Dear Nonprofits: Software Needs Upkeep (Why we need better education about software development and professional ethics)
A friend who is president of a nonprofit came to see me last week with a problem: he doesn’t know how to maintain their mobile app. They worked hard to get a grant, and used the money to hire a web design firm to make them a mobile app. Seems like a nice idea, right? Except one problem: they don’t have ongoing funding for software updates and design changes. They had a one-time grant, and they spent it all on their first version. The first version is not bad–it works. But that’s kind of like saying “we made a version of Facebook that works years ago, so we’re done, right?” That doesn’t explain what all those employees in Mountain View are doing, working sixty-hour weeks.
Anyone who works in the software industry knows that software needs ongoing love and care. You’ll never get the functionality quite right–design has to evolve over time. And even if you do get it mostly right, there will be new releases of operating systems and new devices that break the old code. It will need to be updated.
Giving someone a first version of software and walking away is rather like selling them a horse knowing that they have no barn and no money for grooming or hay or vet bills. The upkeep is the issue, not the cost of the horse. The well-known web design firm that sold my friend a horse with no barn should be ashamed. Because they knew.
Nonprofits are particularly vulnerable when they have limited in-house technical capability. They are completely dependent on the vendor in every phase of the project. Dependent on the vendor’s honesty and forthrightness as well as the quality of the product they deliver.
This particular vendor just informed the nonprofit that they would not be able to support future software changes because “their business is going in a new direction.” Now there’s a line for you. They knew that supporting the nonprofit was a losing proposition, from a financial perspective. It’s the business equivalent of a one-night-stand: that was nice, but I don’t want to see you again.
For those of you running small organizations, please think hard about how you are going to maintain any software you buy. For those of you running web design firms, think hard about whether you are serving the best interests of your clients in the long run. I imagine the staff who sold my friend the app are thinking “we delivered what we agreed to,” and don’t see any issue. But you know better and need to hold yourselves to a higher standard.
This is not a new phenomenon. Cliff Lampe found the same thing in a study of three nonprofits. At the root of the problem is two shortcomings in education. So that more small businesses and nonprofits don’t keep making this mistake, we need education about the software development process as part of the standard high-school curriculum. There is no part of the working world that is not touched by software, and people need to know how it is created and maintained. Even if they have no intention of becoming a developer, they need to know how to be an informed software customer. Second, for the people at web design firms who keep taking advantage of customers, there seems to be a lack of adequate professional ethics education. I teach students in my Computers, Society, and Professionalism class that software engineers have a special ethical responsibility because the client may not understand the problem domain and is relying on the knowledge and honesty of the developer. More people need to get that message.
Responding to an earlier version of this post, Jill Dimond makes the excellent point that part of the problem is with funders of nonprofits. It’s more appealing to fund something new than to sustain something already funded. Funders should take a lesson from Habitat for Humanity, who make sure to give people a house that they are financially able to maintain. Most funders are acting more like reality television shows who give people a mansion they can’t afford. And then we all act surprised when the family loses the home in bankruptcy. Funders need to plan for the long-term, or else why bother at all?
I first realized that my style of giving a talk was old-fashioned when I spoke at TEDxNYED in 2010. During setup, I asked for a lectern–I wanted to be able to see my slides while I talked. The staff argued with me–are you sure? I was sure. My slides–horrors!–had bullet points of text on them, and few images. I was the only one. Everyone else had slides with single images that faded from one to the next, or perhaps a single evocative word.
The current fashion in presentation style is a triumph of style over substance. When I design slides, I use text to emphasize the main points. If I am telling a charming story, the point is on the slide. This is why I am telling you this story. My talks have content.
Of course images can be content too. Sometimes pictures are actually data. A couple nice examples come to mind from the recent CSCW conference in Vancouver. Nicki Dell from UW presented a paper about people in developing nations struggling to fill in paper forms, and photos of her subjects with giant stacks of paper told the story better than words. Similarly, Lynn Dombrowski from UCI discussed how hard it is to help people to sign up for public assistance. She didn’t have photos from her field site she could put in a presentation, but she was able to find images of real people in similar situations–freely available with a Creative Commons license. I’m more a verbal person than a visual one, but even I get the value of well-chosen images. But a photo that is actual data or closely related is not the same thing as one that just sets a mood. Raise your hand if you’re tired of flowers and mountain streams used to evoke abstract concepts in computing. Sometimes I want to ask, is this a research presentation or a greeting card?
It’s not really pictures I object to–use a sunset if you must. I object to the absence of words. Sometimes the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” is simply not true.
The image-focused style of giving a talk goes back to the introduction of the Pecha Kucha presentation style in 2003. It was originally intended to keep talks fast paced and engaging. Don’t get me wrong–I believe talks should be entertaining and engaging. And I’m not advocating a return to overhead transparencies. But I prefer to engage people by presenting content that is meaningful and relevant–not just pretty. Text on slides helps keep people focused on the ideas I’m trying to convey.
I’m proud to use an old-fashioned talk style. Maybe in the future it’ll become hiply retro.
I went to wash my hands the other day, and saw that my husband, Pete, had left something soaking in the sink. OK, I’ll use another sink…. But wait! What is that soaking? It was the charger for his electric toothbrush (unplugged, of course). You know how those get kinda gross, covered in white gunk? I try to clean mine now and then–usually with a bleach wipe. It helps, but it never gets it really clean. Later that day, I saw Pete’s toothbrush and charger positively gleaming. Wow! It wouldn’t have occurred to me to soak something electrical, but I guess you can do it. I was inspired, and soaked mine. It worked like a charm.
Let’s look at this as an episode of learning. Pete and I haven’t exchanged a word about the toothbrush–this post will come as a surprise to him. But through observation, I both developed motivation to do something positive, and learned a new method for approaching it!
Of course you know this post isn’t about toothbrushes. My question is: In what ways do students in face-to-face classes have opportunities for this kind of learning? I don’t take it for granted that this happens a lot–I think sometimes we romanticize the traditional classroom. I’m always surprised at the end of the term when I’m teaching a small class and know everyone’s names, and realize they don’t know one another’s names. They often just know the name of one or two classmates. Though sometimes the support from those one or two friends is critical.
If we could understand more about social and observational learning in the traditional classroom, then we could try to recreate the positive aspects in the online classroom. Or better yet, to go beyond being there (thank you, Jim Hollan), and invent even better mechanisms. This is what my PhD student Joe Gonzales and I are trying to do.
How would you approach it? Leave me a comment, and tell me about your cool work!
We’ve had a lot of long discussions lately about which video games you are allowed to play and why. It’s a tough issue. When I tell you “Fasten your seatbelt,” I can say it with certainty. If you don’t, your risk of getting seriously injured goes up dramatically. There is a cause and effect relationship.
When I say, “I don’t want you to play Call of Duty,” can I say it’s important with the same certainty? I really can’t. I have absolutely no fear that you will become a violent person. You have solid values. You have heard your father and I talk about how we feel about weapons your whole life, and you understand the issues.
But just because I don’t think it is going to cause you to be violent, does that mean I believe it has no effect on you? I think often about G, the kid who shot you in the leg with his airsoft rifle last summer. He’s surrounded by the most violent video games, and real weapons. Do I think those things caused him to be a miscreant? Well, he couldn’t have shot you if he didn’t have that airsoft rifle. Did the video games cause him to be more likely to shoot at you? I can’t prove that they did. Lousy parenting is probably the main cause. But the hours G spent playing Call of Duty starting at age 6 certainly didn’t help.
You bring up B as a counter example, and you’re right. He has played all the same games as G and he is beyond a shadow of a doubt the nicest kid in your grade. A gentleman and a great guy. B also owns weapons, which are carefully put away and used in a supervised fashion. So you’re right–having those things doesn’t cause you to turn out like G. But do they contribute? I believe the totality of things that surround you influence you.
The other thing that makes this conversation so difficult is the fact that it’s unclear where to draw the line. Some parents don’t let their kids play games with any violence whatsoever, and I guess that makes the conversation easier. But I love games and I appreciate that playing and discussing video games is central to kid culture for boys your age. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on things like Pokémon. OK, I don’t buy it for a second that the pokémon just “faint”–it sure looks like someone really got hurt to me. But how could I ask you to miss the fun of your magikarp evolving into a gyrados? And then a game like Skylanders is just a tiny bit more violent than Pokémon. And Castle Crashers is just a tiny bit more violent than that. And on and on, one tiny step at a time from Pokémon up. Ultimately where to draw the line is arbitrary. You’re right that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is only a tiny bit more violent than Destiny. But for now, that’s the arbitrary point where we’ve drawn the line. The line will move as you get older, I promise.
The last reason this conversation is hard is because I’m not sure. I have not seen any empirical evidence that I find convincing about the impact of violent video games on kids. And there are moments when I think, “oh good grief–why can’t he play that game?” I have doubts. But in the end, your father and I decided to be moderately permissive, but pick a spot to draw the line.
My husband said at the breakfast table this morning:
I saw an article yesterday that Peyton Hillis is number two on the Giant’s depth chart. And you know what? I don’t care!
He grinned and we exchanged fist bumps. Hooray for not needing to know the Giants’ depth chart!
I have played fantasy football since 2001 and been commissioner of a league since 2002, and this year I quit. So did my husband. We’re relieved.
There’s a lot to like about fantasy football. I feel a genuine sense of comradery with the friends I play with. I love statistics, and pouring over charts to find the overlooked gem of a player is great fun. I’m not bad at it–I almost always make the playoffs (though I rarely actually win the league). But about three years ago, I stopped looking forward to my annual summer pre-draft research, and started dreading it.
Success at fantasy football is built on three things: knowledge, strategy, and luck. I am a bit deficient in the knowledge department (I like reading sports news, but I’m not obsessed with it), but I like to think that I make up for that in the strategy department. Which adds up to making me a pretty good player. But why did it stop being fun?
Fantasy football isn’t just something you do in addition to watching football–it transforms the entire viewing process. And that’s both good and bad. The good part is that I can be watching a game between two teams I don’t particularly care about and rejoice when a player on my fantasy team scores. The bad part is that I can be watching what is truly a great football game, but fail to see it. Instead of seeing the Broncos’ offense as a thing of beauty, I’m thinking “Oh no–don’t throw it to Wes, throw it to Demaryius!” In fact I’m not watching the real game at all–I’m watching the fantasy game, and whether Peyton gets the ball to my man Demaryius Thomas is the only thing I actually am seeing. Which is particularly bizarre if the Broncos happen to be playing my home team, the Atlanta Falcons. So we intercept a ball targeted at Demaryius and I’m sad? Wait, what am I cheering for–for my fantasy players to score, or for my real team to win? Which game am I even watching–the real one or the fantasy one? You’ll often find me in our seats at the Georgia Dome hitting reload on my phone–forget what’s on the field in front of me: how are my fantasy players doing?
Fantasy football also has a crazy frustration factor–injuries. Sometimes these are foreseeable–if you draft someone with a history of injuries in the past, you know you’re taking a risk. But some of them are just random. Even more random when the injury occurs off the football field.
I’ve gotten better over time about not being over invested in my fantasy team. Sometimes on a fall Sunday if we’re out for a hike, I actually can wait til we’re home to check my fantasy stats, instead of reloading them on the trail. But it’s still hard not to feel like you’re under a black cloud on Sunday if everything is going badly. Or to grin like a Cheshire cat if things are going well. But if my husband and I are both playing in the same league, how often is it that we’re both rejoicing at our fantasy football luck? Someone is usually fumbling their way through a weekend disappointment. Not that we care that much–we don’t–but it still can be dispiriting. So in the end the game does not improve our net household happiness.
For this year, I say goodbye to fantasy football and hello to real football. And maybe my former fantasy football buddies will watch a real game with me some time.
At this year’s CRA Snowbird conference (the every-other-year gathering of chairs of CS departments), I organized two panels on MOOCs and online education. While I’m told that Snowbird 2012 was dominated by hyperbole about MOOCs, our discussion this year was eminently sensible. In our panel “MOOCs and Online Education: The Evolving Big Picture,” Nelson Baker (Georgia Tech), John Mitchell (Stanford), and Marian Petre (The Open University) talked about the realities. There’s a lot we can do with online education. It’s wonderful that GT’s new online master’s of computer science is reaching working professionals who otherwise couldn’t pursue higher education. But how to do it well and how to make the bottom line add up are challenges. It’s not cheaper if you do it right. We had standing-room only for the panel, and both the positive hype and negative hype were absent. People were talking sense.
In our second panel, we discussed MOOCs and online education as active areas of computer science research. Marti Hearst (UC Berkeley), Scott Klemmer (UCSD), and Rob Miller (MIT) showed some current research in progress on how to design new software for online education inspired by good pedagogy. Right now we’re still in the horseless carriage stage of online ed–trying to understand the new medium in terms of the old one. How to do this well is an open area for research. And we need research done in both ischools, ed schools, and computer science departments. There is a complicated interaction between what the technology can do and what good pedagogy says we should do. Making those work together is a challenge. And department chairs and deans need to think hard about whether they are able to fully support faculty members doing such interdisciplinary work.
One thorny area that needs further community discussion is research ethics. Whenever you do research on students, you need to recognize that there is an unavoidable power relationship between faculty and students, particularly if investigators are doing research on their own classes. Petre emphasized that as faculty we have a duty of care. The rule book on the ethics of researching real students in online classes is still being written, and it has more nuance and complication than recent controversies about social network sites conducting research on their members.
What was noticeably absent from our online ed mini-track was hype–both positive and negative. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and is much more complicated than you might think. And we’re just at the beginning.
I had a funny conversation years ago with a faculty member at MIT who has taught artificial intelligence (AI) for many years. At the time, AI was unfashionable. And he said he liked that better, because when AI was trendy they got lots of shallow people going into the field for the wrong reasons–just because it was “hot.” During the “AI Winter” when it was unfashionable, he had a smaller influx of potential students–but nicer ones, who were more sincerely interested in the discipline. Thank heavens we have gotten past the latest hype bubble about online ed, and are left with sincere people working on some interesting and worthy problems!