivalent to reading, writing and numeracy. It is not a basic skill in the sense of an activity that one uses in everyday life. It’s esoteric, difficult and it’s a minority who can master it well enough to create truly meaningful output. She also made the schoolgirl error of equating code with natural language. This is wrong-headed. There is no such thing as ‘code’ in this sense. Code is an ARTIFICAL construct, deliberately written and can mean a whole range of things from simple markup languages to those that conform to quite esoteric theories of computation. It is not, like language, something that comes naturally.
 “Every pupil from age of 5 will learn how to code”
This is typical of someone who has read nothing and knows nothing about early years learning. Meaningful coding requires computational thinking and a grasp of maths and logic. Far from shoving this down the throat of 5 year olds, we should be leaving this until they are ready to cope, otherwise it will be an exercise in counter productive education, where more are ‘turned off than on’ by the experience. It’s fine to have coding taught in schools but not a core subject. If you want coders, train them intensively in relevant coding languages as and when they leave school, college or university. It can and is done well. This means that they will be taught language that lead to relevant jobs and can start relevant businesses, rather than learning something that is likely to be gone by the time they hit the workplace. Also, I’m not at all convinced that we have enough teachers with the coding and relevant teaching ability in our schools.
"You can pick it up in a day – teachers can pick it up in a day”
Oh yeah? Right dottie Lottie, we’ll give you a day and see how you get on. Do you have any idea what you’re talking about? What she meant was that you can get started ‘in a day’ but that’s true of anything and everything and an almost meaningless statement. It’s trite and I think I know the reason why. Her job was ‘Communications Manager’ for a Think Tank. Not the CEO, not anything even remotely senior or technical, but a PR person. She thinks in soundbites and spits them out like hoary old bits of snot.
“Who knows I might be the next Zuckerberg”
Let me tell you Lottie, you will never be the next Zuckerberg. You’re a posh girl, who got a PR job (sorry Communications Manager) in a Tory thinktank. You’re unskilled in IT (you admitted it twice), no business experience and no credentials or credibility for your role.
“It’s a leveller”
The idea that it is a ‘great leveller’ is an illusion. When the Telegraph was invented there was a push to teach everyone morse code. This turned out to be a huge waste of time, as the vast majority of people simply needed to write English that was transcribed by a relatively few number of Telegraph operators. There is demand for code and coders but ultimately most of that demand is soaked up by existing supply and/or cheap programming labour in emerging economies.
I ran a large company and hired dozens and dozens of coders over the years but, like any specialist group they were only a subset of a wide range of people I hired, including sales, marketing, finance, project management, graphics, writers, designers, audio engineers, testers. I don’t see a ‘Year of Sales’ being touted, despite the fact that this has long been the real Achille’s Heel in UK business. I’ve recently invested in a company which has a high-end coding team that is as good as anything you can find in the UK but a hell of a lot cheaper, in India. It’s complex, algorithmic software has been rated world class by the gates Foundation and almost all of its work is in the US, bringing in valuable foreign earnings. There’s no way we could have got this work done at that price in the UK. Code is not the future, a potent fuel mixture of skills is the future and coding plays only a small role in all of this.
 “It’s the future”
Coding sound contemporary, all high-tech and entrepreneurial. Politicians and armchair advisors adore the idea that there’s a secret, superior form of expression that unlocks the world and will solve the intractable problems of declining economies and unemployment. Politicians love ‘silver bullet’ solutions. ‘Year of Code’ is easy rhetoric and gives the illusion of a cure for all ills. But it’s a snakeoil solution, all massive promise with little efficacy.
Conclusion
Lottie was the Communications Manager at a think tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith, the Centre for Social Justice. Just last month he gave a speech there defending the ‘compassionate conservative’ bedroom tax. Forget the evidence that the IT system failed  and £40 million had to be written off (so much for their knowledge of coding). The idea that that people have been moved to smaller council houses, freeing up space for larger families, ignores the fact that, small houses don’t exist. Sadly, over half of those poor people (32,432 people), fell into rent arrears between April (when the policy was introduced) and June, a quarter of those for the first time ever. These people are mad, bad and above all, downright dangerous.
Coding is seen as the new Latin by the posh boys - a rather stupid obsession where politicians and PR people, none of whom can code, latch on to 'reports' written by people who have no business sense or worse, a regressive agenda. Even worse, it’s not even as potent as Latin, which in its day was a widely used language of reading and writing. It was the very opposite of code - there are thousands of coding languages but the whole efficacy of Latin was that that it was ONE language. These people are not the future, they want to drag us into the past. 

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11 Comments:

Anonymous Chris Rand said...

90% of the above is spot on. How on earth do people like this get positions of influence? Well, I guess we all know. Now all those who have fought so long and hard to get programming back onto the agenda in schools must now be feeling gutted. In the end, the political class will always **** it up at the last moment.

(I disagree strongly however with the suggestion that "If you want coders, train them intensively in relevant coding languages as and when they leave school, college or university". Introducing programming at an early age will inspire a lifelong interest in the subject for many people - something which is of use even if you never go into the IT industry at all, as you'll be far more aware of what computers can and can't do, and you'll be far more confident in using them)

11:23 AM  
Blogger Donald H Taylor said...

This is pretty sad stuff, isn't it? Someone heading a campaign should ideally be both well-versed in their subject and a good communicator. It looks like Lottie Dexter is neither.

Inadequate though Lottie Dexter clearly was in this interview, the real villains of this piece are those who appointed her. There are plenty of people who could speak with passion and knowledge about coding - the problem is that they live outside the orbit of those deciding who gets to be involved in these programs - the politicians.

And it isn't only the current government that doesn't understand technology. Most politicians' lives mean they rarely encounter the real world of business or IT, and neither have their advisers. The result: the easy silver bullet sound-bite solution of the "year of code" actually sounds like a good idea.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Chris - I may have expressed myself poorly on that point.I have no problem with teaching coding in schools but many of the most talented programmers I worked with and hired, were self-taught and many came to it after their school days had ended. It is one of several solutions. It's is common, for example, for graduates to do intensive coding courses and walk into jobs in the US. That's cool.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Richard Moore said...

Donald, I watched this and was increasingly cross. It's not coding that needs to be taught but computational thinking, they are very different.

Seymour Papert working with Jean Piaget nailed this as long ago as 1980 when he published Mindstorms - Children Computers and powerful ideas" The application of computing to problem solving is the gold here not teaching kids to learn syntax in a siloed subject called computer science or worse coding. The application of technology is across the curriculum in the same way that it permeates almost every part of every part of 21C life.

The Association of Learning Technologies (ALT) also nailed this in their response to the governments call for responses to the application of computer science to the curriculum accessible at http://repository.alt.ac.uk/2200/1/Computer_Science_in_the_National_Curriculum_for_England_fi%E2%80%A6.pdf which seems to have been ignored and says it so much better than I can.

Lottie and team might want to learn a few lessons from history, with the widespread introduction of the electric telegraph in the USA, several states made learning Morse code a compulsory school subject. -. .. - ...

12:07 PM  
Blogger Nick Morris said...

Richard Moore has it, in my opinion, spot on.

Way back in the late 1970s I was taught to code (or as we called it 'program computers') at school (we actually used punchcards and a mainframe at Oxford Poly), and I believe I was at one of the few schools in the UK offering a Computer Studies GCSE. This was actually at a time that pre-dated the BBC Micro. (I am now feeling really old...)

In the 1980s there was a big push in schools to introducing computing, and I had always assumed that the pupils were busy coding away as I had done. So I was shocked in the late 2000s when I discovered that what had been taught in schools for the last 20 years was in fact how to use Word and PowerPoint.

The point that Richard made, and with which I agree, is that "application of computing to problem solving is the gold". So true! On countless occasions I have seen people, highly intelligent, educated and trained people, sitting at a computer doing repetitive tasks that could be solved with a few lines of code. I am not suggesting that they should have the knowledge or the skills to write the code, but they should at the very minimum, through what they were taught at school, to realise that the problem is solvable and that they should seek some help from a person that can code....

2:05 PM  
Blogger morna said...

Well said. Still in shock after watching this.

Reminded me of this gold… but I was laughing then > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTBsm0LzSP0

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Carl Hodler said...

I'm not convinced that being a programmer is a viable lifelong career option for kids these days. It's impossible to predict what level of coding will be done by humans in 30 years time.

I agree that computaional thinking is vital and I make sure my kids spend more time using Scratch than learning HTML.

Our Government is still struggling to adapt to the post Industrial Age, whilst globalised digitalatism is already automating the next wave of professions.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Peter Phillips said...

Thanks for this excellent if rather depressing blog Don. One thing that no one has mentioned is the laughable quote about 4 minutes in that "The Government has pledged more than half a million pounds to train up to 130,000 teachers ....."
So that's a bit less than £4 a teacher then. Maybe that explains Lottie's view that you can teach coding in a day.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Carl Gombrich said...

Hi Donald,

I've been mulling this for a while - enjoyed the post.

Recently I have been sitting with my 9yo using a 'high level' language called LUA to do some programming on Minecraft. I don't know if we call the
is coding or computational thinking or something else, but it has been a great way to get a kid who is into words and stories, but not maths and abstract stuff, to think about Boolean variables, loops, functions and so on.

In fact, the only frustration is that, having just got to the point where the programs get interesting enough to do stuff with his 'turtle' (robot) he really wants to do, the YouTube tutorials have given us a program which returns an error we can't debug.

But I imagine if this were part of a school course, the problems could be worked through and sorted out. My son could then get on to some pretty decent programming if he were given the right support.

Even if he has no intention of ever being a programmer, don't you think there is good value in a kid like this linking some decent basic programming to narratives and fun stuff a. so he sees it can be fun/useful; b. so the he understands basically what an algorithm is?

If this is what 'coding' could be in schools, I'd be all for trying to include it in a curriculum.

Best,

Carl

11:39 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

We did have this in schools some time ago with LOGO and turtles (papert & Mindstorms). I have no problem with coding in schools or elsewhere - it's fun and gave me a whole career. But I fear we're fetishising it at the expense of other things. In the UK we get htese fixations. They come and they go. In a couple of years it ail be some other obsession. What I want is a balnaced curriculum, not these compulsory subjects.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Adam Salkeld said...

You might want to hire Lottie as an expert communicator

http://mippr.co.uk/mipeople/lottie-dexter/

10:17 AM  

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