Monday, August 02, 2010

More Musings

Given my house mate's many years working a computer science job at the management level, we sometimes get into arguments about what a next move might be. I'm grudgingly respectful, as she did help me get my resume in better shape, having been tasked with reading them, and evaluating interviewees, before she transmogrified into her Portland incarnation. I say "grudgingly" because I'm reluctant to see the obsolete military-industrial way of doing things as superior to Portland's. I guess sometimes we still learn from one another.

As for myself, I made a career as a Portland-based applications developer mostly working for what we might call "public sector" entities: not-for-profits, county agencies, even a national government or two. My rates were relatively low, as I was idealistic about my work and wanted to be affordable to these types of clients. In the early days of the PC revolution, a solo coder slinging dBase, and later FoxPro, could handle a number of clients as an independent contractor. That's how I made my living, for the most part, though with some other gigs on the side.

Fast forward to today, and I'm somewhat won over by the idea of multiple coders using version control, coding within some framework that's not too twisted (a pun on Twisted, which I respect). The solo coder model is less viable -- one needs a team. FoxPro, in the meantime, is being phased out by Microsoft, with its developer community in the process of disbanding.

At least the computer science department within a university should be hacking on its own stuff quite a bit, eating its own dog food. What better way to learn, than to have access to these internals, organized according to whatever industry standards.

At the secondary school level, I have this vision that faculty and student apprentices could do their own IT, not outsource everything to the district or private vendors. Again, some measure of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, is the hallmark of a serious school.

That vision might be a pipe dream however, given how teachers are rarely compensated for anything much beyond direct teaching in the classroom. They don't grow in their experience this way, which is one reason so many schools lag so far behind: the relevant skills of are just not in demand within academe. Rhetorical question: is this healthy?

"IT is the giant blind spot within higher education" one consultant said to me the other day, having looked into the matter for a couple decades. At the level of dean or provost, IT seems too trivial and mundane to be concerned with. One or two levels down, and there's no longer enough sense of the big picture in any one office to make intelligent planning possible. At least that seems to be a common enough picture.

I tried to rope in another consultant whom I respect, to maybe help get something jump started in our "Global U" (a generic moniker). You'd think Portland, Oregon, an "open source capital", would have computer science departments ready to jump at the opportunity, to serve their own ecosystem, the statewide higher education system.

Well, maybe we do. But is anyone in the chancellor's office actively soliciting their help? Staff has been cut rather dramatically, and IT is something we outsource to Asia is it not? The brain drain appears to have reversed, or at least there's a leveler playing field (a cause for optimism for the future?).