My sabbatical research pivot

Since I started research back in 1999 as an undergraduate, I’ve always been intrigued by the goal of helping people write code more productively. Sometimes I ran studies that tried to identify barriers to their productivity. Sometimes I made tools that helped them navigate faster, debug faster, test faster, and communicate faster. Every one of my research efforts was aimed explicitly at speed: the more a developer can do per unit time, the better off the world is, right?

Then something changed. I founded a software startup, and led it’s technical and product endeavors. And I watched: how much did developer productivity matter? What influenced the quality of the software? What was the real value of faster developers?

In my experience, faster development didn’t matter much. Developers’ speed mattered somewhat, but only to the extent that we made effective product design choices based on the valid understanding of customer, user, and stakeholder needs. It didn’t matter how fast they were moving if they were moving in the wrong direction. And developer tools—whether a language, API, framework, IDE, process, or practice—mattered only to the extent that developers could learn to use these tools and techniques effectively. Many times they could not. Rather than faster developers, I needed better developers, and better developers came through better and faster learning.

Furthermore, I couldn’t help but wonder: what part of this job is fulfilling to them? It’s certainly wasn’t writing a lot of code. There was always more code to write. In fact, it was the moments they weren’t coding—when they were reading about a new framework, picking up a new language, trying a new process—that they enjoyed most. These were moments of empowerment and moments of discovery. These were moments of learning. Around the same time, my student Paul Li was beginning to investigating software engineering expertise, and finding that, much as I had experienced, it was the quality of a developer’s code, and their ability to learn new coding skills, that were critical facets of great engineers. Better learning allows developers to not only be more productive and more effective, but also more fulfilled, Better learning makes better developers, who envision better tools, better processes, and better ideas. As obvious as it should have been to someone with a Ph.D. in HCI, it was the human in this equation that was the source of productivity, not the computer. Like most things computational, developer tools are garbage in, garbage out.

After I stepped down as AnswerDash CTO and begin my post-tenure sabbatical, it became clear I had to pivot my research focus. No more developer tools. No more studies of productivity. I’m now much less interested in accelerating developers’ work, and much more interested shaping how developers (and developers-in-training) learn and shape their behavior.

This pivot from productivity to learning has already had profound consequences to my research career. For a long time, I’ve published in software engineering venues that are much more concerned with productivity than learning. That might mean I have less to say to that community, or that I start contributing discoveries that they’re not used to reading about, evaluating, or prioritizing. It means that I’ll be publishing more in computing education conferences (like ACM’s International Computing Education Research conference). It means I’ll be looking for students that are less interested in designing tools that help them code faster, and more interested in designing tools to help developers of all skill levels code better. And it means that my measures of success will no longer be about the time it takes to code, but how long it takes to learn to code and how well someone codes.

This pivot wasn’t an easy choice. Computing education research is a much smaller, much less mature, and much less prestigious research community in computing research. There’s less funding, fewer students, and honestly, the research is much more difficult than HCI and software engineering research, because measuring learning and shaping how people think and behave is more difficult than creating tools. Making this pivot means making real sacrifices in my own professional productivity. It means seeing the friends I made in the software engineering research community less often. It means tackling much trickier, more nuanced problems, and having to educate my doctoral students in a broader range of disciplines (computer science, social science, and learning science).

But here’s the upside: I believe my work will be vastly more important and impactful in the arc of my career. I won’t just be making an engineer at Google ship product faster, I’ll be inventing learning technologies and techniques that make the next 10,000 Google engineers more effective at their job. I’ll be helping to eliminate the hundreds of thousands of horrific experiences that people have learning to code into more fulfilling and empowering experiences, potentially giving the world an order of magnitude more capable engineers. Creating a massive increase in the supply of well-educated engineers might even slow down some of the unsustainable growth of software engineering salaries, which are at least part of the unsustainable gentrification of many of our great American cities. And most importantly, I’ll be helping to give everyone that learns to code the belief that they can succeed at learning something that is shaping the foundational infrastructures of our societies.

I’ll continue to be part of the software engineering research community. But don’t be surprised if my work begins to focus on making helping better developers write better code than simply writing code faster. I’ll continue to be part of the HCI research community, but you’ll see my work focus on interactive learning technologies that accelerate learning, promote transfer, and shape identity. And for now, you’ll see me invest much more in building the nascent community of computing education researchers, helping it blossom into the field it needs to become to transform society’s ability to use and reason about code as it weaves itself deeper into our world.

I’m so excited to engage in this new trajectory, and hope to see many of you join me!

Programming, power, and responsibility

I had an enlightening conversation with my 14 year old this past week about power. She was talking about a day in her Spanish class last week where the teacher told gave some instruction and stepped out, but rather than follow the instruction, the students stared at each other, trapped in a perilous adolescent state of freedom and compliance. My daughter, frustrated with their lack of compliance and its effect on her learning, repeated the teacher’s instruction, and then everyone stared at her, still doing nothing, clearly signaling, “You do not have that power“. She then asked a truly insightful question: “Sometimes I have power in class, especially when I know something that other people don’t. They come to me, they want help, I help them, and they’ll do anything for it. Why didn’t I have power when the teacher left? What is power?

What is power? I hadn’t ever really considered the question. I fumbled through an answer professorially, reflecting Socratically to give myself time to think, and finally admitting to her that I really don’t know much about what power is. We talked through the others kinds of power that we thought we had, why we had it, and what its limits were. She talked about recently acquiring power over her peers because she’s decided she no longer cares about what they think of her values or ideas (e.g., calling people out on inappropriate use of the word “gay”, fighting mental health stigma—by the way, when did my daughter become a fearless defender of social justice?). I talked about my many forms of institutional power (authority as an instructor, influence through action, my role as an expert, inherent white male privilege).

It became clear to us that power is an inherently social thing, but also that power is something granted by people in social settings. It is not something that people can acquire without some form of implicit consent from other people. In fact, even the most powerless in our society in some way are granting power to their oppressors when they do not stand up and defend their rights and freedoms. It’s a collective implicit consent.

Then the conservation went somewhere interesting. If power is something granted, rather than something created, owned, or produced by an individual, and we accept that power is like property, in that someone has some fixed amount of free will, someone which they can temporarily grant to someone else, doesn’t the individual receiving the power have at least a partial responsibility to use that power to serve those who granted it (if not a complete one)? If this is true, than those granted power are obligated to serve those who granted it.

Now, you’re probably thinking: duh. Voltaire knew this, Spiderman’s Uncle Ben knew this. These are old, old ideas in political philosophy. How could you possibly have not realized this? And wait: what could this possibly have to do with programming?

I believe code has a capacity for power and that code is granted power the moment someone incorporates a program into their life in some way. When I use Uber, I create a dependency on its code, giving up some of my freedom in exchange for efficiency, convenience, and other benefits. When I store a spreadsheet in Google Sheets, I create a dependency on the geographical stability of Google’s data center in the Dalles, Oregon, and the Bonneville Dam that powers it. In a way, every program is like a Hobbesian social contract: by executing its code, you agree to be constrained by its abstractions, assumptions, and limitations, in exchange for certain augmented abilities.

Now, if code is a social contract, than coders are the ones being granted power by users. Developers must accept that every additional user is an additional unit of responsibility to serve, as that developer is now wielding that user’s power. Just as politicians in a democracy have a responsibility to serve its people, developers have a responsibility the users of their code. And just as in a democracy, developers have a responsibility to listen to their users, to understand their collective desires, and serve those desires, in exchange for the power the users granted and the freedoms that they lost.

Most developers I know don’t see code as democracy. They instead have a dictatorial theory of code, even in mature open source projects. I am the king of this experience, and my users are the commoners. They will accept what I create and like it, and trust in my benevolence. Now, this isn’t always bad if these developers are actually benevolent. It can lead to wonderful information experiences, as Apple occasionally creates. But when power is consolidated dictatorially, and the developer dictators are not benevolent (or simply incompetent), bad things happen (like Comcast).

This metaphor of code as social contract provokes several interesting analogical questions:

  • Is user feedback the analog to political polling, with all of its weaknesses?
  • Is open source a form of direct democracy, with all of its tradeoffs?
  • Are new software projects like new countries and new users immigrants?
  • If new users are immigrants, what are citizens, and do they have greater rights?
  • What is a software project’s constitution? It’s design principles?
  • Why are developers not elected via direct democracy?
  • If code is law, is a computer law enforcement?
  • If developers are lawmakers, do developer teams also suffer from cult of personality?
  • Are software standards communism?
  • Are bug reports lawsuits?
  • Are feature requests lobbying?
  • Does money corrupt software politics?
  • What is conservative and progressive software development?
  • Are software development methodologies like obscure parliamentary rules?
  • How do political parties form within software organizations and do they help consolidate power to reinforce the establishment?
  • How do we teach developers-in-training to be effective, ethical software politicians? Is that the role of HCI, Design, and UX?

What’s interesting and potentially unique about code as law is that unlike many other forms of law, code is unambiguous. It does exactly what it is written to do. The interpretation that we must do of other forms of law through enforcement and judicial reasoning is actually done only by developers, both when they’re writing the law, and when they’re debugging it. All of the nuance gets lost and buried (or encapsulated if you will) in the assumptions that developers make about the meaning of the information and process they design into abstractions. It is then up to society to deconstruct these abstractions to understand their nuance and advocate for these assumptions to change.

The most frightening thing to me about this metaphor is how few people understand that code is law. If our world is politically illiterate, our world is algorithmically ignorant. With code underlying every major human infrastructure, every citizen of every country needs to understand that code is law as much as law is law. And, better yet, we need to begin a conversation about how (or whether?) the laws in code need additional democratic participation, beyond the weak mechanisms embedded in the marketplace.

Coding bootcamps versus universities

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the competition between coding bootcamps and computer science departments. Is this competition real? And if so, what does it mean for computing education in universities?

I do think it’s real, but not in the way that people usually mean. The typical argument is that the only reason to go to college is to get marketable skills and bootcamps provide the same marketable skills for less money and time (without forcing you to learn a bunch of other useless things). This is an easily defeated argument:

  • While there is a lot of learning in universities that has questionable value, there’s is also a lot of perspective shifting, networking, and personal growth that happens in universities.
  • Coding bootcamps (just like many computer science departments), don’t really admit students without a baseline coding skill set; the people who typically enroll are the ones who can already code but want to learn a new platform. So CS departments and bootcamps actually teach two very different sets of skills.
  • People who finish coding bootcamps are still lacking fundamental skills in complexity, scalability, operating systems, software engineering, and software architecture. They skip a lot of things that universities teach because their brief. I have hired graduates of both, and CS majors are unquestionably more effective in the short and long term (not necessarily because of the education happening in colleges, but that’s another blog post).

The competition that I believe does exist is in the quality of computing education. Bootcamps have a far stronger incentive to teach well than universities do. If they don’t, graduates will underperform in the jobs they take,the bootcamp will quickly develop a poor reputation among employers and students, and the whole value proposition of training productive, talented software engineers erodes. That’s a pretty strong incentive to improve instruction, and a pretty tight feedback loop for enabling these improvements.

As a professor at a research institution, I have few such extrinsic incentives to teach well. Because I have tenure (to protect my intellectual freedom), I don’t lose my job if the quality of my teaching declines. Students can give me bad evaluations, but as long as I’m breaking new ground in my field of research, my reputation among my colleagues won’t suffer much, especially since my colleagues around the world rarely have a detailed window into my teaching efforts. Sure, I have to suffer shame every time I explain something poorly to a room full of 70 eager undergraduates, but that’s nothing compared to the shame of publishing embarrassing research, missing a grant deadline, or going to a research conference and having nothing new to talk about. (I should say that I personally care deeply about the quality of my teaching, often to the detriment of my research productivity, but this is often not true for many research-driven tenure-track faculty).

All of the above would be pretty frightening to me if it weren’t for one subtle but important detail: bootcamps and faculty aren’t incentivized by actual teaching quality or actual developer productivity, but perceived teaching quality and perceived developer productivity. This is an important difference: students can feel like they’re learning a lot but be learning little. Engineers can seem effective but be primarily propped up by their teammates. Students and managers are generally poor at seeing actual quality, and they often mistake bootcamps’ selection of skilled developers for the training of skilled developers (just as they do with computer science departments).

This puts me in an interesting bind. As a computing education and software engineering researcher, I’m deeply interested in developing rigorous ways to measure computing education teacher quality and software engineering productivity. These are lifelong research objectives that I pursue tirelessly with colleagues from around the globe. But if we ever succeed at providing more effective instruments to measure these qualities, the world will quickly shift, empowering the managers to find the most effective training (whether bootcamps or universities), strongly incentivizing and empowering bootcamps to find the most effective pedagogy, and threatening to put tenure-track professors like myself further on the defensive.

And it won’t necessarily be researchers that develop these better measures. Software companies have a strong incentive to find better ways to measure developer productivity. Bootcamps have a strong incentive to find better ways to measure their teaching efforts. They may very well invent these better instruments before researchers. (I doubt it, given their lack of psychometrics training, but then again, they just have to feel like their measurements are valid!).

Obviously, given my research interests, I welcome this future, and actively work toward achieving it. But I fear that many of my academic colleagues don’t realize the latent competition lurking beneath the surface of market-driven educational efforts and just how transformative the measurements we are developing might be in unleashing its force upon the academy.

If learning to code were like learning to write…

If learning to code were like learning to write, we’d start with words, first teaching children what a token is and how to read them. “Madison, look at that billboard, see the ‘if’? That’s a token in a lot of programming languages.” “Daniel, did you know that the numbers you practiced writing in kindergarten today are called ‘integers’? Python has integers too. They’re a sequence of digits. Want to go tokenize some digits while we shop at the farmers market?”

If learning to code were like learning to write, we’d move onto sentences, teaching children how to parse statements. “Look Madison, I brought you a new book from the library called ‘Python and other beasts’. Let’s read the first page: ‘print(‘ssssssss!’)’. Can you read those tokens? What kind of tokens are they? That’s right, an identifier, a parenthesis, a string, and another parenthesis. Together, they make a function call, which has a name, and a list of arguments. Good job!”

If learning to code were like learning to write, we’d next teach children how to read sentences, showing children how computers execute them. “Want to play computer Daniel? I got a new board game for us. It’s like the game Simon Says: you read a statement and you try to do what the computer is going to do. If you do it exactly like the computer does, you stay in the game, but if you do something different, you’re out. Check out this card, it says: ‘secret.index(“treasure”)’. Want to play?”

If learning to code were like learning to write, we’d next teach children how to read short books, giving them programs to read, exposing them to all of the computational possibilities of the language they were learning. “Madison, what did you choose for your book project this month? Oh, an Instagram post indexing algorithm, interesting! Are you liking it? What’s your favorite idiom?”

If learning to code were like learning to write, we’d ask children to start writing sentences, creating simple statements that accomplish small tasks. “Daniel, we keep forgetting to turn the light off in the garage. Can you log into the IoT portal and write a rule that turns it off every night at 9 pm?”

If learning to code were like learning to write, we’d then ask kids to write short essays, scaffolding their problem solving with design patterns for various genres of computational problems. “Okay, before you leave, let’s discuss your homework for this week: I want you to write a simple Python script that takes President Trump’s Twitter feed and finds all tweets that denigrate a person, place, or thing. I’ve provided the list of tweets that do this, so your job is to find an algorithm to do this automatically. This is classification problem, so the last two weeks of content should set you on a good path.”

If learning to code were like learning to write, kids would go to college and participate in writing workshops, doing code reviews with each other to improve their encapsulation, clarity, performance, and other software qualities. “Madison, I really like this abstraction here; its so simple, but you’ve managed to use it everywhere, reducing a lot of boilerplate and probably preventing a lot of defects. I bet if you added some polymorphism to this function you could simplify it even further”.

Unfortunately, with today’s computing education, learning to code is nothing like learning to write. Computer science never teach students about words. They give a few examples about grammar, but nothing comprehensive. They never teach students how to read, expecting them to pick it up independently. Then, on week two of intro CS, they immediately ask students to write whole essays. Its no wonder so many students are overwhelmed and drop out.

Fifty privileges

I was on a flight this past December on the “nerd bird” from Seattle to San Jose. All around me were white and asian men, every one with a laptop, and almost every one writing code. I was just about to pull out my laptop when I realized just how privileged each and every one of us was to be on this plane, with these devices, working these jobs, likely all with an immense amount of comfort, stability, and success.

How did we all get there? What had to be true about our parents, our country, our schools, our cities, and our genetics that allowed such a homogenous group of people to all be going to the same place, doing the same tasks, and all for so much money?

Instead of pulling out my laptop, I pulled out my notebook and began to brainstorm each and every privilege that led to that moment. When I got off the plane, I resolved to elaborate on each one briefly daily, sharing each with my Facebook friends, to see if I could understand more deeply which parts of my personal and professional success were due to me and which were due to my environment.

Today was my last post. I’ve had many friends ask if I’d share the posts more publicly, hence this blog post. Below you’ll find all fifty posts, unedited, in the order that I posted them.

You might notice that some of the early posts are sparse. I learned over time that the posts were more interesting to me and friends if I remarked on the privilege and linked to more information.

#1: I’ve never heard gunfire from my bedroom

#2: I’ve always had access to food when I wanted it

#3: Police protect me rather than suspect me

#4: I never had to learn to protect myself on the street (or the playground)

#5: I had two parents raising me

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39% of U.S. children have only one or even zero parents actively engaged in their lives.

#6: My public schools were able to attract nationally recognized teachers by paying professional grade salaries

Until Oregon’s measure 5 gutted public education funding in 1996.

#7: Most of my peers were college-bound, and 98% of them graduated from high school

I knew college was not only an option, but expected of me. In many U.S. public schools, the graduation rates are as low as 60-70%, with less than 5% college-bound. For students in those schools, college is a fantasy.

#8: When people see me on the street, most don’t have an immediate fear response

Many of my fellow Americans with darker skin don’t have this luxury, and move through the world knowing that everyone around them is scared by their presence. This includes police, who, seeing a phone, sometimes assume it is a gun or knife, and shoot.

#9: I was lucky enough to grow up in an era and in a state where smart poor kids like me could get grants, scholarships, and part time jobs to cover most of my in-state tuition and fees, and leave with less than $10,000 in student loans.

Most kids that are in my position now look at the price tag and don’t even consider college, or if they do, spend four years stressing about the next thirty years of massive debt. The result is that most of the kids I teach at UW are from the middle class or higher socioeconomically, or the best and the brightest from other countries.

#10: For some reason, my high school allowed a community college student to come to our high school at 7 am to teach about ten students (including me) computer science

He gave us his homework assignments and asked us to complete them, then told us he’d grade them once he got them back from his teacher. He also gave us Ska mixed tapes.

#11: I could play on the street in my neighborhood(s) without feeling in danger of cars, kids, gangs, or police

For many American kids, being on the street is about protecting your body, not play.

#12: In high school, I didn’t have to work to help my family pay the bills

In many families, teens need to work part time jobs to keep the lights on and food on the table, meaning less time for homework, play, and personal development.

#13: Because I was a boy, my teachers gave me more frequent and more constructive feedback

They also were encouraged me to contribute, whereas they expected the girls in class to be more compliant, only speaking when spoken to. All of this probably gave me more confidence and aptitude than some of my equally prepared female peers.

Frawley, T. (2005). Gender bias in the classroom: Current controversies and implications for teachers. Childhood Education, 81(4), 221-227.

#14: All of family and my friends’ family had jobs if they wanted them, setting the expectation that having a job was feasible, expected, necessary, and supported

Many American children, particularly those in poverty, have parents who are chronically un- or underemployed, creating an environment of worthlessness, survival, and hopelessness. These are not the conditions in which children thrive.

#15: My skin is white(ish) and my nose is thin(ish), so white people don’t other me (much)

I did nothing to accomplish this, and yet benefit from it greatly.

#16: Because my voice is louder and deeper than most womens’, I have a biological advantage in obtaining positions of power.

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I didn’t earn this, but benefit from it greatly.

#17: When I was a boy, people treated me as future professional problem solver, rather than a future parent, spouse or friend

How did that shape my identity? How did it shape the skills I chose to develop?

#18: Because I’m taller than the average male and female, I was much more likely in life to receive more social esteem, more leadership skills, higher income

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It’s also probably no coincidence that I’m short among my my high performing male colleagues.

Judge, T. A., & Cable, D. M. (2004). The effect of physical height on workplace success and income: preliminary test of a theoretical model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(3), 428.

#19: My parents took me outside my home town, state, and country, and so I was able to see (even if only a small glimpse) the vast diversity of how people behave, live, and relate

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Most Americans have never traveled outside of America, and a quarter have never even left their state, usually because they don’t have the money, time, or desire.

#20: I am a native English speaker

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#21: I was born in America

Yeah, I know, that can sound somewhat nationalistic and exceptionalist, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it in relation to the human and civil rights we take for granted. We have so many freedoms, so much wealth, so many safety nets, and so much equity relative to so many other countries in the world. It’s easy to forget just how much our laws and birthright create our conditions for successful, fulfilling lives.

Take, for example, people with motor impairments who must use wheelchairs to get around. Buildings in the US have to be accessible by wheeled chairs. This is amazing! Compare this to a journey I made to the Jade Buddhist temple in Shanghai back in 2006, where many tourists come to pray. Across the street from the temple were hundreds of homeless physically disabled Chinese. They were there to beg for food. Most did not have wheelchairs. Some were missing as many as three or four limbs. It was clear that most of them lived on that street, surviving only because of food and water offered by able-bodied tourists as they exited the temple. In some cases, I couldn’t tell if they were sleeping or dead.

This privilege we have in America, this right to survival, is precious and not to be taken for granted. This could have been me living on the street without mobility, food, or shelter, had my Chinese grandparents not moved to America, and had I been born without all four limbs. But I wasn’t.

#22: I can breathe the air around me without getting sick, short of breath, or poisoned

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It’s a weird thing to say, but hundreds of millions of people in China and India are greatly disadvantaged by having to stay indoors. It’s one of many things that take attention away from growing, learning, and thriving, and instead to staying alive.

#23: My city contained both wealth and poverty

Most people in America live in more class segregated settings.

This class diversity gave me was perspective. The most visceral example of the visible class divide was the parking lots in my high school. The rich kids took the upper lot, where they parked their Mercedes and BMWs and hung out before school. The kids who bussed, and the kids who saved up for a junker and parked on the street, were down the hill, walking further to school.

It was very clear that some kids could access whatever they wanted, and others were in families just trying to survive, but these differences in wealth were not correlated at all with intelligence, worth, or identity. This helped me understand that ability was not about money.

These class divides were, however, strongly correlated with access. I remember, for example, being surprised to find out too late that there was an honors and AP English class, and that was a thing one should take to improve one’s chances of getting into college. When I asked my peers how they found out about it, they all said it was their parents. The upper class parents knew that these things were necessary and helped their kids and each other access those resources. The lower class parents barely knew anything about college, let alone the choices a student has to make to access it. Experiences like these helped me see that knowledge is power, and that wealth and stability provides access to knowledge.

#24: My parents could afford to send me to pre-school, which provided me broad and substantial benefits in life

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Most families with net incomes below $60K can’t afford it, which causes lifelong inequities.

#25: My parents talked to me a lot when I was a baby

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The disparities in this are huge, with many poorer families talking to them infants a quarter as much. These dIfferences have dramatic effects on language development and academic success.

#26: I have full use of my limbs, voice, eyes, and ears

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About 20% of Americans don’t, most with mobility, sight, or hearing loss. And yet, the 80% of us without disabilities tend to act, vote, and design as if every American has the same abilities, which creates a vast range of inequities in access to information and infrastructure.

Fortunately, there is some fantastic research in the world that designs systems based on individual ability, rather than fixed assumptions of ability. For all you taxpayers out there who give a few pennies a year to the National Science Foundation, you’ll thank us later when you join the 20% later in life.

#27: I have access to the Internet

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And this is a privilege that grows larger and larger every day, as many critical services move from brick and mortar, cash-based commerce to digital, primarily web-based services. Take, for example, Seattle’s public transit access card, the ORCA card. In 2009, the cards were rolled out, allowing customers to carry a balance, use it on any of the Puget Sound transit services, and have it auto-reload when the balance depleted. No more worries about exact change, faster onboarding, and automatic transfers. This is great stuff, right?

Unless you don’t have access to the internet. The easiest way to get a card is to buy online. If you can’t do that, you can have it mailed to you. Homeless? In downtown Seattle, you have one option: go to the Bartell Drugs on 3rd Ave. Except they recently stopped selling new cards and now only refill cards. And this is just for now: the list of participating retailers keeps growing shorter and shorter, as the vast majority of users purchase and refill online.

Once retailers stop selling new cards, the only choice is to get a reduced fare card directly from King County. Except the only way to find out how is to—you guessed it—go to their website.

Increasingly, access to the Internet is required for access to anything. Amazingly, we’ve flatlined at 84% of Americans having access, since there’s very little market incentive to offer access to rural, poor, or homeless citizens.

At what point does access become a right instead of a privilege? And how do we operationalize that right, when access requires a device and electricity?

#28: I was taught to read

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An astounding 1 in 7 high school graduates in the U.S. can’t read, and this hasn’t improved in a decade.

My own experiences learning to read demonstrate just how privileged I was. I remember one night in particular from 1st grade. We had just been given a reading book. I remember this book, because it had a really cute bunny on the front, which reminded me of all of the books I’d loved as a toddler. I wanted so much to understand what was inside, and to show my teacher that I did. The first night I received the book, I remember laying in my bed with the light on, working my way through the sentences, “This is a bunny.”, “This is grass”, “The bunny is fast”. Eventually, I stumbled upon a section of the book with the sentence, “He was laughing”. Lag-hing? What’s lag-hing? I ran downstairs to ask my mom, “Mom, what is lag-hing?”

She could have yelled at me to go back to bed. She could have said, “That’s not a word, what are you doing up?” She could have discouraged me, signalling that reading was not important, that not bothering her was important, that curiosity was irrelevant. But, being the 2nd and 5th grade teacher that she was, instead she said something incredibly powerful: “That’s a really good question! Ah, yes, that’s the word ‘laughing’. It’s confusing, because ‘gh’ doesn’t look like it would make an ‘f’ sound. But you’re going to see those letters together in a lot of words, and they’ll always make a ‘ffff’ sound. English has many of strange rules that there’s no way to guess, so ask me any time you get stuck.” She sent me to bed, not only supporting my eagerness to learn, but actually providing me English reading knowledge that enhanced my ability to learn.

Most readers in the world don’t have a primary school teacher as a mother. I did, and I had a wonderful 1st grade teacher, and I had a whole community of people helping me to enter the world of knowledge through literacy. The rest of the world should have these very same privileges, and even in developed countries like our own, we’re nowhere close.

#29: I am healthy

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50% of American adults have one or more chronic health conditions (e.g., heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, arthritis) and 25% have two or more of these, many of these eventually leading to physical disabilities. If you’re healthy, you know what it’s like to be sick. You have less energy, less motivation to work, less hope. Can you imagine being sick all the time? What effect would that have on your daily life? Each one of these diseases has its own experience, I can’t imagine any of them. That is privilege.

I have health. I try to exercise (and mostly fail). I don’t smoke. I try (and also fail) to eat fruits and vegetables. I’ll try to avoid chronic conditions for as long as I can, but with my family history, I’ll have at least one chronic disease eventually.

(I edited the above to be less patronizing. It’s probably still patronizing. These things are really hard to write about!).

#30: As a teen, I had the unconditional love and support of my family

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For many teens, the love of their parents is highly conditional. This is especially true of LGBT identified ones. One study estimates that up to 40 percent of LGBT homeless youth leave home because their families rejected them (either kicking them out of the house or creating such an unwelcoming environment, the teen leaves). Worse yet, once homeless, many shelters reject them because of their religious ideologies, leaving them on the street.

This unconditional love from my parents was a huge part of the stability in my life as a young adult. It made me feel safe to explore myself, my interests, my dreams. It ensured I had food, shelter, safety, and access to information. All of these things are so easy to take for granted, it’s easy to forget that many Americans start their lives with nothing, not even the love and support of their parents.

#31: Because I’m male, throughout my life I’ve been judged more by my accomplishments than my appearance

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This shaped my self-concept in very specific ways, meaning I focused more on learning, skills, and ability than what I was wearing or how I did my hair.

It’s hard watching the opposite happen to my daughter. We talk about this a lot. She says that because she’s still searching for her identity, and doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence, her appearance (her makeup, her clothes, her hair) fill that void. And it fills that void easily, because she gets immediate positive feedback for how she looks. She says gets hardly any positive feedback about her intelligence or her personality (other than from her family, which we all know for a teen doesn’t count). She’s hopeful that as she gains more confidence in other aspects of herself that this will change, but for now, her self-worth is tightly bound to how other people feel about her appearance.

#32: Because of my income, I can mostly live where I want

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In a time of rapid gentrification in cities, and rising costs of living in even suburban environments, most people have much less control over where they live, when they move, where their kids go to school, and what types of services are available to them.

When my parents divorced when I was in grade school, I almost lost this privilege, since my parents couldn’t afford to keep our house. Both of them thought that where we lived was important enough to maintain that they made big sacrifices: my mom commuted an hour to work for a decade, saved like mad, and bought a small house in the lower income neighborhood in our town. My dad took on a lot of debt to pay rent and bills and eventually went bankrupt. But my brother and I were able to stay at our schools, keep our friends, and have a sense of stability. Most of the time, this level of sacrifice wouldn’t have been enough.

#33: I have leisure time

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I know, I know: I’m a professor, and to my professor friends, they’re thinking, “What??? How in the world do you have free time? I’m working 80 hours a week and can barely get everything done?” And my non-professor friends are thinking, “Typical lazy academic, teaching three hours a week. This is what’s wrong with America!”. Of course, the truth is in the middle: in my job, I have the luxury to decide what constitutes full-time effort. Long ago, I decided this was 45-50 hours per week, leaving enough time for me family, my friends, and my hobbies. And Facebook posts like these. That I have this choice is a privilege.

For most people worldwide, how long they must work to make a livable wage is not up to them. If they’re a salaried professional, they have a boss that has expectations. For hourly workers, every minute they clock in means less debt, more savings. About 5% of America works two jobs, some by choice, some by necessity. In many developing countries, people work seven days a week. People in Mexico have longer work weeks than Americans and make a fifth of the money. Time to live, to enjoy life, and to make it what you want is partly our choice, but partly circumstance.

#34: I have access to clean water

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And it’s more than just clean water, I have an abundance of clean, cheap water, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, allowing me to take long showers, flush the toilet indiscriminately, and procrastinate far too long about leaky faucets.

About 1 in 10 people in the world lack access to water they can safely drink. Much of their day is spent boiling water, traveling to get water, saving up for clean water, testing water, and worrying about whether their water is clean. Flint, MI is an American tragedy that will have lasting consequences for hundreds of thousands of people, but it will be resolved swiftly. The rest of the developing world will be waiting and working a lot longer before basic access to clean water is a right and not a privilege.

#35: I have the time and income to vote

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An increasing number of Americans can’t afford the time off, can’t afford the required identification, or can’t make it to a place to vote. In one of the world’s oldest democracies, this inequity and its downstream consequences is ridiculous and un-American.

#36: I live near a grocery store.

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Many people in America live in what the USDA calls a “food desert”, where affordable, nutritious food is more than a mile away with no public transit in cities, or ten miles away in rural areas. About 4% of Americans live in one of these food deserts, including about 125,000 people in the Puget Sound region.

Why does it matter? Distance to a grocery store with fresh food is an independent predictor of BMI. The further away someone lives from fresh food, the less of it they eat and the more they eat fast food. And there’s not much one can do about it: to increase access, there either need to be more grocery stores (why would a store open in a poor neighborhood over a rich neighborhood?) or better public transit to the existing grocery stores.

#37: I had access to computing education in high school.

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The vast majority of Americans still don’t, with only 1 in 10 U.S. high schools offering a computer science class and only 22 states allowing computer science to count toward high school graduation. This is despite the fact that a full half of STEM jobs are expected to involve computing in the next few years. Not only is computing education scarce in the United States, but it’s also extremely privileged: the vast majority of schools that offer it are wealthy and white. Of AP CS exam takers, only 22% are girls and only 13% are black or latino.

My own experience with computing education in 1994 was unique. My high school didn’t offer a course, but an enterprising community college student decided to offer a zero-period computer science course starting at 7:30 am. There were about 10 of us that enrolled. There was no curriculum; our teacher-student just brought in the assignments from his community college programming courses and challenged us to complete them. (I think we were doing his homework!). By the end of the year, there were only a few of us left, but I was excited enough by the topic that I decided to take the AP CS exam. I was the only one in my high school who ever had. I remember sitting in a janitor’s closet for three hours writing Pascal on paper, still clueless about what computer science was, but eager to find out.

In case you hadn’t heard, President Obama just announced CS For All, an initiative bring together over twenty years of computing education research, policy, and teaching efforts. The initiative is huge: $4 billion for states to train and fund K-12 CS teachers, $135 million in NSF funding for research and program development, policy efforts to allow CS to count for high school graduation, and broad participation by industry and code.org to facilitate training. Many of my colleagues’ research, along with some of my own, will be at the foundation of these efforts.

As this policy effort unfolds, support it with everything you can. Make sure your state lets CS count for high school graduation! Elect politicians that bring computing to K-12! And if decide you want to help, be sure to read the research: there are many, many unhelpful and even harmful ways to teach computing that can leave learners with a lifelong distaste for computing. Ask me for pointers if you want advice on doing it well.

#38. I’m not depressed

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But I have been. And so have 15% of people in the US at one point in their lives, and some chronically, making almost everything about life feel difficult, pointless, and hopeless. It is not a state of mind that generally leads to prosperity, growth, or self-improvement. More often it leads to the loss of friendships, jobs, and sometimes lives, through suicide.

My own experience with depression was acute and was probably inducted by my separation and divorce back in 2007. It was unfortunately timed with the middle of my dissertation writing and my academic job search, which was just about the most difficult time to be depressed, given the immense pressure to write and travel to a dozen universities and research labs to be an exciting, interesting, high-energy public intellectual. For two years, by the advice of my therapist, I put on an elaborate act, creating a persona that would allow me to finish my Ph.D. and land a job. I was a high functioning, highly depressed person.

Meanwhile, on the inside, I was rapidly decaying. I let friendships lapse. I stopped talking to my family. I was a fragile, broken father, too often leaning on my poor toddler for comfort. Most of the days I wasn’t interviewing, I only managed to write a sentence or two of my dissertation, and spent the rest of the day staring at a wall, ideating suicide. The only thing keeping me going was my daughter: she deserved a father and a financially secure future. What little motivation I had I aimed at getting my mood to a place where I could promise her that.

I survived because I had community. Grad students I barely knew reached out. My therapist was a constant source of empathy. And my daughter made me laugh. In a way, interviewing for jobs even helped, because it thrust me into the world to meet hundreds of fascinating faculty across the United States, full of new ideas, new possibilities, and new futures. I faked it and I made it.

Many people with chronic depression don’t have the privilege of community. They may be jobless. They may lack community. They may lack friendships. They may have real, substantive reasons to not have hope, such as poverty, discrimination, or a lack of daily personal safety. That I have all of these things helped me survive depression, but also helps me prevent it every day.

#39: I believe my intelligence can be developed through practice

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This belief, which researcher Carol Dweck calls “growth mindset”, is a powerful one. Students that believe this do better in school. Adults that believe this do better at work. People who believe that their capacity for skills is not fixed, but changeable, through deliberate practice, are much more likely to develop the skills they want to develop.

Part of why this is a privilege is that I grew up in a community of teachers that knew to foster my growth mindset. They didn’t say I was smart, they reinforced the process I used to arrive at correct answers. They didn’t tell me to work hard, they told me to work smart, always reflecting on how I solved problems to find a better, but never perfect way. And they didn’t just tell me these things, they modeled them for me. My mother would say, “I’m going to learn how to do this right now, do you want to learn with me?” When my dad shifted from food science to optics, he dove in head first, and talked every day during is training and education about what was hard to learn, how he was learning smarter, and showing us the progress he was making.

Not every child is fortunate enough to grow up surrounded by developmental theories of intelligence. Many kids learn early on from their parents and teachers that there are “smart” kids and “dumb” kids, and quickly learn which one that others believe they are. This stops them from learning new skills, which only reinforces their fixed intelligence self-concept. Probably the worst example of this is in the widely circulated achievement gap metrics: when we show these to black and latino kids without explaining what’s behind them, we only confirm their fixed theory of intelligence.

#40. I grew up near a high-density city

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I know, cities aren’t all that. They have more crime, more people, more pollution, more noise, and more stress. But recent evidence shows that they also are associated with an order of magnitude higher upward mobility than low-density rural or high sprawl areas. Economists speculate about many reasons for this huge difference; the most likely appears to be greater access to information about opportunities. The theory goes that the higher density a child’s “opportunity exposure” (knowledge, knowledge of jobs, knowledge of skills necessary for jobs, etc.), the more likely children will accumulate the benefits of those opportunities over time. All of this is despite class segregation: lower income groups see the same benefits, even though they face other barriers.

Growing up near Portland, the opportunities were abundant and apparent. My parents took me to OMSI (our science museum), showing me a broad world of opportunities in science and learning. I learned of a wide range of internships at local businesses. And even when my parents and I weren’t deeply connected to the opportunities in the region, my peers were: I heard about their parents’ jobs, their career ideas, and all of the different places they were applying to college. This doesn’t compare at all to some of the stories I’ve heard from friends who grew up in Chicago, LA, San Francisco, or New York, but it was a stark difference from my cousins that grew up in rural areas.

#41: I can access any business’s services without discrimination

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I remember when I was eight or nine going to the gas station with my dad in our small town of West Linn. In Oregon, gas station attendants have to pump your gas, so we had the attendant fill it up.

When my dad reached for his wallet, he realized he’d forgotten it at home. He asked the attendant if he could just run home to get it, then come back and pay, which seemed reasonable. We lived in town, we’d come to the gas station hundreds of times and had our gas pumped by the very same guy. We lived 5 minutes away.

The attendant said no. My dad, a bit flustered, asked politely, “What do you want me to do?” The attendant asked for some collateral, and pointed to me. I looked at my dad, he looked at me, and said, “I’ll be right back. Just 10 minutes. I sat in a chair inside the attendant’s booth, sitting silently, awkwardly, while I waited for my dad to come back. When he returned, he paid the attendant, and we went about our business.

My dad didn’t know what to make of it, but he talked to me about it. Was it because he was Chinese? Would he have done the same thing to a white man with a white kid? My dad didn’t know. I didn’t know. I don’t even know if the attendant would have known. But something about it just didn’t feel right.

#42: I feel safe walking home at night alone

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I might feel unsafe occasionally, but I’m sure it’s nothing like women (especially transwomen) feel, or even young boys in rough neighborhoods. When I first learned in college what it was like for women and the real danger that they were in walking home alone, I became much more aware of my own impact on their feeling of safety. And monitoring my impact on their safety is hard: I’m a fast walker, and so I regularly come up behind people at fast speeds, so when I see someone up ahead, I usually cross the street or take an alley just to avoid having to pass them. If there’s nowhere else to go, it’s even creepier to slow down and stay behind them, because then it sounds like I’m following them. Instead, I’ll often just sit on a bench and wait it out.

I don’t know if any of this makes a difference. But I know I didn’t earn the safety I feel and it’s so my job to use my privilege to help others feel safe too.

#43: I have high job security

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In the past ten years, the rate of job hopping has increased to once every 1 or 2 years. And this isn’t always to find a better job, it’s because the last job is gone. For younger people, this instability might be viewed as opportunity, but for people with families it can introduce a lot of financial uncertainty, anxiety, and stress.

I didn’t pursue academia for job security; tenure was a perk, and something I still view as protecting me from the politics and ideologies of the day. It’s something that frees me to pursue truth wherever it takes me and however unpopular it is to my colleagues, my students, my board of regents, or my country. That it also happens to provide a massive form of stability to my personal life is a huge bonus. But it also removes me from the world in a way that makes it harder to empathize with everyone else, who must constantly be on the hunt for the next position, especially those in groups that face discrimination.

#44: The world designs for me

It designs for people of my (average) height, for people with ten fingers, for people who can see, for people who have money. It designs for people who have leisure time. It designs for people for speak English. It designs for the middle aged adult with a full time job and kids. It designs for the dominant attributes of society, because that’s where most of the money is.

When I teach design I try to fight this inequity. That means, in part, that I try to help students understand that they need to understand the needs, desires, and lives of who they’re designing for, especially when those groups are underserved. And it means that when I counsel students on startup or project ideas they have, I remind them that not everyone in the world is a 21 year old college student.

Even when I succeed in this, there are other market forces at work that incentivize them against this. Venture capitalists don’t want to invest in small markets or poor markets. Their obligation is to provide returns to those middle aged adults with full time jobs, kids, and retirement accounts. Product designers don’t want to design for populations that are hard to reach: it’s a lot harder to find blind users to test with then it is college students with smartphones. Sales and marketing folk don’t want to join companies where they can’t show huge progress; that harms their ability to land the next job.

The result of all of this is that the products and services in the world work better for me than they do most other groups.

#45: I have access to paid paternity leave

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(NOTE: as my colleagues have informed me, I actually DON’T have access to paid leave)

No, I won’t be using it any time soon. But as paltry as my benefit is, both for mothers and fathers at UW, it’s luxurious compared to the 21% of organizations in the U.S. that offer it to mothers and the 17% that offer it to fathers. America, we are an embarrassing pro-birth, anti-quality of life nation.

When I became a father, I was lucky enough to be a poor college student. We didn’t have a lot of money, and the only responsibilities we had were finishing our final year of college. In many ways, this made it easy. We needed to pass a few courses. We were already basically broke, so there was no quality of life to maintain. We had the stress of applying to graduate school, but that was more work than passing East Asian history. And after Ellen was three months old, we both enrolled in highly informative Psychology classes such as Language Acquisition, Developmental Psychology, and Abnormal Child Psychology. It was like one long year of parent training and graduate school applications, subsidized by federal student loans (which, in effect, was paid maternity and paternity leave). As hard as it might sound to have been a 21 year old father finishing school, I actually don’t remember a less stressful, more peaceful time of life. (Kit Ko might disagree).

#46. I was born with outsized ability to concentrate

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I can focus on a task for hours. I can take a list of things to do and burn through it without a moment’s distraction. This power has always allowed me to be productive at nearly any of time of day.

But there is nothing “normal” about this ability. It’s just one of many diverse forms of human attention, and it happens to be one that society values greatly at this point in history. Decomposing and accomplishing tasks is only one particular type of work, and it happens to be the one that is rewarded most. I did not earn these rewards; they were a genetic birthright.

My attentional surplus also has its downsides. When I’m engaged in work, I forget to eat, drink, and relieve myself. I don’t notice when I get injured. I have to see blood to know that I’m hurt, and even then, I have to tell myself, “you’re hurt, you should do something about it.” I have trouble enjoying the present moment because I’m always thinking about what’s next. I see the world as a big to do list instead of a rich ecology of opportunities. I struggle hopelessly with open-ended time, especially on vacation. I miss the beauty in the world.

As much as my attentional abilities are valued, I envy the people in my life with attentional “deficits”. They see things I don’t see. They savor the present in ways I can’t. They make connections between ideas I’d never make in my productive tunnel vision. They literally protect me from harm while I’m off in my head, working through a problem, structuring an argument, planning whatever’s next. I need them as much as they need me.

There’s nowhere this privilege is more apparent then in schools. Our dominant educational paradigms (lectures, classrooms, exams, etc.) were designed for people with minds like mine. That’s why I thrived in school. There’s very little room for other types of minds, and very little recognition of the value and necessity of distraction in learning and enrichment.

The same value system pervades capitalism, with its focus on efficiency and productivity, rather than beauty, connection, and meaning. So many Americans look at our society and wonder why they don’t seem to fit in. It’s not that there’s something wrong with their mind; it’s that it wasn’t designed for their mind.

#47: I am never asked to speak for everyone of my gender or race

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Many people, just because of the color of their skin or their gender identity, are asked to represent women, Black America, Hispanic America, and so on. And this is, of course, ridiculous. People aren’t their race and they aren’t their gender. They’re much, much more. Why aren’t White people asked to represent all of White America? Or men asked to represent all men? Because putting everyone in an identity group into a single box is reductive and ridiculous.

One of the odd reasons why I’m rarely asked to represent my race is because no one really knows what race I am by looking at me. It’s only once people who know that I’m Danish and Chinese that they start asking me to represent. And it’s never, “As an Asian American faculty member, how do you think our Asian students view this?”, because they would never feel comfortable calling me Asian American with my obvious whiteness. But there’s definitely a steady stream of references to my Chinese lineage, and a probing curiosity about how some special understanding encoded in my DNA.

Note that I’m never asked to represent my Danish ethnicity. No one ever asks me how I feel about Danish racism, the Danish cartoons, vikings. Because Danish is white and white isn’t a race. After all, it would be ridiculous to ask a human being to represent the perspectives of a whole ethnic group, no?

#48: Students think I’m a better teacher because I’m male

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I hate that this is true. I hate it not only because asking for student’s opinions of our teaching is fraught with problems, but also because it’s not really fair to anyone of any gender. Female teachers are at a disadvantage, especially when these scores are used in merit reviews, and male teachers miss out on meaningful opportunities for feedback. Who knows what kinds of biases exist for gender queer instructors.

Worst of all, the bias that’s embedded in these assessments may stem from a very real difference in who students actually listen to. This might mean that my instruction might get more attention just because I’m a man, and this attention might lead to better learning. I want instruction to be valued on its merits, not on its messenger, but it appears that gender (and probably race) is a huge part of it.

Authority emerges from strange elements bound up in history, culture, reputation, height, speech and a whole host of other factors that have nothing to do with actual expertise.

#49: I’m living in the 21st century

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In my last 48 privilege posts, I’ve discussed a lot of problems in the world. Race, gender, education, health, access, literacy: there are so many inequities, it can sometimes feel like there’s no hope.

In this second to last post, I’d like to focus on how lucky I (and we, humanity) are to live in the time that we do. In the past hundred years, women around the world gained the right to vote. The United States passed Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. We cured syphilis, diphtheria, measles, polio, typhoid fever, yellow fever, and smallpox. We invented radios, air conditioning, airplanes, cars, film, insulin, photocopiers, televisions, oral contraceptives, computers, pacemakers, video games, MRI, cell phones, and the internet. Life expectancy went from an average of 50 to 80 years. We learned to treat mental health in additional to physical health. We’ve begun to map the origins of the universe and the human genome. And more people live in democracy and therefore freedom than ever.

It’s easy to forget just how much easier we have it then our parents, our grandparents, and the rest of our ancestors. More than ever, we have food, we have shelter, we have safety. We have never been more free to discuss ideas about our future as a species.

#50. I am human

As much as I love science, technology, engineering, and math, I am a humanist at heart. I believe in our capacity to build, to create, to love, to share, and ultimately to discover truth. When I’m lucky enough to meet a new person, especially one that doesn’t have the same privileges as me, I try to remember this shared reality, searching for the humanity in them that’s also in me. And when I do this, they usually reciprocate, because they too are human. These moments, where we find common ground, come together, and reshape and understand our world together, are what I believe is the purest expression of humanity.
Because these moments are fleeting, I believe it is possible and even common that we lose our humanity for long stretches of time. We forget that we have the power to change things and give up. We forget that we have the capacity to understand each other and begin to distrust. We forget that we can create and begin to destroy.

When we lose our humanity, it’s rarely our fault. In fact, it’s often because we lack sufficient privileges for expressing our humanity fully. When you don’t yourself have food, shelter, safety, hope, trust, and love, it’s difficult to provide food, shelter, safety, hope, trust, and love to others.

This is why it’s so critical for those of us that have privileges to use them to be as human as we can be. Take that free time that you have because of your wealth and find a way to bring someone stability. Use the safety you feel on the street to make someone else feel safe. Use the abundance of social support you have to connect with someone isolated. Being human is one of the few privileges we can earn outright, with hard work over a lifetime. It’s also one of the few privileges that can’t be given or granted: it’s solely up to you to find it in yourself, despite all of your stress, fear, and instability. And when you do, I think you’ll find that others will be attracted to that humanity, and help grow and reinforce it.

(And thank you for tolerating this series of posts. I know Facebook isn’t really the place for such serious talk, but if not Facebook, where? I’ll be posting a blog post with all of my privilege posts soon, to make it easier to share outside of this walled garden.)

The invisibility of failure in computing education

Over the past few years I’ve pivoted from research on developer tools to a new focus on computing education research (CER). I was tired of seeing learners fail, drop out, or worse yet, self-select out of computing altogether because they viewed it as too hard, too boring, too irrelevant.

Four years in, I’m still surprised by how rare this sentiment is in academia, particularly in Computer Science departments. In fact, most faculty in CS departments I know view CER as “just teaching”, “not computer science”, or “not hard”. In fact, used to have this opinion of CER before I jumped into it.

Where do these negative and dismissive opinions about computing education research come from? I’ve been compiling a list:

  • Most CS researchers are only familiar with the SIGCSE conference, and if they know anything about it, they know that its attended primarily by instructors, publishes short 6-page papers, and in its history has mostly published anecdotal observations about teaching innovations. If this is all someone knew about the field, they’d be right: most of the work at SIGCSE is not research, or at least not rigorous research. This has changed slightly over the past five years, but not much.
  • Many CS faculty subscribe to the “geek gene” theory, believing that some people are born with the ability to code, and others not. If this is true (which it’s obviously not), there’s really nothing to be done to improve computing education, since learning doesn’t depend on the quality of instruction. That short circuits any interest in investigating better ways to teach and learn computing.
  • CS researchers value computational things that haven’t existed before, that expand the power of computing. Contributions in CER generally aren’t new computational things, and even when they are, their power is in shaping how learners think, reason, and problem solve, not in creating new computational possibilities.
  • The high-performing students that survive CS programs mask the failures of CS programs. Students get jobs, they create powerful software, they get paid more than anyone else, and they become productive members—and sometimes leaders—of the software industry. This survivorship bias makes faculty forget about the 50% of students who dropped out of CS1, the students who graduated without the ability to write a program from scratch, and the tens of thousands of students in our universities that would never even consider CS because of the racial and gender homogeneity or the unwelcoming culture.
  • When students fail to learn, we often don’t see these failures because we don’t have good measures of learning. Most exams in CS classes test for declarative knowledge about syntax, semantics, and algorithms, and for program execution tracing skills. They seldom test for the ability to do the things that CS faculty actually value: elegant, modular design; efficiency; algorithmic problem solving; task decomposition. And they rarely test for the things that the software industry cares about: clear communication, planning skills, decision-making, self-awareness, reliability, and so on.
  • Students successfully create software. That means they’re learning, right? Not necessarily. It’s very hard to see what went into creating a program. Most students make it through CS programs by leveraging TAs, classmates, and StackOverflow, and sometimes by cheating. If the goal is to educate students who can independently solve computational problems, that students have created things is no evidence of this ability. (That’s not to say that students should work alone—they shouldn’t—its just that teamwork and the Internet tend to confound our measurements of learning, and make us thing we’re succeeding when we’re not).
  • There aren’t many examples of tenure-track CER faculty, creating a chicken and egg problem. Why would a CS department hire tenure-track CER faculty when there aren’t many Ph.D. students in CER doing amazing research? But why would there be any students if there aren’t any tenure-track faculty? Even if CS departments did value CER—and some do—there aren’t yet many researchers to hire.

Despite all of these problems, I’m optimistic. And there are concrete things we can all do to eliminate all of the biases above:

  • Read the CRA white paper I helped write on the importance of CER and share it with your CS chairs, deans, and colleagues. We wrote it to make the case.
  • Make sure your colleagues know about ICER (the ACM International Computing Education Research conference). This, and the TOCE and CSE journals, is where the most rigorous research is being published.
  • Invite computing education researchers to speak at seminars, so departments can get to know what great research looks like.

Slowly but surely, we’ll bootstrap this thing into existence.

Making money versus making knowledge

I’ve spent the past three years doing two very different things. As CTO of AnswerDash, my goal was to make money. As an Associate Professor at the University of Washington, my goal was to make knowledge. What’s the difference?

In my experience, making money is fundamentally about relating to people. To convince anyone to give you money, you have to understand their needs, their desires, their fears, and their anxieties. If you’re marketing to them, you have to find words, images, and experiences that provoke these emotions and stir them to action. If you’re selling to them, you have to understand them interpersonally and find a way to influence their behavior through your words and actions. And if you’re designing product for them, you have to envision experiences that change their life in a dramatic enough way that they’re willing to give you time or money. Making money is fundamentally about changing people’s behavior by understanding their emotions.

In contrast, making knowledge is fundamentally about understanding things that are much more abstract: nature, truth, reality, humanity. To make knowledge, you have to understand how the world works, how people works, how society works. And attaining this understanding doesn’t involve having to know any people in particular or how their emotions work. Instead, you need to understand ideas, what makes good ones, how to come up with them, evaluate them, critique them, explain them. Making knowledge feels like walking around in the dark, looking around for the light switch, until you stumble upon it, fumble to flip it, and suddenly everything is clear. Making knowledge is fundamentally about bring clarity to chaos.

Now, some people who make money might argue that they’re making knowledge too. Certainly anyone in a large, well-resourced company, investigating future products is creating new know-how. And I actually believe that many people in companies are making the same discoveries that researchers are. What’s different, however, is that those discoveries are not expressed and they are not shared as often. By not expressing them, there’s not an opportunity to evaluate how clearly the ideas are understood, which leaves the ideas weak, tacit, and fragmented. By not sharing them, there’s no way for these discoveries to impact the things that people create and the choices that people make. This is changing, as more people in industry blog and share their ideas online, but the clarity of the ideas is lacking, because the people sharing are often not trained to bring clarity, and because they don’t have as much incentive to share clear ideas.

Of course, people who make knowledge make money too. I get paid to share the knowledge that I and others have made through teaching. Sometimes I get paid to share my knowledge with companies or juries. Sometimes, I don’t understand the enterprise of knowledge: how is it rational for someone to pay me money for knowledge they don’t have, they can’t describe, and they can’t imagine, on the promise that it will bring clarity to the chaos they see in the world? And why is that clarity worth so much to them? If there weren’t jobs on the other end, would they pay as much to have that clarity? Sometimes, I think that professors forget that part of their job is to bring clarity to students, and not just to themselves.

I prefer to make knowledge. I find it more personally interesting, more intellectually challenging, and more meaningful. That doesn’t mean that I think making money is bad, it’s just not something I enjoy as much. That’s partly because I don’t enjoy the puzzle of understanding someone’s emotions. I find that I can see the structure behind an idea more easily than I can see the heartbeat behind someone’s behavior.

In a way, programmers are also people who deal with ideas more than they deal with people. That’s because code is a form of knowledge: it’s an expression of how to that embodies beliefs about the world. In some ways, that’s why it’s hard for so many people who enjoy writing code to understand who they’re writing it for and why: that requires understanding the people’s feelings. It’s strange that something so logical and so formal as code is still fundamentally about feelings.

The service implications of interdisciplinarity

I am what academics like me like to call an “interdisciplinary researcher”. This basically means that rather than investigate questions within the traditional boundaries of established knowledge, I reach across boundaries, creating bridges between disparate areas of work. For example, the research questions I try to answer generally span computer science, psychology, design, education, engineering, and organizational science. I use theories from all of these, I build upon the knowledge from all of these, and occasionally I even contribute back to these areas of knowledge.

There are some wonderful things about interdisciplinary work, and some difficult things. The wonderful things mostly stem from being able to usefully apply knowledge to the world, synthesizing ideas from multiple disciplines to the problems of today. This is possible because I don’t have the duty to a discipline to deepen its understanding. Instead, my charge is to invent technologies, policies, methods and processes that embody the best ideas from more basic research. In a way, interdisciplinary research is necessary for those basic research discoveries to ever make it into the world. This is highly rewarding because I get to focus on everyday problems, learn a ton about many different fields of research, and can easily show people in my life how my work is relevant to theirs.

Where interdisciplinary work gets difficult is in the nitty gritty of academic life. Because I know a little bit about a lot of things, I get asked to participate on a lot of committees. I get invitations to software engineering committees, computing education committees, and HCI committees, since they all touch on aspects of people’s interactions with code. I get invited to curriculum committees more often because my work seems more directly applicable to what we teach (because it is). People from industry contact me more often because they can see how my work informs their work, more so than the basic research.

And of course, my time isn’t infinite, so I have to pick and choose which of these bridges to make. I find myself with some difficult choices: should I create a link to industry, or bridge two fields of academia? Should I invest in disseminating a discovery through a startup, an academic conference talk, or YouTube video? Or should I just focus on my research, slowly transforming my fuzzy interdisciplinary research area into something more disciplinary, with all of its strengths and weaknesses?

Someone probably does research on these research policy questions. Maybe they can help!

Design and the limits of automation

One of the central themes of U.S. President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union addresses was the idea that wages are flat because of automation. He argued that automation, and in particular, computing, is something rapidly eliminating jobs, especially those that involve routine, proceduralized, deterministic tasks. And with machine learning, AI, and deep learning, many of the tasks that require judgment and decision-making are also being automated.

I was talking about this—forebodingly—with my 14 year old daughter at dinner the other night, and she had a surprising reaction:

“That’s great! Then we can all be artists, designer, and inventors!”

I probed:

“Why won’t those be automated too?”

“Because computers aren’t creative, and even when they are, they don’t have any taste.”

What an interesting hypothesis! We spoke on this a bit longer, and arrived at an interesting conclusion. Computers may be able to generate a lot of ideas (because of their speed and scalability), but when it comes time to selecting which of those ideas are good, they will always struggle, since notions of what makes an idea good are so subtle, multidimensional, and often subjective. This is especially true in, where emotional response has primacy over functionality. For evidence, look at any review of a movie, album, or exhibit. Could a machine predict the critiques, let alone act upon them to improve the art?

Now, even if a computer were able to leverage humanity to make these judgements (posting its ideas on Mechanical Turk for feedback), and even if it were able to synthesize this feedback into new ideas, would humanity tolerate the scale of critique necessary for computers to independently arrive at good designs and good art? It’s hard to imagine. Furthermore, wouldn’t it still be humanity making the judgements of what is right? We would still need critics to offer feedback and constructive critique. Without us, computers would not know what to choose.

Perhaps the implication of this little thought experiment is that the asymptote of computational automation leads to a society of people who do not create, but do critique, constructively. In some domains, we already see this. For example, in electronic dance music, much of the sonic material comes from other pre-existing recordings. Or in DJing, where much of the art is in selecting what to play. Algorithms may take over the task of generating the new art and designs, but we will be the editors and critics.

Learning contexts across the lifetime

One of the wonderful things about public education is that it provides children a dedicated context for learning. Even more than that, it really defines a child’s purpose structurally and socially: there job is to acquire skills, knowledge, and wisdom before entering the “real” world to contribute.

For me, this world of learning was something I never wanted to leave. The world of ideas and skills was the real world, and I wanted to find a place where I could keep learning. A life of research and teaching was a dream. The fact that I get paid to make and share discoveries still astounds me.

But in the rest of my adult life, learning contexts are exceedingly rare. Here’s a short list of contexts where I learn outside of my job:

  • News. To an extent, journalists teach. I learn about the world, what’s happening in it, and why it is happening. I occasionally learn some history.
  • Podcasts. I listen to Marketplace and learn about economics. I listen to Death, Sex & Money and learn about mortality and ethics. I listen to the Savage Lovecast to learn about relationships and sexuality. I listen to the Slate Culture Gabfest to learn about the human condition. These media spaces are places where analysis, ideas, and wisdom thrive, and are often grounded research.
  • Books and movies. In these I learn to empathize, seeing the world and the world’s conditions through the stories of others.
  • YouTube. Know how abounds, from how to tie knots to how to have difficult conversations with your teen.

The wonderful thing about these media is that they are explicitly framed as learning contexts. The news is intended to teach. Podcasts are designed for lecture and analysis. I listen to them because I’m ready and eager to learn about the world and its people and ideas.

In other areas of my adult life, I find that people are completely disinterested in learning. They don’t want to learn other people’s perspectives, learn new skills, or understand how the world works. They want to get their work done. They want to feel safe. They want confirmation that their beliefs are right. They want to be reassured about the future. Its only when they enter a learning context—a newspaper, a theater, a 20 minute podcast—that these anxieties melt away for a brief time, and they become open to knowledge.

How can we create more of these learning contexts? How do we create them in workplaces? How do we teach children to create their own learning contexts throughout their lifetime? Is there something about our formal educational systems that make people believe that schools are the only place where people learn? How do we help people value life long learning?