TITLE: Why a CS Major Might Minor in Anthropology AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 17, 2012 12:23 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Paul Klipp wrote a nice piece recently on emic and etic approaches to explaining team behavior. He explains what emic and etic approaches are and then shows how they apply to the consultant's job. For example:
Let's look at an example closer to home for us software folks. You're an agile coach, arriving in a new environment with a mission from management to "make this team more agile". If you, like so many consultants in most every field, favor an etic approach, you will begin by doing a gap analysis between the behaviors and artifacts that you see and those with which you are most familiar. That's useful, and practically inevitable. The next natural step, however, may be less helpful. That is to judge the gaps between what this team is doing and what you consider to be normal as wrong.... By deciding, as a consultant or coach, to now attempt to prepare an emic description of the team's behaviors, you force yourself to set aside your preconceptions and engage in meaningful conversations with the team in order to understand how they see themselves. Now you have two tools in your kit, where you might before have had one, and more tools prepares you for more situations.
When I speak to HS students and their parents, and when I advise freshmen, I suggest that the consider picking up a minor or a second major. I tell them that it almost doesn't matter which other discipline they choose. College is a good time to broaden oneself, to enjoy learning for its own sake. Some minors and second majors may seem more directly relevant to a CS grad's career interests, but you never know what domain or company you will end up working in. You never know when having studied a seemingly unrelated discipline will turn out to be useful. Many students are surprised when I recommend social sciences such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology as great partners for CS. Their parents are, too. Understanding people, both individually and in groups, is important in any profession, but it is perhaps more important for CS grads than many. We build software -- for people. We teach new languages and techniques -- to people. We contract out our services to organizations -- of people. We introduce new practices and methodologies to organizations -- of people. Ethnography may be a more important to a software consultant's success than any set of business classes. I had my first experience with this when I was a graduate student working in the area of knowledge-based systems. We built systems that aimed to capture the knowledge of human experts, often teams of experts. We found that they relied a lot on tacit knowledge, both in their individual expertise and in the fabric of their teams. It wasn't until I read some papers from John McDermott's research group at Carnegie Mellon that I realized we were all engaged in ethnographic studies. It would have been so useful to have had some background in anthropology! -----