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.
  • 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.



When You’re the Product and Not the Customer

You don’t have rights on facebook and twitter. That’s because you’re not their customer. You are their product.

And if you switch from facebook to instagram as many of the kids are doing these days, you’re still on facebook. Facebook owns instagram. They are still capturing and selling the data that you give them for free when you upload, comment on, or “like” content.

It’s pretty weird. But ever weirder is how little we understand or do about it.

But there are things you can do:

  • You can opt out. I’ve tried that a few times over the years. It’s hard. And FOMO wins every time. Facebook knows this, of course. It’s their leverage.
  • You can take some of your conversations elsewhere – join a discussion group via listserv or slack or a discuss group.
  • You can engage more with blogs! Start one and read more. The platform I use for this blog, Wordpress, has a great tagline: “Own Your Content.”

With all of these options, you still don’t have privacy. But you are taking more control of your content and not just handing it over to the man.

Yes, if you make some or all of these changes you will feel the “pain” of a smaller network. But you’ll also feel the rewards of engaging with a group that is speaking and listening with much more care and intention.


Take it Further:


Seen and Not Heard

We all get confusing messages growing up. I grew up in the 1970s and was raised on Sesame Street and Anti-Coloring Books and tofu. It was great. But there were also messages from my parents’ postwar upbringing that found their way into our home. More conservative lessons. One such lesson was, “Children are to be seen and not heard.”

What a crazy lesson! It teaches you to keep quiet and be compliant and that if you do speak up, you are breaking the rules!

So we learn that keeping quiet is the safe way to go. If you don’t speak up, then you don’t get criticised. Then you don’t get judged. Easy Breezy.

Speaking up is harder. And there are painful consequences.

What a waste of energy it is to have to sort it all out. How much emotional labor do we spend on keeping quiet or beating ourselves up when we don’t? And I wonder why it is that these lessons are absorbed by some children and not other children? Who grows up thinking that speaking up is a good thing and who grows up thinking that it’s wrong? And what are the consequences of that?


Inventor Spotlight: Jie Qi

Circuit Sticker Sketchbook from Jie Qi on Vimeo

Jie Qi is the co-founder of a digital-paper-circuits company called Chibitronics. She’s also a Berkman Fellow and an alum of the Hi-Lo Tech Lab at MIT.

In the video above, Qi demonstrates the analog precursor to Chibitronics with her Circuit Sticker Sketchbook. It’s a delightful workbook and equally delightful demo video. And if you’re into product evolution, you can find some earlier iterations of Qi’s sketchbook on youtube like this video here

What’s so impressive about these books is their simplicity and high usability. Simplicity is a funny thing. Artists & Inventors know that it’s harder to make something simple than to make something that’s not. Simplicity is actually complex and it takes a lot of work and emotional intelligence to achieve.

I admire inventors like Jie Qi that create easy-to-use modular systems that help people be creative. Systems like legos or tinker-toys or little bits or bare conductive!

Shaker Furniture

shaker 2

My version of running away to join the circus would be to run away to and make Shaker furniture. I deeply appreciate the balance of simplicity with functionality in Shaker pieces.

The work shown in the picture above is from a project called “Furnishing Uptopia” hosted by Hancock Shaker Village and Mt. Lebanon Shaker Museum. The project invited a set of international designers to study an archive of Shaker furniture, then design their own contemporary spin on Shaker objects–tables and rakes and baskets and stools. The results are beautiful. You can see more here.



Long Live the Touchscreen?

This headline caught my attention the other day:

Pebble [smart watch] is dead and hardware buttons are going with it: The future is all touchscreen, for better or for worse

Eh not so fast. Sure, it’s true that touchscreens are the status quo for interface design. But as with anything status quo, the players that are invested in it are well positioned to defend it. It’s easy to confuse their power with permanence.

But the status quo changes. There are plenty of artists and inventors working on tangible, gestural, and conversational interfaces that don’t involve touch screens at all. While these inventors acknowledge the economics and reality of the status quo, they don’t let it limit their imagination or their drive to change it.


article: Pebble is Dead

for fun: tangible media


Habits of Systems Thinkers

If you think that the status quo can be changed over time, then you have to be a systems thinker. System thinkers have specific habits and ways of understanding and interacting with the world that helps them identify where to intervene in a system in order to change it. If you were lucky enough to go to college, then you have probably studied systems thinking in one form or another. But it sure ain’t being addressed in primary school. Though some folks are trying to change that.

The Waters Foundation aims to bring systems thinking education to k-12. There is an excellent interactive graphic on their website called “Habits of a Systems Thinker.” The graphic illustrates 14 habits and if you click on each illustration, you’ll get a little more information. The 14 habits are:

  1. Seeks to understand the big picture
  2. Observes how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends
  3. Recognizes that a system’s structure generates its behavior
  4. Identifies the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships
  5. Makes meaningful connections within and between systems
  6. Changes perspectives to increase understanding
  7. Surfaces and tests assumptions
  8. Considers an issue fully and resists the urge to come to a quick conclusion
  9. Considers how mental models affect current reality and the future
  10. Uses understanding of system structure to identify possible leverage actions
  11. Considers short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of actions
  12. Pays attention to accumulations and their rates of change
  13. Recognizes the impact of time delays when exploring cause and effect relationships
  14. Checks results and changes actions if needed: “successive approximation”

Systems thinking is a necessary skill for artists and inventors. If you are making something new and putting it out there in the world, you are in effect saying that the status quo is broken and what you are making and sharing is part of the way forward to something new and better–a new way of thinking or behaving or interacting or engaging.


more reading:

Habits of a Systems Thinker (interactive graphic)

Social Systems Design Lab


From Pipelines to Pathways

When you ask folks “Why aren’t there more women working at this tech company?” they point to a pipeline problem: not enough qualified women are applying.

When you ask folks, “Why aren’t more women applying for jobs at X company?” they point to a pipeline problem: not enough women are studying technology in college.

When you ask folks, “Why aren’t more women studying technology in college?” they point to a pipeline problem: not enough teenage women are interested in technology in high school.

When you ask folks, “Why aren’t more women interested in technology in high school?” they point to a pipeline problem: girls lose interest in science and technology middle school.

The problem with pipelines is that they are opaque and that opacity creates segmentation. The problem with segments is that they have specific owners who aren’t coordinating with owners of other segments. For example, it’s hard for the high school guidance counselor to track their former student once they go to college. Yes, the counselor helps the student get into college, but whose job is it to help that student succeed once they are there? And what useful information might the guidance counselor be able to give and receive if s/he were communicating with the owners of segments up and downstream?

An alternative to a pipeline is a pathway. Pathways are open, transparent, and make it easier for all involved to view the entire system. They make it easier for people along it to identify problems in the system and coordinate with each other to fix them. They make it easier for the people along it to see how the pathway and the people on it are succeeding and collectively celebrate that success. This is working.

What other systems–social, economic, industrial, environmental–could benefit from a “pipelines to pathways” transition?


related reading

Women in Tech: The Facts (2016)

STEM Attrition / US Dept of Ed (2013)


We’ve Been Nothing But Lucky

David Letterman has a new special on Netflix – an interview with President Obama. The interview is about an hour long and covers a range of topics peppered with jokes from both Dave and the President. But the note that the interview ends on is the note that I love best. The two are thanking each other for the hour and Obama chimes in with a question for Dave, ‘You know Dave, don’t you think we’ve been so lucky?’ and Dave agrees, ‘Yes, I know that I’ve been nothing but lucky.’

And I know that I’ve been nothing but lucky. Yes, I’ve had challenges and yes, there has been, and there will be pain. That’s all a part of it. But I know I’ve been lucky because I wake up every morning, every morning, thinking about how I can help other people be lucky. How can I help people discover pathways that they thought were for other people and not for them? How can I help people stay on those pathways through the ups and downs so that they stay on long enough to get somewhere beyond what they ever imagined for themselves? How can we help people be luckier? Because good luck begets good luck. For ourselves and for the people that we are free to encourage and mentor and cheer on.


Bonus material

If you missed this video of a woman walking into a room of friends and bursting out in song, have a listen: “I’ll always be grateful”