I read this great post on Chao’s blog. I was to leave this as a comment on the post, but it got too long. So I decided to post my thoughts here.
First, I think the word tech is rapidly losing any nuance it has. When you look at Twiga, Eneza and Sendy, while each may be said to be a tech company, what they really are are: an agricultural, education and logistics company. What makes them similiar is that they were built with tech first in mind; it is at their very core. However, every company these days uses tech in some way or another, they can’t afford not to.
This actually works as a great segue into my other points. In the Computer Science (CS) department, at least in my school, there seemed to be no research going on at all. In fact, if I remember correctly, there was one lecturer who said there was nothing left to be discovered in computing when talking about why he didn’t get a PhD!
Our scope was limited to technical things such as: mathematics, programming (we even built our own mini java languages), networking and project management. Unfortunately, these weren’t necessarily well taught. Things like good program design and structure, UX and UI at best tangential to the technical, and I only became aware of their importance after leaving school.
I also discovered the importance of research when I left school, and I suspect I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t joined a tech research organisation. I now have a deep appreciation for research. I’ve given some thought on how we might be able to pass this on to students in schools.
CS teachers who are currently working on projects for their Masters/PhD need to enroll students as research assistants. Involving students in this way would pass on to them some of the knowledge mentioned in the aforementioned post: data collection, analysis and most importantly critical thinking.
But will this lead to the type of the innovations we want to see in key areas outside pure tech? I don’t think so! More than that, you might not have lecturers doing research right now. I think for this to happen there needs to be more cross department collaboration.
The rush to code betrays an anxiety and a recognition that being able to make computers (technology) carry out your instructions is increasingly necessary to help solve our most pressing problems, but it misses the point that the tech is only a facilitator, catalyst, multiplier of the underlying principles.
So how would this cross department collaboration work? One way would be to attach computing students to research projects in other departments much in the same way I suggested for CS teachers earlier. It would not necessarily even have to have a technical component, but being in that environment will expose them ways computing might improve the field.
Another way would be to have meetings between the CS lecturers and the lecturers in other departments at which a set of problems can be decided on. Students from both departments would have to work together to do the research and build the solution together. This has the added benefit of exposing students of the collaborating department to computing.
The thing that leads to the hackathon mentality – taking a question and run to the keyboard – is that we don’t know what we don’t know, but we’ve been told that technology eats the world. Our heads have gotten big but what happens when we start companies? We flame out because we don’t have the runway to figure this out. I suspect that some companies would figure out product/market fits earlier by involving experts.
It’s amazing that technology like Eneza did not come out of a university through collaboration between the Education department and the Computer Science one. I think more collaboration in the ways I’ve pointed out could lead to even more interesting companies, not just in education but HR, polsci, agriculture and every other one. Peace!!