TITLE: Rebooting Computing Workshop Approach Redux
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: January 20, 2009 4:27 PM
I commented a couple of times in my
review of the Rebooting Computing summit,
about the process we used, and the reaction it
created among the participants. We used an
that emphasized collectively exploring our individual
experiences and visions before springing into action.
Some people were skeptical from the outset, as some
people will be about anything that so "touchy-feely".
Perhaps some assumed that we all know what the problem
is and that enough of us know what the solution should
be and so wanted to get down to business. That seems
unlikely to me. Were this problem easily understood
or solved, we wouldn't have needed a summit to form
The process began to unravel on the second day, and
many people were losing patience. After lunch --
more than halfway through the summit -- the entire
group worked together to construct an overlaid set
of societal, technical, and personal timelines of
computing. For me, time began to drag during this
exercise, though I enjoyed hearing the stories and
seeing what so many people thought stood out in our
The 'construct a timeline of computing' was the final
straw for some, especially some of the bigger names.
While constructing the timeline, we found that many
people in the room didn't know the right dates for the
events they were adding. One of my colleagues finally
couldn't stop himself and moved a couple of items to
their right spots. It must have been especially
frustrating for the people in the room who were there
when these events were happening -- or who were the
principal players! This is an example of how
collaboration for collaboration's sake often doesn't
Later, Alan Kay referred to the summit's process as
"participation without progress". Our process
emphasized the former but in many ways impeded (or
prevented) the latter. Kay said that this approach
assumes all people's ideas are equally valid or
useful. He called for something more like a
than what we had, which I would liken to a town hall
form of government.
Kay may well be right, though a representative
democracy-like approach risks losing buy-in and
enthusiasm from the wider audience. Our representatives
would need to be able either to solve the problems
themselves or to energize "we, the people" to do the
work. I'm not sure whether what ails computing can
be solved by only a few, so I think bringing a large
community on board at some point is necessary.
The next question is, who has the ideas that we should
be acting on? I think the summit was a least partly
successful in giving people with good ideas a chance
to express them to a large group and in particular
to let some of the more influential people in the room
know about the people and the ideas. Unfortunately,
the process throttled some other ideas with lack of
interest. One that stands out to me now is the issue
of outsourcing and intellectual property, which has
been a dominant topic of discussion on the listserv
since we left San Jose. Fortunately, people are
talking about it now.
(I have to admit that I do not yet fully understand
the problem. I either need more time to read or a
bigger brain -- maybe both.)
In the end when we broke identified and joined action
groups, some people asked, "How different is this set
of action groups than if we had started the summit with
this exercise?" Many people thought we would have
ended up with the same groups. I think they might
be right, though I'm not sure this means there was
no value in the work that led to them.
Perhaps one problem was that this process does not
scale well to 200+ people. If it does, then perhaps
it just didn't scale well to these 200+ people. The
room was full of Type A personalities. The industry
people were the kind with strong opinions and a drive
to solve problems. The faculty were... Well, most
faculty are control freaks, and this group was
Personally, I found the process to be worth at least
some of the time we spent. I enjoyed looking back
at my life in computing, reflecting on my own history,
reliving a few stories, and thinking about what has
influenced. I realized that my interest in computer
science wasn't driven by math or CS teachers in high
school or my undergraduate years.. I had a natural
affinity for computing and what it means. The teachers
who most affected me were ones who encouraged me to
think abstractly and to take ideas seriously, who
gave me reason to think I could do those things. The
key was to find my passion and run.
I first saw that sort of passion in
my honors humanities prof, as a freshmen in college.
As much as I loved humanities and political science
and all the rest, I had a sense that CS was where my
passion lay. The one undergrad CS prof who comes to
mind as an influence, William Brown, was not a researcher.
He was a serious systems guy who had come from IBM.
In retrospect, I credit him with showing me that CS
had serious ideas and was worth deep thought. He
encouraged me subtly to go to grad school and answered
a lot of questions from a naive student whose background
made grad school seem as far away as the moon.
I can't give a definitive review of the Rebooting
Computing workshop process because, sadly, I had to
return home to do my other day job so missed the third
day. From what I last, hear, the last day seemed to
have clicked better for more people. I will say this.
We have to realize that the goal of "rebooting"
computing is a big task, and not everyone who needs to
be involved shares the same context, history, motivation,
or goals. It was worth trying to figure out some of
that background before trying to make plans. Even if
the process moved slower than some of us thought it
should, it did get us all talking. That is a start,
and the agile developer in me knows the value in that.