How to be a Hacker: Code Poets, Technocamps, and the IT Skills Crisis

It's starting to feel like we are really living in the 21st century at last: Elon Musk's Hyperloop, vat-grown artificial meat, 3D printing hitting the high streets (and we're now 3D printing human organs) and hedge funds are beaming neutrinos through the Earth's core in a bid to accelerate high frequency trading. The Star Trek tricorder will shortly be a reality too. But, this is just one side of the story. Quoting Ian Livingstone, Co-Founder of Games Workshop and CEO of Eidos: "Something is wrong when you have one million young people unemployed and 100,000 jobs vacant in IT".

[Photo: MakerBot 3D printer from Software Alliance Wales IT Employability Expo]

Scale of the Problem

Here are some key facts from a recent presentation to the House of Lords by Yva Thakurdas, CEO of 1st Grosvenor Consultants, later picked up on by Lord Empey:
  • A steady decline at all levels in the standard of the computer science educational curriculum over the past 15-20 years 
  • UK university applications to study computer science falling by more than 60% since 2002 
  • A decrease in numbers of computer science graduates by more than 25% since 2002 
  • Some university curricula not being aligned to industry requirements 
  • A 50% fall in the number of students striving for jobs in industry since 2002 
  • An explosion in the growth of the IT sector over the corresponding period 
If you have a few minutes to spare, watch this sobering video that Yva has put together:

We Need More Electricians

If data is the new oil, then we could say that code (as in computer programs) is the new electricity, and we desperately need more electricians. Without code we are unable to process our data except in very simple ways where the coding has already largely been done for us, such as Excel spreadsheets. Perhaps we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss Excel, which we hear anecdotally is used to run some Fortune 500 companies and even the odd national economy. However, there have been some high profile Excel disasters, not least of which is the infamous case of Rogoff and Reinhart and the bogus justification for the current "austerity" fad.

So where does code come from? It's not a natural resource, and (machine learning aside) it isn't really a byproduct of our online activities. For the most part code is consciously designed and created by computer programmers, also known as software engineers, or as I prefer to call them: Hackers.

I have a real problem with the way that the media have appropriated and demonized this word. Hacker is a term now used almost exclusively in a pejorative sense, but we don't have to look too far back to rediscover the grand and noble tradition of MIT hacks. Here' s a nice little video summarising the history and ethos of the hacking tradition at MIT:

Hacks and hacking used to mean something very different from the sense in which these words are typically used now, both within the IT industry and by civilians. Cool hacks are celebrated on a number of websites, including my personal favourite Hackaday.

Celebrating Great Hackers

Great hackers (or "code poets") have invented new programming languages, networking hardware and network protocols, and often the hardware itself - like Steve Wozniak with the Apple I and II. My favorite example of a great hacker is the late Doug Englebart, who in the famous "Mother of all Demos" from 1968 showed the world the computer interface that would take until the 21st century to fully become a reality for most people - mouse, icons, windows, graphical display, copy and paste, collaborative editing and hypermedia. All this was delivered remotely using video conferencing. Doug and his group were literally generations ahead of their time.

At the dawn of the mass Internet we had envisaged that it would be a system of loosely coupled decentralised services, with everyone running their own email system, website and so on. However, the dynamic of the Internet era has ended up being very much about winner takes all, and in many cases hacker CEOs have ended up as the biggest winners of all.

Some examples will be familiar to everyone, like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Others are perhaps less well known outside the technical community, e.g. Mark Shuttleworth (Thawte SSL certificates and Ubuntu Linux) and Elon Musk (Paypal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX). Forget pop stars and footballers, here are your new role models.

How to be a Hacker

But most hackers are cut from humbler cloth, like the thousands of contributors to the Linux kernel, which now powers nearly a billion tablets and smartphones worldwide, 94% of the Top 500 supercomputers, and most "embedded" devices such wireless routers, smart TVs and so on. If you are curious and want to find out more, I've written about the irresistible rise of Linux in March of the Penguins.

What drives people to become hackers, and how do we ensure that this is a career opportunity open to all those who would like to pursue it? This was the subject of my recent invited talk at the University of Bangor for Software Alliance Wales. You can view my slides embedded below:

This topic and location have a particular resonance for me because I grew up in North Wales, not far from Bangor. Back in my day the idea that the fledgling public Internet might one day provide high bandwidth connections to remote rural communities was just so much science fiction. If you aspired to work in a high tech industry you simply had to leave - if not the country then certainly the area.

Now things are very different, and I was delighted to be able to meet and talk with folk from a vibrant community of tech start-ups and spinouts, and to help judge the final years projects from the latest batch of Bangor computer science finalists. Here's my favourite poster (and the winning entry) from the finalist projects, Natalie Hutchinson's adaptive real-time facial expression recognition system:

The Next Generation

So where is the next Natalie going to come from, given the precipitous decline in interest in Computer Science that I highlighted at the top of this post?

On my visit to Bangor I was particularly struck by the Technocamps programme, which organizes "boot camps" in Welsh schools to expose pupils to coding at a range of different levels, from first principles with MIT Scratch right through to app development with Xcode. We saw some brilliant demonstrations of robots built by schoolchildren who had been participating in three day boot camps, and I particularly enjoyed the Lego Mindstorms robots.

I think this is a very pragmatic way of increasing awareness of Computer Science, coding and yes - hacking, in the truest sense of the word! Can we really expect ICT teachers across the UK to turn into code poets overnight? No, but there is potentially a huge amount that can be achieved through schools working together with their local Universities and Colleges.

The Technocamps initiative has been funded through the EU's Convergence Social Fund, and exists principally to service the Welsh Convergence Area. What is the analogous situation in the rest of the UK, where this same economic stimulus does not exist? It is direct government investment across the board, or a mixture of community engagement by institutions already well serviced by the FE/HE sector, plus government intervention in more remote/rural areas? Is there a specific case to be made for maintaining and sustaining the core Technocamps activity with further central funding, to use it as a template and bring in the group's expertise more widely around the UK? I think so.

At Loughborough we already put a lot of effort into outreach activities like National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), and it's clear that this is a valued personal development opportunity for our undergraduates and graduate students. I can see them making natural Technocamps ambassadors!

Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.