Programming for Health: A Reflection

I’m on ‘staycation’ –annual leave from my normal day job at Natcoll. Staycation because I’m not actually vacating where I am: I’m still at home in Wellington.

I’ve been volunteering at Catalyst IT working with Brenda Wallace to work on projects of her choice. She assigned me to work on Laconica (an open-source version of Twitter that works in a distributed fashion). In order to do so I’ve had to learn a little about many different technologies, like PostgreSQL, the weirdness of Apache+PHP on MacOS X 10.5, and overall, how to checkout and contribute code to an open source software project with Git.

I’ve now had three code merges into Laconica, albeit very minor ones, mostly fixing bugs.

I don’t even use Laconica. (Twitter is working just fine for me, thanks.)

But I feel great.

Computer programming is something some have described as the most complex thing humans have invented — it’s all abstract, there are few corollaries to it in nature. Probably the only thing more complicated is quantum mechanics (but that is, in fact, nature).

My job is to explain, demonstrate, and encourage people who have never programmed a computer in their life (let alone their VCR) to create rather complicated things we call websites.

Why have I enjoyed contributing patches so much to an project I don’t use or much care about? A couple of reasons:

The Zone

The elusive Zone has many names; Wikipedia refers to it as “flow“. It’s that state of being you get when they’re so intensely focussed in the task at hand that time and reality become irrelevant because you’re so energised and focussed and involved at what you’re working on, and having good success at doing it. You come away feeling elated and energised that you’ve completed something of value.

I haven’t been in The Zone for nearly four years. I’ve been teaching people how to program for nearly four years now, and nary the mind to knuckle down and flex my coding muscles. I’m too worked up with office politics, helping my workmates with the technology, and thinking that I wasn’t good enough to be in the industry.

Learning

It’s good to know that I can do it, though to do it professionally, I’d just need to learn more about the processes involved.

I’ve had to learn how to use Git, how to create PostgreSQL users and databases, and submit my finished code to the project administrators for merging with the mainline version of the program’s code.

I don’t normally get to be a learner. I’m a full-time teacher, and what I have to learn is usually because I need to teach it.

It’s nice to learn things for me and me alone. I may never get to teach what I’m learning here, but what I’ve learned is helping fulfill me (more on that later)

That old adage “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”. It’s lies.

Actually I’m a tutor, but that’s just a particular kind of teacher. Not meaning to blow my own horn, but according to my student evaluations I am actually a really good tutor. Sure, I have my weaknesses, but overall, apparently I rock at it.

And I really enjoy teaching. It’s rewarding when the metaphorical light-bulbs turn on above the student’s heads. Some of them slowly brighten, some just pop on, and some of them shine more powerfully than others, but the lights do turn on. To know that a learner now understands one of the most complicated things there is to know,

I was at Wordcamp New Zealand here in Wellington over the weekend, and Nicki Gemmell was talking about using blogs at primary schools around New Zealand. She related how uploading an image to a blog was something a principal got excited about: “I uploaded a photo to our school blog today; how cool is that?!”.

As a programmer who has written photo upload functionality, I forget how far I have come and how valuable the skills I have really are. The challenge of teaching people to do things is fun and rewarding. Teaching students to do this even more complicated stuff is the same but even more challenging.

Teaching programming, from my own experience, is the ability to communicate the concepts and foster the understanding and use of them. I was told by a trainer there were four levels of competency:

1. Unconscious Incompetence – you are unaware that you don’t know how to do X.
… awareness brings:
2. Conscious Incompetence – you are aware that you don’t know how to X.
… learning brings:
3. Conscious Competence – you can do X, and you are thinking about it when doing it.
… practice brings:
4. Unconscious Competence – you can do X, but you do not have to think about it when doing it.

I say that there’s a fifth level: where you have become once again conscious of what it is you are competent at. And that’s the level where you’re ready to teach it.

To be able to teach, you must be able to learn, and then go further so you can show others the way.

Those who can teach, do teach.

People

Okay, I’ll be honest: being around Brenda and the other like-minded geeks at Catalyst IT has been a really energising experience. Being able to vent frustration at code and technology, bounce ideas off each other and have fun while doing it has been great.

But working on Laconica and spending some time reading other peoples code and improving it, and learning the technical, and social aspects of doing so has been fun and very enlightening.

My motivation for staying a teacher has been pretty simple: Hell is other people’s work. Most of the employment in the industry has been creating websites for companies; wish fulfilment for others. I could change the world one organisational website at a time, or I could change the world 20 web students at a time.

But working on an open source project has let me use my programming skills to directly improve, ever-so-slightly at this stage, the lives of people around the globe. By making the software they use better.

Having that sense of purpose in what I are doing is really important to me. I don’t want to just be working to collect a pay check: working to live. And I don’t want to be living to work either. I just want to do what is worthwhile while I’m alive: live life to the fullest. Use the abilities I have to do things worth doing.

I am a teacher. I am a programmer. I’ve been neglecting the programmer side of me.

“Computer programming is tremendous fun. Like music, it is a skill that derives from an unknown blend of innate talent and constant practice. Like drawing, it can be shaped to a variety of ends – commercial, artistic, and pure entertainment. Programmers have a well-deserved reputation for working long hours but are rarely credited with being driven by creative fevers. Programmers talk about software development on weekends, vacations, and over meals not because they lack imagination, but because their imagination reveals worlds that others cannot see. Larry O’Brien and Bruce Eckel

3 thoughts on “Programming for Health: A Reflection

  1. Brett,

    It’s great to hear that you’ve reignited the fire. I’m sure Brenda taught you a lot! Does Natcoll support the use of a VCS for students’ projects?

  2. I know the feeling wholly. At the moment I get so discouraged at work fixing other peoples computers and problems that I have no will to do anything anywhere near a computer when I get home. So much for my degree with a major in programming and a love of OSS…
    Maybe one of these days…

  3. I must admit you have very vast knowledge Gluntix. I wonder how will your point of view at teaching look like in 10 years 🙂 greets form Poland.

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