The Education of Geeks and Freaks

The Education of Geeks and Freaks

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By Tom Green

Published on June 17, 2008

I am a teacher.

The official title on my business card is “Professor, Interactive Multimedia”, and I teach at the School of Media Studies and Information Technology at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto. I am willing to bet that a fair few of you reading that title will be thinking: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.” I thought I would deal with that one right off the top. I’m used to it and it really doesn’t bug me. What is bugging me, though, is that if Post Secondary Educators don’t change their attitude towards you—and soon—you are going to find it really hard to find trained staff for your businesses.

The current situation

The educators’ attitude is: “You get what we give you because we are really comfortable in our skins.” They have been successfully doing what they do for years, and it takes a lot of work to make fundamental change happen in an academic environment. The problem is that there is a growing gap between what you do and will do and the very people tasked with training your future employees.

The industry, thanks to a number of companies including Adobe and Microsoft, has moved into skill segmentation—Designers and Developers—and you have every right to expect these guys to understand each other because they will be working in a collaborative environment. A Developer needs to understand what the Designer does, and his or her unique language, and vice versa. Post Secondary education, on the other hand, produces either one or the other because… that is what we do. They “train up” specialists that are either really great designers or amazing coders. The students spend a few years learning their craft in a rather cloistered environment and are rarely exposed to the skills of the other person in the equation. Which begs the question: Do designs schools need to expose their students to code in a digital universe, and do code-centric schools need to introduce a design element into their way of doing things?

This isn’t a frivolous question. Adobe and Microsoft are developing some amazing tools that are slowly but surely moving what we do from the browser to the desktop. They are leading the charge into a web universe that is “rich” in every sense of the word and, as devices take hold, you can bet that your clients are going to start asking why you are charging them twice to develop a web application and another version for a mobile phone. We are living in an industry where “Standards”, “Ajax”, “Flex”, and “Spry” are neither adjectives nor cleaning products. While all of this is going on in your day-to-day business, educators are having real issues keeping up with you, let alone addressing the “Designer/Developer” question.

How they resolve it, though, has the potential of becoming a huge issue because, at the very time this business of ours has been growing exponentially, along with a demand for competent staff, the students coming out of the Colleges and Universities have a skill set that doesn’t meet your current needs, and most likely won’t be able to meet your future needs either. There is a growing disconnect between the skills being taught in the classroom and the skills you need to possess in the “real world”.

Don’t believe me? Consider this. Two of the biggest interactive media shops in the U.S.—Odopod and Big Spaceship—are so frustrated with the skill level of graduates in New York and Los Angeles they have started looking for entry-level talent in other states. Another company, IndusBlue in Toronto, is producing some pretty high-level AIR applications, but one of the company’s principals made it rather clear to me a couple of months back that he would prefer to hire a few Flash guys with coding chops than bring in a couple of Computer Science grads from one of Microsoft’s prime recruiting universities: The University of Western Ontario.

Are Post Secondary educators out of step with industry?

Why should post secondary educators look at what is going on with those three companies? The answer is because educators are out of step with industry.

Simon Conlin is a digital media artist based in Toronto. In a presentation he gave to the local Flash User Group in late May, he nailed the issue during a discussion of his work for the National Ballet of Canada. He was asked why his projects are completed in a team-based, multi-disciplinary environment. His response:

You have no choice. Think about working in a restaurant. The chef is sick that night and a customer orders a particular dish usually made by that chef. Somebody in that kitchen is going to have to fill that order because the client doesn’t care if the pastry chef or a sous chef prepared it. He or she just cares that they get what they ordered.

Educators do a great job in creating pastry chefs, sous chefs, even Master Chefs. Where we educators miss the mark is in ignoring what happens when one of these guys aren’t in the kitchen. What we as educators need to do—and fast—is to ask ourselves a fundamental question: We may be doing the right things, but are we doing the right things right?

I stated at the beginning that I am an educator. I also write for this publication, Community MX, and Adobe. I have written a dozen books and spoken at conferences around the world. I sit on a couple of advisory boards at Adobe, and I regularly lecture on media technologies in the Flash space at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and other private and public sector institutions. I don’t lay this out to impress you but to let you know that I regard all of this extra stuff as nothing more than an extension to being a teacher.

The thing is this…I am not a guru.

Like you, I am very picky about what I choose to master. I learned very early on that this business has become so huge so fast that no one person can know it all, and that anyone claiming to know it all is a fraud. Pick up any of my books and you will see a second name on the cover. I have that second name there because I am not a coder. For the life of me, I can’t sit down in front of a blank screen and bring things to life with a few lines of code.

What I can do, though, is read the code and understand it. This allows me to collaborate with my co-author David Stiller and brainstorm projects for our books. David and I have developed a rather close working relationship because we instinctively understand what the other is doing and saying; when I mentioned to David that I was mulling over this piece he said:

It’s often the reason I get hired by anybody—because I speak both languages. Quite simply, client after client after client ends up painting himself into a corner, precisely because coders are expected to create work that looks pretty (they can’t)—and designers are expected to be able to do more than wire up buttons (they have nervous breakdowns).

I also bring this relationship into my classes by making it very clear to my students that they are going to become “hooked” on a specific technology, whether it be video, audio, coding, or design. I encourage them to become hooked, but I also make it very clear to them they are not to “dial out” on the stuff that doesn’t interest them, because: “When you walk out of here in a couple of years you are going to find yourself working with those guys and you had better understand what they are talking about because there is a serious amount of money at stake, not mention your career, if you don’t.”

In fact this collaborative/multidisciplinary approach to what we do seems to be working for my College. We just had to shelve a one-year post grad program, designed to provide our graduates with an even higher skill level in the area of Rich Media, because over 70% of our graduates were getting hired prior to the start of the Post Graduate program! Industry, in very broad terms, seems to be saying to us: “You have given them what they need to know. Leave the rest to us.”

The other thing we do is to regard our program as a “Work In Progress”. Near the end of every academic year the faculty gets together to look at what needs to change based upon what we are hearing locally, nationally—even internationally. Spry, Ajax, and CSS are becoming important? We swing that into the program and drop something from the curriculum. AIR, video, and Flex are emerging technologies? Fine, let’s rejig things to deliver them to our students. Then we go out into industry and ask if the curriculum meets their needs and to tell us what’s missing. One of our major strengths, from the Dean down to part-time Faculty, is the ability to embrace change and to instill that into our students. I make it a point of telling our first year students on their first day of class: “We aren’t here to turn you into design or coding wizards. That’s industry’s job. Our job is to instill in you a passion for constantly learning and adapting to change.”

It is what we have always done

Let’s get real clear on something before I move on. I am pointing out our experience not to rub it in your faces, but to get you thinking. I don’t regard ours as the best program out there, and our faculty and program have, like all institutions, their weaknesses and biases. What we are currently wrestling with, though, cuts right to the heart of this piece—figuring out how to change what we do for an industry that is also figuring out how this collaborative/multidisciplinary approach to Designer/Developer workflow fits into their business models. Sadly, Post Secondary Educators are not reacting at all well to this change and are content to fall back on: ”This is the way we have always done it. We teach art. Not code.”

I happened to bemoan this observation with Judi Kiel, who works through the Continuing Education Department at the University of Utah, and her reaction was quite illuminating:

Honestly, I think that many higher ed schools, at least in the Comm and/or Art dept., may have a bias against the coding. My opinion is that it’s because those should be “taught in the community colleges, where the students learn a trade”. I know the Art dept. here has, for as long as I can remember, never taught graphic design because it’s not a “pure” art, you get your hands dirty once you take $$ for your work. I haven’t detected that level of …. snobbery? haughtiness? bias? … in the Comm dept., but certainly the Speech comm folks look down on the Mass comm folks. Theory vs.practice. Gimme a break!

Theory vs. practice is actually the subject of a rather interesting conundrum among the Colleges in Ontario. For some odd reason the Colleges have gone gaga over the ability to offer Applied Degrees, the upshot of which is an unstated hiring practice—they won’t hire any instructor unles that instructor has a Masters Degree in their stated discipline. This has, at least in our neck of the woods, in many respects “dumbed down” the programs, because they can’t hire experienced, competent faculty. As one coordinator put it to me last year: “We have a huge problem attracting faculty. The guys with solid industry experience, who have the most to offer our students, can’t be hired. The guys with degrees don’t even come close to the level of experience we would like, but we can only look at them.”

So who benefits least?

It isn’t only faculty where the problem lies. This theory vs. practice bias poses a question that cuts right to the heart of the looming issue: Who benefits least from it?

I asked my friend Kim Cavanaugh, a fellow partner at Community MX who works with a Public School board in Florida. When I asked him about this he said:

It’s a shame that formal education systems/institutions just totally miss the point of what’s happening in the real world and pat themselves on the back for developing courses that address technology that is 10 to 15 years ‘behind’ what is actually happening in the real world. This is true in career prep at high schools in the US, and totally true for most post-secondary institutions. The only hope that the student has in either of those settings is to find an instructor who “gets it” and is willing to ignore the course descriptions developed by his/her employer and charge on with what they know is right.

“Case in point.” Kim continues. “In the US, the advanced placement courses and exams for computer programming are built around Java. Java! Completely and totally ignoring any other language or real-world applications. I suppose if you get the fundamentals in that course you can move forward, but if you were to poll working pros I bet you’d find most of them are more self-taught than they are products of any program.”

“I’ve been on the bandwagon for the last two years where I work,” said Kim, “That the real jobs of the future are going to be those that allow the massive amounts of data tucked into databases in the cloud to be visualized in new and dynamic ways. Adobe certainly gets that and is pushing that envelope hard. Too bad that the people who will be able to get those jobs will be those who have the self-determination and drive to learn on their own, without any formalized instruction that moves them towards the convergence of information and presentation.”

You have to look no farther than Joshua Davis in New York City or Brendan Dawes in Manchester, England to see the “convergence of information and presentation”. Josh has established an international reputation as a major Digital Artist and his work, at its most fundamental level, is driven by nothing more than manipulating vector drawings in Flash using ActionScript or simply using ActionScript to generate what he calls “Programmatic Art”. He has taken his Fine Arts discipline and applied it to the art of coding to create works of art shown in major galleries around the world. Brendan also has a Fine Arts background and he, too, has built a successful business, MagneticNorth, and a publishing career by blending his fascination with code with a presentation layer involving iPods, origami swans, and sensors in his brilliant book, Analog In Digital Out.

Where their careers intersect, as Kim said, is “the self-determination and drive to learn on their own, without any formalized instruction.” To be fair, when they started their ground-breaking work, formalized instruction didn’t exist. And here’s the kicker—both of these gentlemen recognized the lack of instruction and both now regularly lecture or lead courses at local universities. The time is rapidly approaching where that formalized instruction has to become a fundamental, not a “nice to have”.

One place where this is taking hold, big time, is the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. Realizing that code can be just as much a fine art as computer illustration, Ma Gong, a Dean at CAFA’s Schoool of Design recognized that Flash is a major creative tool. The problem was the Flash industry in China was, to all intents and purposes, in its infancy. In one of those strange convergences that are so common in our world, Dean Ma was introduced to a remarkable Canadian woman, Lorraine Speiss, and asked her to lead the project.

For the past five years Lorraine has been, to paraphrase the Blues Brothers, “on a mission from God.” This mission involves showing her students that coding is an art and that Flash is a creative tool. Along the way she has “seeded” the Flash industry in Beijing by creating a user group; yanked a bunch of us—including yours truly—into Beijing to teach some cutting edge stuff to her students; caught the attention of the Olympics thanks to a mobile project she had her students work on; and arranged to have my College partner with CAFA to develop and deliver some pretty high-end courses and programs that all have a Developer/Designer focus.

Plain vanilla teaching doesn’t work either

The danger with this focus on Designer/Developer is that there is a very real risk, on the part of educators, of turning out generalists who know a little bit about a lot, rather than a whole lot about a little bit. “What universities can and should do”, says Michael Lohmar, a web developer out of Germany, “Is to teach their students the fundamentals and, most important of all, teach them how to learn to solve problems later on, themselves, either as a one-man show or within a team as a team player and, eventually, a leader.”

Michael’s observation is important because the heart of what we do is to solve communications problems for our clients. The thing is, in a Designer/Developer universe both disciplines are equally important when it comes to determining the best possible solution. The knowledge on both sides of the divide is brought to bear on the problem and, according to Michael: “In a complex situation it never hurts to understand what the other member of the team is doing or use a collective knowledge base to analyze a problem.”

Teaching the basics is what educators should do, but Vicki Stanton, an Australian web designer based out of Perth, urges post secondary educators and employers to carefully think through their approach to dealing with the Designer/Developer issue:

I am not saying that coders shouldn’t dabble in design or that designers shouldn’t code, or that those who do both do a terrible job—but I do believe that for the ‘best possible’ and most professional, high quality result, those who specialize in their respective area should be used where possible. As such, I would prefer universities to train people more in areas of specialization and not give emphasis to providing them super-broad skills that encourage employers to think they can have everything in one person when, for the result they want, that person simply doesn’t exist.

One cannot be a master of code and a master of design. There was a time when this was possible, but the industry has grown so fast in so short a time that anyone claiming to be a master of both has a real need to get back in touch with reality.

Geeks and Freaks in the classroom

What I am getting at is that both sides need to understand each other’s language if they are to work together. As I said at the start of this piece, I am not a coder/developer—that stuff makes my teeth hurt. That’s why all of my books have a second name on the cover, and why I marvel at guys like Massimo Foti in Italy, Stephanie Sullivan in the US, and quite a few Flash guys I know such as Jarred Tarbell, Seb Lee Delisle out of Brighton, UK and Grant Skinner. How they do it is beyond me.

Where I go against the academic grain, though, is I need to understand what my co-author is doing. I need to know what an “object” is. How a “class” works and many other code fundamentals in order for me to “translate” the abstract coding concepts. These guys know this stuff better than I ever will so I essentially stay out of their way but, at the same time, I am an active participant in the planning process. Along the way I have absorbed “Best Practices” and tend to enforce them in my classes which contain a somewhat even split of Designers and Developers or, as I call them, “Freaks and Geeks”.

The one thing I do is to encourage both sides of the fence to help each other out. What happens here is they get talking to each other and, as they collectively solve problems, they start picking up the other side’s language and concepts.

Jim Babbage is an author and teacher who works out of Centennial College in Toronto. He, too, has confronted this art vs code bias. I asked him how he deals with it in his classes. “I’m not a programmer,” says Jim, “I tell my students that fact all the time, but I also try to emphasize the need for good dialog between designers and coders. I recognize that it’s very important we have at least a basic understanding of what goes on in “that other place” so we can help our clients understand and so we know when to get the code junkies involved in a project.”

“I’m very forthcoming,” adds Jim. “When I tell students that making a page pretty is very important, but making it functional (in terms of interaction and feedback) is even more important. Learning one or more programming languages, or at least understanding what they can do, will be very beneficial to their careers. I encourage them to learn ActionScript, JavaScript, PHP, or Flex. Stuff that honestly just boggles my mind, but will be increasingly important to them in the professional world.”

A few weeks ago our academic year ended and, when I look back on that year with my first year students, I am already seeing the first glimmerings of Freaks and Geeks understanding each other. When they wandered in last September, they knew absolutely everything about nothing. Today, they are able to create some very sophisticated projects and they have discovered there is a common language they must know in order for each side to clearly communicate what needs to be done, collectively, to solve the problem at hand.

Something my students discover within the first hour of their first day is that I hate being a teacher. This tends to throw them for a loop but, as I explain it, I need to be a teacher for a few weeks in order to give them the basics Michael Lohmar was talking about earlier. The real learning will start when they firmly understand those basics—and at that point our relationship changes from “Teacher/Student” to “Professional Colleagues” and the whole nature of the conversations between us change.

I quite agree that Adobe and, to a degree, Microsoft, are on the right track here. Whether we care to admit it or not, our industry is moving away from the browser to the desktop. AIR, Flex, Silverlight, and whatever else is being cooked up are taking our work and making it a desktop application. As such, multidisciplinary work teams are critical and, whether you care to admit it or not, those teams will be composed of Freaks and Geeks.

I only hope that Post Secondary educators—my peers—get this, and start rethinking how they teach these technologies.

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Related Topics: Technology, Programming, History of Technology, Graphic Design, Education

Tom Green is a professor of Interactive Multimedia, through the School of Media Studies at Humber College in Toronto. He is also a speaker, and the author of six books, including two recent ones on Flash and Flash Video. An Adobe Community Expert and a Community MX partner, he believes the amount of fun we have in this business should be illegal.