Reading 'Coders' to Decode Higher Ed IT

Why everyone on campus should understand how the software that we depend on is created.

May 16, 2019

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Clive Thompson

Published in March of 2019.

How many software developers work at your school?

I'd wager that:

A) You probably have no idea

B) You likely never asked yourself that question

C) Your estimate will be way too low

The problem with higher ed IT is that it is too often invisible.  Our colleagues who make our universities run have little time for socializing.  They are more interested in developing applications and managing systems than in self-promotion.

In 2001, Marc Andreessen famously wrote that “software is eating the world.”  Thompson remarks in Coders that at this point, it might be more accurate to say that software is “digesting” the world.

What parts of higher ed is software digesting?

If you think about it, software is everywhere in academia.  We could not run any of our online or blended courses without software.  Students could not register for classes without software.  Credits towards graduation could not be recorded and tallied without software.  Without software, no students would apply, and no professors would be paid.

What we seldom stop to think about is that a person wrote all that software that makes the university run. Someone had to write and update all the applications that the modern university depends.

For those who don’t write code for a living, it can be a mystery how all this software is made.  Users of software - including all the software that we touch in higher ed - too often have little appreciation for the hands-on work that was involved in its creation.

Thinking about higher ed software (and its creators) is motivation to invest some time in reading Coders.

In this excellent book, Clive Thompson takes the time to observe what software developers do all day long.  Thompson excels at translating the work of software development into a language that non-coders can understand.

Where Coders also excels is in examine the culture of software.  This is a world that tends to reflect many of the worst aspects of gender, race, and class relations.

Companies like Uber, under its last CEO Travis Kalanick, are considered to be poster children for the brogrammer pathologies associated with the modern technology industry.  But the world of higher ed IT is not immune to challenges of equity and diversity that characterize much of the IT industry.

Those who internalize to the extent to which higher ed depends on software to operate will also want to gain a better understanding of the people and organizations that create and maintain our software.

Should a dean or a provost or a college president understand the software that their universities depend on?  Perhaps.

Should they understand and appreciate the people who work on their campuses who write and maintain this software?  Definitely.

Coders is a terrific place to start for anyone who wants to understand how software is made, and the people who make it.  Coders is also an excellent book for anyone who wants to better understand the world of university computer science departments and the life of CS faculty and students.

What books would you recommend on the sociology and economics and software?

How might someone trained in computer science think about the job of designing (and maintaining) a university?

What are you reading?


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