Is Technical Education Enough?

There’s a lot of energy in this country put into creating and providing technical education for underserved students towards the end of increasing the chances that these students will find careers in STEM. I care deeply about how this is handled and sit on boards of multiple organizations that address this issue for a range of students from pre k-12 programs to workforce development initiatives for adults who want to move into technical careers.

We need more diversity in the technology industry for at least two reasons:

  1. Technology Scales Really Well. This is important because when a technology is aimed to scale good things, it scales good things. And when it’s aimed to scale bad things, it scales bad things.
  2. More Diversity = Better Solutions. We need a diverse set of brain power with multiple perspectives to understand complex problems we face today and then invent, implement, and scale appropriate solutions.

But there are a few gaps between technical education and the diverse and inclusive workplace that we imagine. A technical education might be enough to increase diversity – that’s a measurable number like, “How many of our new hires identity as female?” But it won’t be enough to foster inclusion which is less measurable. Inclusion is the creation and ongoing improvement of systems and environments that help diverse talent succeed.

So a good technology education will get someone’s foot in the door. But that won’t be enough to help them succeed in an environment where they may be the “first, only, different” person at the firm. There are a few ways to address this and there isn’t complete agreement on the best path. However, I’ll list some ideas here on some non-technical content that a technical education might include:

  • History of technology, industry, and economics to paint the big picture of how technology and industry became homogenous in the first place
  • Role Models and success stories. It’s important to show students examples of innovators that look like they look like. Include guest speakers or news stories that highlight diverse talent. When making images for public consumption, chose images carefully
  • Communication Skills. Being able to speak and write clearly is key. Bonus points for visual communication like sketching and diagramming
  • Employee training on how to navigate work situations in which it’s hard to be seen, heard, or taken seriously because you don’t fit the status quo image of an engineer or programmer
  • Manager training for industry managers who don’t yet have experience managing and supporting diverse talent

Technical Education isn’t enough. If the 21st century is going to be better and more equitable than the 2oth, we need to integrate history and social skills into the mix.

 

Advertisements

Workshop as a Verb

In the arts, at least in art school, there are formal mechanisms in place for talking about work in progress. Artists have critique, performing artists have rehearsal, and creative writers have the workshop. I like how writers use the word “workshop” as a verb, for example, “Let’s workshop that poem.”

After graduating, many artists lose that formalized place and community, so they stop making art. Some artists find local groups to work with. Others go back to school–they enter a graduate program just to have that community again. But many more just quit. And this is a tragedy. Because the world needs more artists and it needs more art.

My definition of an artist here is, “a person who consistently makes art.” That is to say, you don’t need to make a living as an artist to be an artist. In fact, most of my friends who are artists, musicians, composers, and actors have full-time jobs that bring in their main source of income.  Yet they make art–mostly every day, at least every week.

As for the artists who quit? I wonder if they would keep at it if they could maintain the practice of workshopping with a small group of people who consistently show up ready to share their work and give them feedback on theirs.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

 

When Artists Talk to Artists

Journalists have a talent for making the obscure understandable to the general public. So they ask questions that are pretty broad and help the experts that they are interviewing be understood by non-experts. It’s a great service to society!

Something different happens when an expert interviews another expert. Yes, it can get a little heady. But it can also be super fun, especially if it’s a subject that you the reader cares about.

This interview with Zappa guitarist Steve Vai  is one of those “experts interviewing experts” situations. It’s not for everyone. It’s niche. But if you’re into music and musical notation and in this instance, polyrhythms, then check it out.

The link above starts about 20 minutes into the interview. In the first 20 minutes, Vai talks about the importance of owning your publishing. It’s the business side of the story and an important one. As he points out, a lot of musicians sign crappy deals. So he gives some useful advice on that.

But the magic begins when he talks about music and his journey into it. He first heard Zappa as a student at Berklee. He was so obsessed with understanding what that music was about that he started transcribing it. He then sent a transcription of a song to FZ, and Zappa hired him to do more. Only later was Vai invited to play in the band!

I enjoy how Vai talks about the process of figuring out complex rhythms. In order to figure them out, he says, he has to feel them first, and then visualize them on the page. A truly synesthetic experience!

And I adore what he says to the interviewer, Rick Beato, at the end of the interview, “I’ve done 1000s of interviews, and not once has someone asked me about polyrhythms. Which is weird because it’s something I know a lot about!”

It’s fun to talk shop. Yes, there is a time and a place for it. And if you’ve got newbies in the room, don’t be rude, bring them in! But it’s ok to balance general speak with nitty-gritty.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

This entire series from producer Rick Beato is fantastic. It ranges in complexity from accessible videos about rock songs to advanced lectures on music theory and ear training.

This video in which he deconstructs The Police song “Every Little Thing” is great.

 

 

 

Craft in the Industrial Age

stickley

The Arts & Crafts movement was a design movement that emerged in the late 19th century/early 20th century in response to the gaudy design coming out of new industrialized factories that featured fake joinery and Victorian Era ornament. Faced with the chaos of industrialization, the members of the Arts & Crafts movement aimed to find a new aesthetic, one that celebrated the authenticity of handcraft while embracing new techniques that would make craft affordable to everyday people. Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Roycrofters in East Aurora, NY are famous leaders of this movement.

Yesterday we visited the Stickley Museum in Fayetteville, NY. It’s housed in the old Stickley Factory that was opened in 1900 and operated til 1985 when they moved operations to a larger shop down the road in Manlius, NY.  Also housed in the old factory is the Fayetteville Public Library which is one of the first libraries to build a Fab Lab. This little spot a few miles east-southeast of Syracuse, NY is a magical place. You can feel the history, the sense of purpose, the carving out of a new voice in the face of dramatic technological change.

There are hints of a similar movement today. Artists & Inventors like Nervous System are exploring desktop fabrication in a way that embraces the unique qualities of it. Artists & Inventors like Lauren McCarthy are exploring sensors and machine learning in critical and thoughtful ways. When we look back 100 years from now, who will be the leaders of the “Arts and Crafts” movement of this time? And what legacy will they leave behind?

Vision is Always Ahead of Execution

One reason that creative people are drawn to new ideas, often at the expense of executing ideas they already have, is that new ideas have an ideal perfection about them. But once you sit down and start to execute a new idea, you soon realize how complex it really is and that you’ll never be able to make it as pretty and shiny as it appeared when you first thought of it. This reality bums you out, so you find a new, new idea.

I adore this excerpt from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland (1994) that makes an interesting claim about vision and new ideas and how they are perceived differently by beginners versus masters:

Fears rise in those entirely appropriate and frequently occurring moments when vision races ahead of execution. Consider the story of the young student who began piano studies with a master. After a few months practice, the student lamented to his teacher, “But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers,” to which the master replied, “What makes you think that ever changes?”

That’s why they are called masters.

When he raised the student’s discovery from an expression of self-doubt to a simple observation of reality, uncertainty became an asset. Lesson for the day: Vision is always ahead of execution, and it should be. Vision, uncertainty, and knowledge of materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from. Vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.

“Vision is always ahead of execution, and it should be.” If you can hold this in your mind as you are struggling with the imperfection of your own work, it will ground you. It will keep you focused. And it will earn you the title of master.

Going Deeper with STEAM

STEM is an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” and STEAM is a variation on that acronym that adds an “A for ART” to that grouping of disciplines.

There are two main reasons for adding art to STEM:

  1. It makes STEM more attractive to more students
  2. It infuses STEM with the rigor of artistic practice

We do the first one well. It’s a pretty effective tactic for attracting a diverse set of students to STEM.

We don’t yet do the second one well. This is because there is a lot of confusion about what artistic practice or design or creativity is. Many think it’s a free for all, do anything you want, just adds crayons or post its or pipe cleaners. But that approach to creativity is missing the mark.

Artistic practice should be integrated with STEM because it offers rigorous methods for the following creative processes:

  • Understanding Human Interaction and Empathy
  • Exploring and Iterating in a Problem Space
  • Using Decision Making and Constraints in a Solution Space

Human Interaction and Empathy. Creativity is about a deep understanding of the ever-evolving relationship between audience and viewer, writer and reader, producer and consumer. This understanding can be referred to as empathy. Folks in STEM disciplines tend to get wrapped up in the science and technology and forget about the effect that new technologies have on humans. Artistic practice brings that human experience to the forefront.

Exploration and Iteration. Have you ever seen Leonardo’s notebooks? Before he committed one drop of paint to a canvas, there was sketching. Lots of it. He thought with a pencil in hand and explored his subject by sketching variations on a theme. Only then could he make decisions about what to paint, build, create. STEM researchers can rush to solutions or outcomes too quickly. Artistic practice requires the practitioner to linger in that unfamiliar space for a while. To wade in the dark without a flashlight or a map. Uncertainty is a necessary part of being an artist.

Decision Making and Constraints. But artists don’t stay uncertain forever. Well, they may retain some uncertainty, but that doesn’t keep them from making decisions. Through their exploration, they figure out what is important and then make a series of decisions to highlight that important thing and let go of the rest. They say that documentary films come together in the editing room. An extraordinary amount of footage ends up on the cutting room floor. STEM researchers might see that discarded film as failure or inefficiency. But artists see it as the cost of doing business.

How might we integrate these deeper lessons from ART with STEM education?

From Idea Generation to Decision Making

Design and design thinking get confused with idea generation. This confusion is unfortunate because the most valuable thing about the design process isn’t idea generation. Anyone can come up with cool ideas. The most valuable thing about the design process is that it requires prioritization and decision making and then offers tactics (constraints) for implementation.

Yesterday I wrote about how the combination of priorities & constraints leads to clarity on a poster. But you can apply this same combo to organizational strategy. First, figure out what’s most important. Then, use constraints to scale those important things. Constraints, in this instance, means making decisions about what to do and what not to do. The idea is to choose a small set of activities so you can focus on scaling what’s important, and say no to other activities even though you think they are fun or cool or useful.

I often say that I’m puzzled by peoples fear of decision-making and constraints and their attraction to idea generation and post-its. But honestly, I’m not puzzled at all. Saying yes to everything is fun and easy. But saying no to some things and yes to others is hard and it’s risky. Yet, decide we must. Because while saying yes to everything might be fun, it leads to a mess. Saying no to some things and yes to others leads to clarity.

 

Priorities + Constraints = Clarity

poster

I don’t know who designed this poster template, but I love it. By looking at it you can see that the designer has prioritized the information in order of importance, then employed a set of constraints to convey the message in the simplest way possible. The set of constraints are made up of three elements: color, size, arrangement.

PRIORITIES. You know a that a designer has their priorities in order if  their work passes “the squint test.” That is, if their reader squints at it, they know what it’s about. Readers don’t need to know all of the information at once. They need to know the most important thing. Then, if the most important thing is interesting to them, they will move closer to the poster to get the details.

CONSTRAINTS. Designing something that is clear takes discipline. Effective designers use constraints to get their point across. Sure, they could use every color in the rainbow, but in most cases, that just confuses things. Sure, they could make all of the type close in size, but then how would your reader know what information is most important? Sure you could arrange elements all over the page equally, but then how would your reader know what to read first?

The most common pushback I hear from junior designers on constraints is that they limit creativity. I don’t know where this idea comes from but it’s false. The best artists and inventors use constraints. And you should too.

On Curating Diverse Events

This past week an unfortunate poster went around the internet. The poster was promoting a talk called “Women in Math” at BYU and it featured headshots of 4 male speakers. Honestly, I see posters and speaker rosters that look like this all of the time. It’s not a good look.

That said, I know from experience how challenging it can be to recruit diverse speakers or panelists. There are a lot of complex reasons for this that I won’t get into here. I’ll just fast forward to solutions.

Game Developer Tanya X. Short wrote an awesome twitter thread this week on tips for recruiting diverse speakers. I’ve transcribed that thread below and I’ve bolded the points that resonate most with me. Use in good health!

Tanya X. Short‏ on Curating Diverse Events

transcription of a twitter thread from Feb 2018

https://twitter.com/tanyaxshort/status/965721243847680000

As an event-runner, I understand it can be frustrating when people say diverse speaker lineups are ‘easy’, given how it fails to happen so often. So here [are] some tips.

First take a breath even if you messed up, you’re not a “bad person”, we’re only as bad as the actions we take. so after a mistake, ok, let’s learn and take some good actions. 🙂

1 – plan to spend extra time finding diverse people to include. this is why people are called “marginalized” — they are pushed to the margin and their work [is] undervalued, not shouted from the rooftops

2 – plan to spend extra money +/or effort persuading them to speak. they put themselves at more risk by appearing in public, and may have fewer resources to spend on you, incl time

3 – when atypical people speak at your event, prepare for their talks to be underrated and their expertise questioned. be ready to defend them.

4 – invite as many marginalized speakers as possible FIRST, to get a feel for how many holes you’ll need to plug with more typical developers. since it will take more time, get these sorted before you find the rest.

5 – be flexible in defining success, to avoid perpetuating problems of capitalist oppression. promote artistry, thought-leading, community leadership, and other kinds of success to help auto-diversify your pool

6 – Looking for diverse game devs? Here’s a good place to start, google for more? https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1o5Hc-iIE8Axlnu8_ui_XMLsm9k-cG1VWg39GV3EONQ4/edit#gid=0 … even if it’s in the trash hmm

7 – Surely you know a FEW marginalized speakers on twitter — c’mon — but if they’re not available, wait! Don’t ask for their help yet! Their time is valuable. Crawl their timeline, see who THEY signalboost.

8 – Still can’t find enough? look for groups of marginalized orgs — Game Devs of Color Expo, Dames Making Games, Pixelles, etc. See who THEY signalboost. Join their groups if allowed.

9 – (Ongoing) every week or two, invest a few minutes looking for, following & signal-boosting diverse voices yourself. this will help familiarize you w/ more and better work in yr field. future you will be happy you did this.

10 – Maybe you’re not pleading with enough flattery. Consider how you would write an invitation to ask YOUR ALL-TIME HERO IN GAME DEV to speak — now title it to this developer instead. they deserve your admiration.

11 – Okay after you’ve done all this and you’re STILL coming up short, now you can beg the more typical devs on your timeline if they have time to rec a few diverse speakers.

12 – If THEY ALSO can’t rec anyone, okay now you can ask your existing diverse speakers for more recs, very politely, but it’s possible your event has a deeper problem…

13 – Honestly if you’ve done all this and you still can’t find 50% people willing to speak… are you holding it at an inaccessible time or place? is there something alienating about the theme? do you or your staff have a bad reputation?

13.5 If you’re not sure what’s going wrong, and struggling, bust out $200 and spend a few hours with a professional diversity/inclusion consultant. DM me and I can hook you up w/ someone. let’s fix this! 🙂

Gotta get back to game dev work myself but anyone, feel free to chime in and recommend more!

 

 

related to point #13

Note to VCs, hot tub meetings aren’t inclusive