Friday, August 7

Are programmers our future civil engineers of the 21st Century?

In the past few years, my career has been one of continual exploration and discovery, figuring out one problem after another, being incredibly grateful for all of the benefits my parents and teachers have given me over the years.

Dr. Bernie RothIn the early 90s, I was fortunate enough to be at Stanford University in a class called "The Designer in Society" by Professor Bernard Roth. Dr. Roth, or Bernie as called by friends and students, provides this course to graduate students alone. It is somewhat innocuous in its course description:
215. The Designer in Society — Open to all graduate students. Participants’ career objectives and psychological orientation are compared with existing social values and conditions. Emphasis is on assisting individuals in assessing their roles in society. Readings on political, social, and humanistic thought are related to technology and design. Experiential, in-class exercises, and term project. Attendance mandatory. Enrollment limited to 24.
It was in this course that Bernie introduced us to books that were not focused on dynamic, kinematics or typical mechanical engineering content. It was here that I was introduced to Samuel Florman's book, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. In a look back at the profession of engineering, in his opening chapter, he writes:
In May 1902, the fifty-year old American Society of Civil Engineers held its annual convention in Washington, DC. Robert Moore, the newly elected president, gave a welcoming address entitled, "The Engineer of the Twentieth Century". He began by eulogizing the engineers of the past for making human life "not only longer, but richer and better worth living." Then he acclaimed the achievements of his contemporaries and fellow members. Finally, he warmed to his chosen topic, the engineer of the coming era:

"And in the future, even more than in the present, will the secrets of power be in his keeping, and more and more will he be a leader and benefactor of men. That his place in the esteem of his fellows and of the world will keep pace with his growing capacity and widening achievement is as certain as that effect will follow cause."

What a flush of pleasure they must have felt, those engineers of 1902, to hear themselves described as benefactors of mankind. What a quickening of the pulse there must have been as they listened to their leader predict success and glory for them in the years ahead. [...] But beneath those sedate facades they could not have helped but feel the stirrings of a fierce joy.
In his book, Florman talks about the Golden Age of Engineering, where during the century between 1850 and 1950, the engineers of society saw their mission as a lofty mission - one where they could make a difference in society. Their works - whether they were bridges, roads, buildings, schools, telegraph, airplanes, whatever - were helping benefit mankind in life-affirming ways. Their contributions would strengthen the human condition, and their toil would be recognized in the people that benefited from their work.

Now flash forward to the 21st Century. In the late 90s and early naughties (00s), the prevalence of ubiquitous computing is in our hands, in our pockets and in almost everything we touch. Much like the advances in transportation and infrastructure, we have had the same explosion of technology growth in the past 20 years and the previous 120. And, as we move forward, we will continue to have this explosion of technology and need for taming it to our benefit long into the future.

Could it be that those pioneers of the 1850s - the mathematicians and the physicists and the scientists - who were able to bring understanding to the world that the artisans, journeymen and apprentices had at their fingertips on an ongoing basis but had little understanding, were a perfect marriage of experience and understanding? Could it be that the 21st Century with the same scientists and mathematicians and physicists and climatologists and nutritionists and so on require an equivalent group of people out there to help bring the future under control?

To that I pose the question: are programmers the civil engineers of the 21st Century? Are programmers - who have now moved into a different style of learning programming (gone is the BASIC programming language, gone is the Assembly code or the Fortran 77 - being equipped to address the challenges of our future needs? Are we teaching/training our programmers to work together and share knowledge - or are we making it difficult to provide that exercise of "hands-on" experience that is needed to make an art a science, and educate and create to help build a better tomorrow?

I have talked to many recent graduates of colleges and schools who have graduated from colleges that offer courses in programming and data structures and software architectures - and I find many of them frustrated with the world they enter into. They find themselves ill equipped because their work was individualistic and limited in scope to the work they were assigned such that they could be graded in comparison to others, and not finding a satisfactory method of preparing for the future. Yes, there are the maestros of programming - I have known and worked with a grand few. But, the idea is to build the artisans of programming - to educate and replicate their skills and imagination in those that follow and want to build beyond.

I am working on something to address this issue. I tried one method - and had some success - where I measure success as the graduates becoming sentient beings creating their own ways of impacting the world, instead of cogs in the machine.

I think, rather - I know there is a need for those artisans of yesteryear to return to the frontlines. I know that the mentorship that made America the envy of other countries was founded on the concept of cooperation and collaboration. And I think we are due for another turn at the wheel.

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