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A better way to learn to code

I caught up with how WeThinkCode is doing at the EduTech exhibition yesterday. I’m told they have around 300 people enrolled on the Johannesburg campus for a free, full-time, two-year course. I’m delighted to hear that the program is working and that numbers are growing.

WeThinkCode is built along the model of 42, a programming school based in France, that offers the opportunity to learn programming through peer learning and problem solving.

When I heard about 42 my first thought was “How can we bring this to Africa?” I even wrote to the school, but got no response and after discussing the idea (somewhat wistfully) with colleagues, forgot about it. So I was delighted to learn that the founders of WeThinkCode had the same thought, but also had the drive to push through and actually do it.

Here’s why I think this model is so great:

  1. The focus on being able to solve problems, quickly identifies exactly the sort of people you want to work on coding systems. (I say this as a veteran manager of large software development teams.)
  2. Peer-learning on projects is the best way to learn programming skills. It makes teachers of programming redundant of course, but that is as it should be. As a skilled programmer I only ever wanted to learn from a programmer that knew more than me in a specific domain.
  3. The two-year full-time format is long enough to encounter deep complexity. I am frustrated that what we can teach at university is only ever the simple stuff – partly because of the small amount of time allocated to coding. Coding is hard. Learning to master the hard stuff takes time.
  4. The intensive focus on coding means a shorter training period, covering more of what you really need, and faster access to real paying work.
  5. There are few people in the world with the conceptual ability to code well. It’s a rare talent. It makes sense to make sure that nobody with the ability misses out because they don’t have the opportunity. So offering this training for free just makes sense. I’m glad to see that companies who depend on programmers see the sense in it and sponsor WeThinkCode.
  6. Programming is one skill where qualifications don’t matter. Its pretty easy to decide if someone has the skill or doesn’t, so not having a degree does not stand in the way of getting coding work. Alternatives to university education are sorely needed and this is an excellent one.

If I were still hiring programmers I would be looking for graduates of this program, not least because the program lists their values as “grit – I keep going”, “curiosity – I ask why”, “connection – I am because we are” and “responsibility – its up to me”. Of course coding is also the ultimate skill for freelancers because there is a steady demand and it pays well, so its a great way to set yourself up for independence.

Some research one of my students did back in 2015 found that high school leavers (particularly girls) don’t consider a career in computing unless they have a relative who works in the field. So a big challenge is to get more people to know about this opportunity and to consider the possibility that they could do it. Spread the word!

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“Keep-goings” before “start-ups”

Last year I opened and closed a business (Better, the cosiest, most creative co-work space that Joburg ever had). We opened in February and closed at the end of November. Starting a business had always been on my bucket list and so I am really glad that I finally got around to it. I met many wonderful people, lost some money, had a lot of fun, and learned a whole lot about myself in the process. That particular aspiration is now firmly ticked. I doubt very much that I will do it again, but I do want to reflect on what I learned.

What struck me most (and this is not new to anyone who knows about start-ups) is how much sheer hard work goes into starting a business. There is a lot to do. Not only is one trying to think at the strategic level (Will this fly? Is there a market? What’s the best way to position my business?), you are also taking care of the operational details. That’s hard.

One day we ran out of milk (a bit of a disaster in a co-work space) and I realised that we needed a defined process so that someone would routinely take responsibility for checking the milk supplies and placing a regular order. I have worked in many different companies and the availability of milk, or toilet paper, is something you learn to take for granted. Somewhere in the machinery of each organisation is someone who does those things, and frees up everyone else to focus on more important things. And that is good. Designing business processes is something I’d done for years in large corporates, but when you realise that those processes have to include the inane details like buying milk, it gives one a new respect for the sheer number of things that have to happen to make a business function.

Starting our little co-work space took months. We conceived of the project in June 2016 and spent the next four months looking for premises. We signed a lease in November 2016 and after two months of renovating we opened in February 2017. During that time we also registered a company and opened a bank account. The first we accomplished in a day, the second took six weeks; despite the bank we chose proudly advertising that they were the “best business bank”. So much for the private sector being efficient!

We ran for 10 months (and it really did feel like running: strenuous). In that time we devised marketing plans, ran events, tried to keep customers happy, worked on improving the space, dreamed up new products, experimented, made some money, learned what didn’t work, made losses, tried new approaches, studied the market, tried different marketing approaches, did the admin, questioned our customers, ran more events, bought cool stuff for the space, reminded ourselves of our original vision, tried different marketing approaches, tweaked our product offering…. Eventually we ran out of energy, and money, and closed at the end of November 2017.

I’ve always been a fan of the idea of business start-ups. I’ve read stories of successful start-ups with admiration and a bit of envy. I’ve encouraged others to start businesses. I’ve read about entrepreneurship and generally thought it was a good idea for people seeking freedom to set up their own small enterprises where they can have control over what they do and be true to their own values. I love the programs to support start-ups and have been behind the idea that more start-ups are a good idea.

Now I am not so sure.

Given how hard it is to start a business, and how much time, effort and money goes into the process, I wonder if the focus should be less on starting new businesses and more on keeping existing businesses going and improving. Whenever a business closes, all the time, effort and money that has gone into getting it going, is lost. The bigger a business is, the greater the loss when it closes. Surely more should be done to preserve that value and build on it?

Given how hard it is to get something off the ground, I feel that start-ups should be approached with more caution, and only initiated when there is a really, really good case for them; when an existing company can’t meet that same need. Perhaps all new ventures should begin by being incubated within larger organisations, with support for the early years? Perhaps the natural way for new ventures to start is by separating from a larger organisation when it is large enough to survive independently. I picture the little plants that grow on stalks sent out from the larger hen-and-chicken plants in my garden.

At the same time, perhaps more attention should be paid to existing businesses that are running into difficulties. We need programs to keep businesses going, to diagnose problems and examine solutions, rather than letting all the hard work that has gone into them go to waste. I guess older businesses are less exciting, less appealing than new ones, in the same way that babies are cuter than adolescents. But the work that has already been invested into adolescent, or even mature businesses, should make us more eager to see them thrive. Perhaps we need to think about shaping existing businesses to meet new needs.

I guess we start new ventures because we want something different. We have a vision for something that is not out there. That’s what makes the start-up appealing. In our case we wanted a co-work space that was cosier, friendlier, less corporate, and more in line with our values than the ones that we had encountered. Perhaps there are spaces out there that we can change, that could become more like the space we want. I guess if there really is a demand, then that demand will shape what gets provided.

I find myself now having greater respect for anyone who runs a business, new or old. I’ll be less eager in the future to recommend start-ups and more inclined to recommend working towards improvements in existing organisations. Working together to improve and build on what is already there seems only sane.

Real work, not jobs

French philosophers seem to have good ideas, but very convoluted ways of expressing them which makes them inaccessible to all but the most determined. André Gorz (Gérard Horst) is no exception. I picked up “Reclaiming Work” because I liked the subtitle on the English translation “beyond the wage-based society”. That resonated with my view that we should be thinking about the shape of the world without jobs which we are rapidly heading into, rather than wasting energy on looking for new ways to create jobs. I was hoping he might cast some light on what that future might look like.

It starts with a detailed analysis of some of the changes that have taken place in work over the last 50 years or so as businesses have sought to wring ever more “value” out of workers.

What I found most interesting was the discussion of what work really is. A dictionary might define work as “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result” and to do work means to “be engaged in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a result”. Gorz argues that work has been redefined as employment for pay. Work has become “something one does or does not have” rather than “something one does” (p56). This has made work (or a job) into a commodity that people are eager to possess, and to make sacrifices for. It means that instead of work creating wealth, wealth (in the form of companies) creates jobs and people vie for the privilege of having them. This puts the individual in an unenviable place of dependency and powerlessness and we increasingly see people taking on “work” for less pay and with less protection.

Gorz reflects on why people want jobs so badly and how jobs have come to define each person’s worth in society. In the past, people have been afraid that without jobs they lose their standing in society. But, Gorz argues, that this is no longer the case. People are having to live without jobs and so are reinventing their relationships with work.

He identifies two characters of interest in the modern world of work; the “jobber” and the “freelancer” (p50). The jobber “turns insecurity into a way of life” by refusing employment and taking on just enough temporary work to meet their basic needs while maximising free time. Jobbers are described as “dissidents of capitalism” for their refusal to buy into the mirage of the job or the lure of consumerism. The freelancer is a self-employed person who, while ostensibly enjoying freedom, generally works long hours for lower wages than the employed. Gorz argues that freelancing only really works for “the elite of knowledge workers” (p51).

If neither of these two options is particularly attractive, he offers a ray of hope in the form of “Generation X”. These youngsters, he argues, show signs of creating a new society in which individuals define for themselves personal agendas of growth and ways to live, selecting employment that aligns with their agendas where possible, or taking temporary jobs to meet the need for income, while pursuing their chosen mix of work, self-development, leisure and family activities.

For this new society we need individuals who are “in charge of their own existences as autonomous subjects” (p69). This is why the anxious parents who force their children through ever more layers of education are actually setting them up for failure. Education teaches young people to submit to doing what others want them to. It does not develop “the capacity to take control of one’s own life and achieve self-esteem outside of the prescribed paths” (p69).

With these examples of living without jobs in place, Gorz says that: “the point now is not to ask whether individuals are capable of living a life no longer centred on employment, or whether they are ready for a society arranged in that way, but how that other life and society can be anticipated and prefigured right now” (p59).

The book continues with a three-part proposal for a reconfigured society.  This is where I think we need to be spending time and energy – figuring out how proposals like these can work. He presents a detailed (and convincing) argument for a guaranteed income which would have the effect of decoupling work and earning. He discusses ways in which jobs can be redistributed, by reducing hours, as well as how to do this in a way that supports the rights of individuals, rather than opening them up to further exploitation. He also proposes that the increased leisure time which results needs to be filled with cooperative activities and projects driven by individuals and discusses the kind of city infrastructures that might support this. It’s a utopia that I can buy in to.

I have a hunch that this utopia is already further along than might be expected. As unemployment rises many people are being forced into inventing this new society for themselves. Most cities contain pockets of invention and bricolage when it comes to livelihoods. People cobble together different sources of income, and spend time outside of employment on their own projects. Of course people forced into this position don’t necessarily enjoy a quality of life that the old “job” secured them. Medical insurance and pension schemes remain attached to jobs and considerable suffering results. This is why we need to focus on what policies and mechanisms these new societies need to support people who do not have jobs, now, while they are the minority. In time, most people will live this way.

The revolution is already underway.

Movies, money and morals

Last night I watched the movie “Going in Style”. Three pensioners, learning that their pension fund is to be dissolved and their homes repossessed, decide to rob a bank. The bank they choose is the one overseeing the end of the pension scheme. They are frightfully ethical about the whole thing – they only want to take as much as the pension fund owed them; they share the spoils with their community and they load their guns with blanks so that nobody can get hurt. Our elderly crooks take the time to remind children not to rob banks. There is no moral ambiguity.

I guess movies that promote lawlessness and make heroes of criminals are not new, but I was intrigued by what “Going in Style” says about society and the particular point we are at.

The movie is billed as a comedy and has some funny bits, but it deals with such a serious matter, how greed destroys lives, that it’s hard to laugh. The idea that the hard-working average Joe deserves something better than abandonment late in life is easy to get behind. The nice people, who look out for each other, are easy to sympathise with.

The faceless Bank, beautifully represented by a lavishly gilded old-fashioned banking hall, is given a concrete identity in the form of an employee who sells mortgages without being too explicit about the terms and consequences. This character is thoroughly unlikeable – uncaring, self-centred, cowardly and not in control of himself. He is easy to dislike.

It’s a movie of our time.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but sadly, it offers us no way out of the place we find ourselves in. While the movie helps us to deal with our sense of outrage and the wrongness of the world as we temporarily enjoy cheering on the protagonists, after the lights are up and we go back to contemplating the bills, bank robbery is clearly not the answer for most people. So I woke up this morning feeling despondent.

Mostly, I found myself thinking about bank employees.

If I were a bank employee, at the level of the guy who sells mortgages, I’d feel a bit cheated by the portrayal of my colleague in the movie. Bank employees at the lower level are just as much victims of the system. They are ordinary people who need a job, take what they can get, and do the bidding of corporate greed in order to keep the job. I have spoken to terrified bank employees who can’t engage in honest conversations about the bank’s products or procedures, for fear of putting a foot out of line. The average bank employee is not a decision-maker; they are simply carrying out the decisions of others.

So, what about those others? At some level, there have to be people who are making decisions. Those decisions are made based on what is best for the business and that generally equates to maximising profits or returns for shareholders, with some concern for long-term viability. Having risen through the ranks, these are people who buy into the idea that some should be quite a lot wealthier than others, and that it’s OK to have an executive earning 300 times what a cleaner earns because that executive is “worth more”. (Which makes me picture one of those moral choice dilemmas: you have the choice of saving the life of one executive or 300 cleaners, which do you pick?)

If I were a bank employee at the executive level, who earns the kind of money that makes ordinary people hate you, or even if I were at a lower level where I make the decisions on how the mortgage terms will work because I hope one day to be at the executive level, I’d be worried. The movie makes it quite clear that laws and property rights are not going to be respected for much longer because such laws support an immoral system. It’s reached the point where ordinary, nice, hard-working people who care about their families and community want to break the law. (Takes me back to the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa…)

Last week I watched Dr Zhivago, a movie that ought to be required viewing for all well-paid executives. The scenes of the wealthy family subsisting in one room of their previously glorious mansion while the other rooms are allocated as living space to the poor has to strike fear into the heart of every overpaid CEO. The scary thing is that even an average middle-class South African like me, who gave up the corporate salary about 15 years ago for an academic one, is still fabulously wealthy by comparison. I write this in my own private study, a luxury I have at home along with my own art studio, all the while picturing how the homeless people who sleep on the pavement along my route to the university could use this space. So, never mind the bank executives, what am I doing to avoid the revolution?

How do we hold on to some moral sense? How do we decide how to act? Where the hell do you start, when the system is just so complex? I’ve been giving these questions a lot of thought, as have many ordinary, decent people that I know.

Here is what I have come up with so far:

1) I don’t think fear should be our motivation to act. I believe there are really only two big motivations in life: Fear and Love. Things tend to work out better when we act out of love, rather than fear. Perhaps we need to act sooner and not leave things too late.

2) It’s really hard to conceive of an alternative to our current economic system, given the complexities of how it all works, but perhaps we can just try to make it more humane wherever we can. One way in which it could be more humane is to have a smaller gap between the highest and lowest paid in any company.

3) I’ve started to think about my money as a system of voting. Each rand I spend is a vote for the company I spend it at. That means it’s a vote for how that company behaves. If I want a better world I need to vote for companies that behave in ways that I approve of and not spend money at companies whose behaviour is immoral. Each vote means more of what I vote for and less of what I don’t vote for.

4) Since I don’t set executive salaries, what I can do is make choices about where I spend my money (and time). To make informed choices I can use public information about executive salaries and, assuming a lowest salary of, say, R10 000 a month (since I don’t have information at that end), I can calculate the ratio. This is how I learned that some banks have their CEOs earning 300 times what the cleaner earns. At the very least I should not be contributing to companies that do that. I can’t imagine a world in which I’d save the life of one executive over that of 300 cleaners.

5) One does not always have a choice, especially when it comes to banking in South Africa, but one can try to vote appropriately as much as possible. Perhaps if people shared information about companies, making these decisions would become easier. It might also create pressure for companies to reduce executive salaries and for executives to be embarrassed rather than proud of their earning power. Where choices are limited there may just be gaps in the market for new companies to fill.

6) We’ll have to work out other measures too that matter to the way we vote – like how well companies treat their employees or the environmental impact of companies.

7) I need to give more thought to where my money is invested. I am indirectly a shareholder in companies that embarrass me and I benefit from their pursuit of profit. Can I use my position to change the way these companies behave, or do I need to invest in other companies? That’s a tricky one that will take more thought.

That’s as far as I’ve got. I’d love to hear how other ordinary, nice people deal with the moral dilemma of living in one of the most unequal countries on earth.

 

Why I was never a soccer mom

This week I listened to a freelance single mom telling how much of her time goes into watching her son play sport. I think she’s crazy to sit at school sporting events when she could be working or creating. So, in case there are other overworked mothers out there, here is my argument. It may work for you.

I get that kids want to feel that you care about the things they care about and that they love to be able to turn to the stands and say “Did you see me, Mom?” After all we do all sorts of things to make our kids happy, many of which are less than thrilling. So, if you have nothing better to do, and you feel inclined to be nice, it makes sense to go along.

BUT, if you do have better things to do (and a feelance, single mom generally does), then its dishonest to go along and pretend to care. It also sets up a relationship which is one-sided and does not give your kids the chance to see you as a human being with your own aspirations and time challenges. I think having an honest and equitable relationship with your kids is important and has long-term benefits.

But being a mom, especially a single mom, comes with all sorts of guilt. What does a “good” mom do? How much can I look after my own interests without becoming a “bad” mom? So, in order to be clear about what to do, my rule of thumb was always to ask myself: “Would I do this for a good friend?”

If I had a good friend who cared especially about ballroom dancing, for example, something I have no interest in, I would want to be encouraging and supportive, share their joy in doing it and their accomplishments. That means that I would want to ask them about it, listen to their stories, sympathise when things go wrong and encourage them to try for the next competition. But I would do that over coffee, or at a dinner to celebrate a great success. I might go along to an extra special showcase event just to humour my friend, but I wouldn’t want to sit through the competitions and I certainly would not be at the practices. Nor would my friend expect me to.

So if I had a soccer-mad son, and I don’t care for soccer at all, I would want to ask about soccer, listen to the stories, sympathise with the problems and encourage him to try for the team. But I would do that in the afternoon over milk-shakes and brownies. I would take him out for a special celebration dinner after a big match, but I would make it clear that soccer is just not my thing. I would rather spend time with him doing something we can both enjoy together, and when he’s playing soccer, my time could be better spent writing that novel.

I always wanted to end up being really good friends with my son. For that to happen I wanted to cultivate a relationship in which he respected and cared about my needs as much as I respected and cared about his. For this to happen, he needed to know me, including knowing that I really don’t care for soccer. Pretending to care is simply dishonest and denies your kid the chance to get to know you as a human being and not just as Mom. Kids are smart. It’s quite possible to explain that you love him without having to love every activity that he gets involved with.

Allowing your kids space to enjoy activities on their own also cultivates independence and they get to figure out what they like and don’t like unencumbered by a watching parent. You want them to be intrinsically motivated, to enjoy the sport because of the joy of running or winning or being part of a team, and not because of the approval they get when they look to the stands to see you clapping.

Set them free, and set yourself free too. Tell them what you like and don’t like. Negotiate around what fun things you both like and time to do those together. Then leave soccer practice to the soccer moms and go and write that novel.

 

Imagine a world without borders

Although I am a South Africa, born and bred, with a South African passport, I usually travel on a British/EU passport, a happy consequence of my first marriage. I hadn’t thought much about this incredible privilege, until I had to help an elderly relative to apply for a visa to visit the UK. It took about 12 hours in total of trawling web sites, completing the application and collecting the documents, and a further 4 hour wait at the processing centre in Sandton.

After that experience, I was inspired to go looking for information about which passports are the most useful for travel. I found this great article on atlasandboots.com that ranks passports by the number of countries that each one gets you visa-free access to (or where you can pick up a visa on arrival).

The list set me thinking.

It seems clear that the passports of wealthy and powerful countries are the best to travel on, while the poorer or less powerful your country is, the lower in the ranking it tends to appear. So one can’t help concluding that passports and visas and all the border control efforts are about letting rich and powerful people travel freely, while restricting the movement of poor and powerless people – kind of like the old apartheid dompas. The dompas, as a symbol of the inequities of apartheid, became the focus of protest and discontent, culminating in the Sharpeville massacre, the year before I was born.

As I sat in the visa processing centre, looking at all the people patiently waiting in one queue after the next, I wondered what makes people so compliant in this process? What makes so many sane adults, all with better things to do with their time, give up 4 or 5 hours to sit and shuffle from chair to chair in order to obtain that piece of paper that will allow them access, just temporarily, to the rarefied air of England? I’m more used to seeing my countrymen and women out in the streets with placards, toyi-toying over their grievances.

Since one is required to switch off cellphones in the processing centre, so no email, no social media, I amused myself by imagining a world movement in which people resisted this humiliation and degradation in the same way that South Africans resisted the dompas back in the 50s. I imagined people arriving en-mass at borders to march across them. I imagined public burning of passports. I imagined the soldiers deployed to mow down the invaders and the TV footage. Would the world be as outraged by these massacres as they were by Sharpeville? And if not, why not?

We live in a world where the rich minority are entitled to live in protected enclaves, shutting out the poor majority who might mess up their pretty places. How is this different from apartheid?

I’d like to see countries ranked in terms of how many places they demand visas from. That would give us a clear idea of which countries are the most exclusive and least willing to share their special corners of the world.

Remember John Lennon?

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do…

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

Ode to a Highveld Autumn

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It’s autumn here. Driving around Johannesburg I am distracted by the dance of leaves across the road, or pirouetting down from the trees that line the streets.

I’m not a fan of autumn, since it heralds cold weather. I’m a spring person mostly – I like hope and fresh greens and soft blue skies of spring. Autumn’s sky is a colder, deeper, more steely blue.

Of course Keats springs to mind with his “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, but there is nothing misty about the mornings here. Autumn heralds the start of dry days and dry skin.

So I’ve had to compose my own Ode to a Highveld Autumn. This is how it goes:

 

Ode to a Highveld Autumn

by Judy Backhouse

Air and light are sharper, colder,

Sky blue deepens like drying paint.

Leaves accumulate, men sweep.

Dust. Skin starts to itch

as soft summer evaporates.