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Dear Nonprofits: Software Needs Upkeep (Why we need better education about software development and professional ethics)

March 30, 2015 5 comments

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?

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Categories: ethics Tags: ,

Style and Substance in Presentation Style

March 27, 2015 6 comments

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.

Categories: academia
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