Why The Same Old Faces? | March 27, 2013

In an eailier post I discussed one reason why some people may perceive a lack of new faces on the speaker circuit — namely that by the time you reach the point in your career where you’re being asked to speak at conferences, you will most likely have had so much exposure already that you’ll no longer feel like a new voice.

This being said, there is a small but growing number of people who are continually asked to write articles, comment on news stories or speak at conferences. Is this due to lazy editors and event curators, or due to the existence of an “old boys network” that aims to exclude outsiders in favour of it’s own?

While it’s easy to assume that the road is blocked by others, sadly the truth is usually more mundane. Being an awesome designer or developer doesn’t necessarily make you a great writer or speaker. I’ve met some truly outstanding practitioners who show almost no interest or ability in sharing their knowledge on the public stage. Conversely I’ve met plenty of—often only slightly above average—designers and developers who have an amazing ability to tell stories and communicate ideas.

It turns out that the ability to inspire, inform and entertain is pretty rare, so is it any wonder why these people are approached time and again? In fact, wouldn’t it be a little strange if conference organisers and publishers routinely ignored people with a track record in favour of less experienced people?

It also turns out that being knowledgeable in a particular topic doesn’t make you automatically attractive to conferences and magazines. Especially if there are dozens of other people talking about the same thing. Being a recognised authority in a subject is attractive to commercial organisations as it helps increase sales and minimise risk. So it’s important to build a strong following, whether that’s because you were the first, the best or simply the most prolific. Self promotion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just as long as it has some substance to back it up.

One reason for seeing the same old faces is because they are the ones offering to write content or speak at events. There seems to be an unhealthy belief that it’s solely the responsibility of publishers and conference organisers to discover talent. However that’s not true. It’s also down to the individuals to promote themselves, and some of the most recognisable faces happen to be the ones that put themselves out there time and again.

Reliability is another big factor here. One of the reasons I get asked to comment a lot in magazines is because I respond quickly and have something relevant to say. This feels like such a small thing, but if you’re working to a deadline and you know somebody is slow to respond and variable in quality, you’ll simply stop asking. We’ve had similar issues with speakers. You’ll set deadlines for speakers to send in bio information, provide talk descriptions and confirm flights. People are really busy these days so you have to make allowances, but if folks are continually late sending you information, you eventually stop asking, no matter how good they are.

These are just some of the many reasons why you see the same people cropping up time and again. It’s not that they are necessarily the best designers and developers out there, or that they have the most cutting edge things to say. It’s usually because they put themselves out there, can spin a good yarn, respond to their emails in a timely manner, consistently deliver the goods and a host of other pedestrian reasons.

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Should Programming be Taught at Schools? | March 25, 2013

There’s a lot of buzz around technology education at the moment.

The old ICT courses which taught children to be passive consumers are being overturned as schools in the UK are encouraged to set up their own curricula with programming at it’s core. At the same time after-schools clubs are growing in popularity with projects like Code Club operating in nearly a thousand British schools. This boom has been thanks, in part, to services like Code Academy and Scratch which have revolutionised the way people learn to programme, and to projects like the Raspberry Pi which hark back to the golden age of the BBC Micro.

While I don’t necessarily buy into the Rushkoffian rhetoric of “programme or be programmed”, I see huge benefits in leaning to code. For instance it’s a practical and engaging way of teaching other skills like maths and physics, while the problem-solving techniques you pick up are highly transferable. I also think it can provide young people with a sense of agency and purpose which is often lacking in their lives (computer games often fill this role). So as somebody in the technology industry I see this trend as a very positive move. However I also wonder if this could just be a case of selective bias?

Classicists argue that Latin is is one of the most important subjects to be taught at school as it’s the basis for all modern languages. Similarly business leaders argue that finance, law and entrepreneurship should take a central place in school curriculum. We even have sports people and celebrity chefs calling for health and nutrition to feature more prominently in schools. I bet if we asked most vocations, from engineers and architects to TV presenters and ballet dancers they’d be able to provide a string of tangible benefits their profession can teach. As such I struggle to tell how valuable learning programming at school really is or how we balance this against other subjects.

I also worry about the expectations we’re setting by teaching programming as a core subject. Are we creating a generation of children raised on the dream of becoming the next Internet entrepreneur only to end up creating an underclass of poorly paid Microserfts? What’s more, do we really want our education policy dictated by the Facebook’s and Google’s of this world, just to ensure they have a plentiful supply of engineers?

It’s a tough question and one that has me sitting on the fence. The benefits to me are immediate and obvious. However I still can’t shake the concern that the downside will only become apparent 5 or 10 years down the line when it’s Java (pun intended) programmers serving our coffee in Starbucks rather than geography graduates.

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The Post-digital Renaissance | March 24, 2013

We first saw it with food. People getting back to nature and growing their own veggies, or hitting the kitchen to bake their own sour dough. We then saw it with the the rise of the craft movement, inspiring a generation of knitters, potters and jewellery makers take back the skills their great grandparents once owned but were lost in the rush to convenience.

Next up were the artisanal bakers, cup-cake makers and independent coffee shops. Baking their own breads, frosting their own buns and roasting their own blends, all delivered on a fixed gear bike or (for added kudos) a Penny Farthing.

This trend was also seen in the world of fashion, with hipsters in New York, London and San Francisco donning tweed jackets and growing improbable facial hair as part of a new found chap manifesto. Second hand clothes were no longer the preserve of students and the term “vintage” came to mean something with history and craftsmanship.

At the same time, burlesque shows, tea dances and secret speakeasy’s have been on the rise, encouraging people to partake in the illicite joys of days gone by. I wonder when opium dens will come back in vogue.

The post digital age has seen a mass of disaffected hipsters, born into a world of Orwellian connectivity, embrace a simpler age when craft was king. They are throwing off the shackles of mass produced, industrialised garbage, keen to the lies of the marketing executives. Neighbourhoods like Brick Lane, Williamsburg and The Mission are seeing a kind of reverse gentrification, with local bakers, milliners and hardware stores taking over from big chains.

Fuelled by Etsy and Kickstarter, the new digital fronteer is no longer virtual. Instead we’re seeing a new generation of tinkers who want to see the network manifest in physical products. So the big tech conferences are awash with boxes the print, light-up or chime to the flow of the network.

It’s a curious trend and not the first time society has looked to the past for clues about the good life, or reapplied old wisdom through a new societal lens. So is this renewed interest in craftsmanship, tinkering and personal scientific discovery some kind of post-digital renaissance or are we simply going through the typical soul searching that occurs once a century once the initial party has finally wound down?

More importantly does it really matter? I think things are about to get very interesting (commercial space flight, personal drones, 3d printers in every home) and I’m really looking forward to seeing where it all goes.

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