TITLE: Rebooting Computing Workshop Approach Redux AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 20, 2009 4:27 PM DESC: ----- BODY: 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 implementation of Appreciative Inquiry 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 action groups. 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 technical history. 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 work. 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 representative democracy 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 representative. 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 William Magrath 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. -----