The Rising Importance of Technical Literacy

New Work City is hosting a series of classes on web site development for non-technical independents using WordPress, including setting up a hosted WordPress site and mastering the dashboard

Only a few hundred years ago, the ability to read and write was considered a special skill reserved only for an elite few. Over time, however, literacy went from being elite to expected, to the point now that anyone who can’t read or write is considered at a huge disadvantage.

Now, the explosion of new technology has provided a litany of new ways for people to communicate. Entire new interactions are being integrated into our lives so fast that we can hardly keep up; simply watch some videos of babies using iPads if you want your mind blown.

With these new methods of communication come new languages to match.

Enter: Programming Languages

Programming languages, historically speaking, are still extremely new. Spoken and written languages have existed since the dawn of mankind, though they have evolved and diversified drastically along the way. Alternative languages, such as mathematics, emerged later on, each giving us new ways to share information and ideas with each other.

Now, however, our new computer-based languages already drive so much of what we do every single day. HTML, PHP, MySQL, C, Assembly, TCP/IP and countless other languages and protocols, for example, make it possible for you to read this right now.

In my own experience as a project manager for a web development firm, I specialized in being someone who could translate between clients and programmers who were not particularly good at talking to one another. From the perspective of the clients, the programmers spoke a complicated language that they couldn’t purport to understand. They needed someone else (me) to even be able to communicate properly what it is they wanted built. Some didn’t respect the value of such literacy, but most revered these people for their much-envied proficiency.

As the pervasiveness of this technology continues to rise, the value of being able to understand and speak these new languages rises accordingly. People who can program went from being derided as “geeks” and “nerds” in the 90’s to being revered and sought after today. People who understand these mystical new programming languages, in many ways, enjoy a new elite designation.

The difference between the literate elites and programmers, however, is that technical literacy is available to anyone with access to a computer.

A New Opportunity

In the world of employment in the US, there is a fascinating contrast at play. Despite millions of unemployed, underemployed, and suckemployed workers, there remain tons of lucrative technical positions that employers that exasperated employers can’t seem to fill no matter how hard they try.

For the people who have been unemployed for months or even years, even a little technical expertise could go a very long way in helping them get work that they couldn’t have otherwise.

Awareness of this fact is just now starting to become more widely known. It’s why new programs like one I helped to start and run, Girl Develop It, have been such a huge hit. When we surveyed our students, I was surprised to see just how many women are taking programming classes not because they intend to pursue technical careers, but because they want to be able to better understand and communicate with their more tech-savvy coworkers. In other words, they seek a basic technical literacy.

From Elite to Necessary?

In his book Program or Be Programmed, Doug Rushkoff goes so far as to suggest that technical literacy is rising to a level of importance comparable with conventional literacy in reading and writing itself. While it may seem like an extreme comparison on the surface, the similarities are striking.

If reading and writing were once reserved for the elite but then eventually became common knowledge, who’s to say the same won’t be true of proficiency in the ability to communicate using new technical languages?

At the very least, learning even just a little about these new technologies could go a long way. I would love one day to read a story of someone who was unemployed for 2+ years, decided to teach themselves how to code, and landed an amazing job not long thereafter. I’m sure the stories are already out there, but I believe there are many more yet to be told.

The four R’s: Reading, (w)riting, ‘rithmetic, and (p)’rogramming

Hey, the original 3 R’s was pretty ugly already.

Three Key Roadblocks to the Growth of Tech in NYC (and Why the NYTM is in a Unique Position to Remove Them)

Originally posted here.

The New York Tech Meetup is holding an election to choose two board members for its newly formed nonprofit organization. I am running for one of these seats. My platform is below, and focuses on the some of the critical things the NYTM can influence to make NYC a more technology-friendly place to be.

Before we get started, I should note that I refer many times in this post to things like the “NY tech community” or something similar. What I am referring to is an amorphous and ill-defined group of people who, in some way, are interested in or involved in the development of new technology in NYC. There is a lengthy and ongoing discussion about the proper definition of this group, which I won’t address beyond this point, aside from saying that the NYTM is in a position to help address this ambiguity in the future.

With over 16,000 members, the NY Tech Meetup has been the de facto hub for people building new technology in NYC. Founded by Meetup CEO Scott Heiferman in 2004, the monthly event has been selling out increasingly large venues for over six years running. Outside of the NY Tech Meetup, no other group is better poised to represent the tech community’s interests as a collective group.

Roadblock #1: Awareness

Why the hell didn’t I know about this until now?

That was the first question that popped into my head when I walked into my first NY Tech Meetup nearly four years ago. If you live in NYC and are involved in some way with developing new technology, odds are you’ve asked yourself the same question at least a few times.

NYC, in case you didn’t know, is the greatest city in the world. When it comes to tech, however, the common perception is that NYC isn’t the best place to be. ITAC, in 2007, released a report entitled “Buried Treasure: New York’s Hidden Technology Sector,” (PDF) and three years later, the headline still largely holds true, despite the city’s expansive and growing array of people, organizations, departments, services, mentors, investors, and more.

The result is that too many people who might have started their businesses in NYC are doing so elsewhere. That sucks for them, and for us.

The NYTM has been growing, along with Meetup, into increasingly diverse and mainstream markets. The event has attracted tons of press and word of mouth, and as such is the first entry point into NY’s tech scene. As it grows, the NYTM will be crucial in shaping public perception.

To this end, I’d like to see the NYTM focus on efforts to increase the visibility of all the great things happening in NYC that the general public might not be aware of. This means outreach to media, universities, and other local and national organizations, something its already begun to do and should continue to do in a more deliberate capacity.

When something important happens in the tech scene, somebody should be making sure that the people and the press know about it. The NYTM has both resources and connections to do this more effectively than anyone.

Roadblock #2: Internal Connections

The room for improvement on visibility isn’t just external; it’s internal as well. Within the loosely-defined NY tech scene, there are dozens of events, bloggers, city departments, workspaces, and communities just waiting to help people develop their kickass new technologies.

One of NYC’s advantages (being big) is also a weakness. Two amazing groups, whose members should be talking to each other, could be meeting in adjacent buildings at the same time and have no idea the other exists.

It is here that the NYTM is also in a position to help. As a central gathering point for people from a wide variety of backgrounds, the NYTM can raise awareness about what else is out there.

This is a wise direction to go, as the NYTM’s monthly event can only grow so large. At 850 seats per month, the event still sells out almost immediately, with a black market threatening to form around selling extra tickets.

The solution to this isn’t necessarily to get a bigger venue. As it is, some people regard the current NYTM as something too big to be considered a single cohesive community unto itself, so plans for growth should take this into account.

Instead, the NYTM can channel this huge level of interest into other events that are produced by either the NYTM itself or by others in the community. It has already started, with an exciting and successful program for college students. These sorts of efforts should be encouraged and expanded, giving more other groups and resources the chance to get in front of the masses.

We’re working towards similar goals at NWC with NWCU, our new community-powered education program.

Hey, this is an election right? I’m supposed to promote myself, I think.

Roadblock #3: Advocacy

Simply put: no organization is better poised to represent the collective interests of the NY tech community than the NYTM.

As a sector of increasing importance to both the city and state of New York, and to the country, NY’s tech sector increasingly needs representation on larger stages. As a 501(C)(6), the NY Tech Meetup’s nonprofit organization will have the ability to lobby members of government. There’s huge potential for this to be useful in shaping local and national government policy, starting with an obvious target: the LLC publishing requirement in New York State.

Former Community Committee member Steve Masur wrote in 2008 about why that law is bad for people building new businesses in NY, as part of an early effort to raise public awareness about a law that’s overdue for a chance in Albany. Now, as a nonprofit with the legal right to lobby, the NYTM can take these concerns to officials and, just maybe, stand a chance of being heard.

This is just a starting point, and government is only one part of the picture. This is an organization that can hire people to work in our collective interests full time, and independent from the restrictions of a more bureaucracy-laden government organization. As such, the NYTM will be able to focus on enacting change that no one else would have the time or resources to tackle.

This is a huge part of what the NYTM must now focus on. Nobody else can represent the people of this community in this capacity.

Opportunity

All of this should be considered with the proper perspective. These are first world problems of the first order, and should be viewed as positive opportunities to make good things better. We’re not curing cancer, or world hunger, or ending war, but as one of the most diverse, driven, versatile, and ambitious cities in the world, we are in a position to build things that no other city’s residents ever could—and who knows, perhaps the things we build together might make a dent in the fight against hunger, cancer, or for world peace.

I just cited world peace, which means it’s time for me to quit my grandstanding. There are a lot of great people running alongside me for board seats of the NY Tech Meetup, enough that I’m confident whoever gets elected will do good things for the NYTM and for all of us.

I’m not going to ask for you to vote for me, but if I do ask for you to do something, please participate. If you’re eligible, vote. If you’re not eyeballs deep working in your startup, maybe write up a little blog post with your thoughts on the future of the NYTM and NY Tech as we know it.

Either way, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. And I’ll keep planning the NYTM afterparty as long as the NYTM folks let me. If this community has voiced one thing in unison, it is that you can never have enough opportunities wear cheesy nametags and meet new people while drinking in a crowded bar.

Speaking of which, see you there?