back to article 'No, I CAN'T write code myself,' admits woman in charge of teaching our kids to code

The government's "Year Of Code" scheme to bring computer programming into schools for children as young as five has degenerated into a political bunfight. "The word 'coding' has been hijacked and abused by politicians and media who don't understand stuff,” the Raspberry Pi foundation’s director of educational development and a …

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Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

I've consulted for 2 dozen companies and worked for a dozen more in my career, which is coming near an end now.

Few CIOs or VPs of IT can code. Even many managers were never able to code.

Even most analysts and project leaders are poor coders.

Our industry is run by sales people and accountants. This is especially true for big organizations like governments, banks and body shops of all sizes.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

Amen to that. Many a time I've been presented with the over-promising, "why didn't you deliver?" brigade in middle and upper management who couldn't write a line of code themselves but consider everything to just be a piece of piss to deliver.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

I had a problem one with a project manager once. He complained when I gave a two week estimate for some functionality and flipped at me, saying he could code it in 15 minutes.

I stood up and pushed the mouse and keyboard to him and asked for a master class so I could learn from a genius how to code so fast.

He walked off grumbling, swearing, and complaining. But never questioned my estimates again :)

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

"why didn't you deliver?"

If they are asking you this, it's likely that you agreed earlier you could deliver it so the fault is not with them. If they ask you to deliver something and you can't, you need to explicitly tell them you can't, and why you or anyone else won't be able to. It's the same when ordering from Amazon, if they say an item is in stock and will deliver on Thursday I have the right to moan if they don't. If I order something which isn't in print and they don't have stock and then complain they will laugh at me, just as you should with your boss if you set the situation up correctly.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

"Few CIOs or VPs of IT can code"

So? Few coders know anything about running a company, although there are a large percentage who think it's dead easy. The key is knowing your limits and when to ask a specialist.

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@Lusty

You've clearly never dealt with scope creep. Being given 2 weeks to complete a task but constantly having the goalposts moved further and further away as more is added into the requirements. And no matter how often you repeat that adding more functionality will push the completion date back there is always that moment some point after the 2 week original deadline where you get asked why you're taking so long to complete a simple 2 week task.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

The danger is that the VPs and managers of the future will think they can "code" because they did some parrot-fashion HTML and Scratch lessons at primary school. I pity the next generation of proper software developers.

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@Oliver Mayes

There's a little technique from the Project Management world that can be applied here called Change Control. Once something is signed off, every change needs to go through Change Control & have an impact assessment carried out which details cost and time impact of the change - this assessed change request needs to be signed off by management. It's amazing just how many "critical" changes are suddenly dropped when senior management need to sign off a large delay or chunk of cash to implement it.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

@Lusty: The beauty of these types is that you don't get to agree. You don't get consulted. You just get told "we've promised X to dept Y in timeframe Z". When that impossibility is not met despite you flogging your guts out, then you get asked the magic question. You also get made out to be the "he must have agreed to it" arsehole that couldn't deliver. Please don't assume these people consult the minions. Shit flows down and praise flows up.

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Re: @Oliver Mayes @Corinne

In my experience, change control is never applied to requirements. It would be good if it could, but generally, it's not, especially on something with a duration measured in a few weeks.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

@ Mark 65

This is why you keep all of your emails and you challenge it as soon as you are asked to deliver the impossible. If it falls on you, you can pull an email to your manager out that shows you immediately (ie weeks or months before the problem happened) said that it can't be done in this timeframe, with the usual caveats ie "I need x number of people to meet that deadline". It soon goes back up to your manager.

It's a sad position, but arse covering is a huge part of a developers job, especially as your name could be stamped be all over that 1 line of code that went wrong and cost the company millions.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

>>"If they are asking you this, it's likely that you agreed earlier you could deliver it so the fault is not with them. If they ask you to deliver something and you can't, you need to explicitly tell them you can't, and why you or anyone else won't be able to."

I agree with you and modded you up, however, reliably estimating how long a task will take is an advanced skill. I'm serious. Yes, you can give a good estimate for how long it will take you to do some small function or trivial change as a junior programmer, but once you get into larger pieces of work on existing projects or wholly new projects, it takes a lot of experience to give reliable estimates. I recall when I took on my first job writing some device drivers for a customers hardware, I was actually reasonably okay at coding (not so much in retrospect of course, but okay for a fresh new coder), but my estimates of how long it would take me were way off. If someone is project managing software development then they should have enough experience to make some educated guesses themselves. Especially given that they will be applying pressure to their developers to give answers that are spun to sound positive.

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Re: @Oliver Mayes

Oh good lord yes, we introduced change control to a company that had never used it before and requests went down from around 200 (seriously) to about 3 a week. Suddenly projects got completed on time and to budget. The company eventually went bust when they put a director in charge of the company's biggest and most critical project who refused to use any form of change control. After calling endless meetings (one a day, minimum) to discuss why the project wasn't up to date and micro managing every single detail, the project foundered, as did the company.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

'"why didn't you deliver?"

'If they are asking you this, it's likely that you agreed earlier you could deliver it so the fault is not with them.'

I surmise that you have never worked for the type of management that brings about such situations; but I assure you they exist and are flourishing. The sales people and their managers "win" business from the competition by promising features and deadlines that are quite impossible. Then they present their technical staff with a fait accompli, and tell them they have to deliver or the company's good name will be ruined, the company's finances will be wrecked, and mainly they will be unemployed. (By the way, this syndrome helps to account for the quality of much commercial software). So the programmers work days, nights and weekends in the hope of delivering something that will pass for barely adequate by the deadline. It's a no-lose proposition for the sales people; if the company goes under, they simply go off to another company complaining how the technical staff at their last place simply weren't up to it. And if the technical manager tells management the promises can't be kept, guess who is believed - him or the sales manager? ***

On a massively larger scale, similar methods are used to make vast amounts of money out of government contracts (in "defence" and other areas). Company A wins the business by putting in a proposal that simply defies reason; the government eagerly signs them up; and work begins. Two or three years later, the management of Company A suddenly discovers that the agreed work will take twice as long and cost five times as much. They tell the government people that, and implicitly ask, "Which would you prefer: to submit to our blackmail, bearing in mind that the voters won't notice, or to cancel our contract, thereby revealing yourselves to be incompetent?" Guess which the politicians choose.

*** It's hardly a new scenario. See, for example, Exodus 5:

6 That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: 7 “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. 8 But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”

10 Then the slave drivers and the overseers went out and said to the people, “This is what Pharaoh says: ‘I will not give you any more straw. 11 Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.’” 12 So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. 13 The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, “Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.” 14 And Pharaoh’s slave drivers beat the Israelite overseers they had appointed, demanding, “Why haven’t you met your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?”

15 Then the Israelite overseers went and appealed to Pharaoh: “Why have you treated your servants this way? 16 Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, ‘Make bricks!’ Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people.”

17 Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ 18 Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”

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@Sandman

Sandman I don't suppose this director was a believer in "Agile" was he? I've noticed that with many (especially smaller) software development companies the term is used to avoid any types of control whatsoever.

An example of this is where my nephew works, they have their "scrum meeting" every morning lead by the so-called project manager. Everyone working on the project verbally reports progress and blockers, however the PM doesn't even take any notes or actions so every day the same problems come up as no-one has done anything about them. They have no change control, no proper plans, no progress reporting, no risk & issue tracking etc. This is because they do "agile" development so controls just get in the way (sigh).

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

About ten years ago I worked for an IT company whose executive started to think that with new tools and technologies - about which they really understand nothing - they no longer needed skilled (and thereby expensive) developers, but cheap ones - because, of course, "with the right tools everyone can code". I was "let go" because of my salary - and I have to thank them - because two years later the company went bankrupt among failing projects, falling quality, angry customers and so on. But with money saved by hiring low-quality developers they could buy a new company building with fancier executive offices.... sometimes many executive have no clue how to run a company too.

There's a misconception that running a bananas company and an IT one is the same thing, from an executive perspective. It is not - you need to have a real knowledge of the market your company works with. In the past many large and successful companies were founded and run by engineers and the like - not by sales or business people who think selling bananas and large aircrafts is not very different...

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

"You just get told "we've promised X to dept Y in timeframe Z"

No, I get asked. If you're getting told it means that either you are not senior enough to be consulted (in which case, you're not senior enough to be told off) or you're not considered worth consulting. Either way, if you genuinely are senior enough to be part of the discussion, the above message is the point at which you professionally disagree with them and say no, giving reasons.

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Re: @Oliver Mayes @Corinne

"In my experience, change control is never applied to requirements. It would be good if it could, but generally, it's not, especially on something with a duration measured in a few weeks."

Perhaps that's because you aren't applying it? Those of us who don't get this apparent stream of crap coming down seem to the the same group who understand how to deal with change control properly. Just saying :)

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Unhappy

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

>The danger is that the VPs and managers of the future will think they can "code" because they did

>some parrot-fashion HTML and Scratch lessons at primary school.

When I was at primary school HTML didn't exist. Neither did home computers. Even HTMLs daddy (SGML) wasn't defined until 1986 (by which time I'd almost done^Wfailed my A levels..)

Kids today eh?

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

"I had a problem one with a project manager once. He complained when I gave a two week estimate for some functionality and flipped at me, saying he could code it in 15 minutes.

I stood up and pushed the mouse and keyboard to him and asked for a master class so I could learn from a genius how to code so fast.

He walked off grumbling, swearing, and complaining. But never questioned my estimates again :)"

I have that particular t-shirt as well. :)

It wasn't actually a programming issue - it was actually a b0rked spreadsheet problem, and rather than a project manager it was one of the partners in the firm of accounts I worked for at the time (1990ish). I was asked to fix the problems with this spreadsheet, at something like 5:25pm (with an official 5:30pm finish, though I tended to work until closer to 6pm - unpaid, but for practical reasons).

Having looked at it, I said it was probably two or three hours worth of work, so I'd deal with it in the morning (quite apart from not being paid for working late, there was also the issue that I'd be kicked out by not long after six anyway, when the partners went home - so it wouldn't be possible for me to deal with it there and then).

He stroppily suggested that I should be able to fix it in a few minutes - in response to which I stood up, and offered him the chair in front of the computer, saying if he's so confident that it would be that easy, he must be able to do it himself.

He wasn't pleased.

I never did get on with him, though.

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Re: @Corinne

That's all very well, if they'll accept such a procedure in the first place.

I once found myself on seriously thin ice for writing down all the changes I'd been handed down since the original design document and requesting a meeting to discuss a new timescale. The manager got a bit frustrated, but his manager took it off him, tore it up and wouldn't let it go on file, then summoned me for a bollocking.

I think I got through on the basis of being most qualified to do any of it. At least I lasted long enough to see the same two sign off on a TickIT quality procedure wot I wrote a few years later.

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Facepalm

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

...two years later the company went bankrupt among failing projects, falling quality, angry customers and so on.

Sadly, nobody in command ever seems to learn from these failures.

They just blame it on the incompetent developers and go somewhere else to do the same thing over again. "F*ck up and move up" is how a former boss put it.

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Boffin

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

I've been with a number of startups in my career, as well as a couple of mature companies. In both environments, most of the people at all levels have mindsets that can be summed up as follows:

"Any job I don't understand & have no experience with is easy."

which is often seen in it's other form,

"No job is as difficult as mine."

The bottom line is that good companies require different talents for the different jobs, and they are all important. (Unless there are redundancies, in which case the place is over staffed.)

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

>>"why didn't you deliver?"

>"If they are asking you this, it's likely that you agreed earlier you could deliver it so the fault is not with them."

I've dealt with more than one PHB who's taken a timeframe from coders and halved it when passing it upstream.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

"Sadly, nobody in command ever seems to learn from these failures.

"They just blame it on the incompetent developers and go somewhere else to do the same thing over again. "F*ck up and move up" is how a former boss put it."

That's because, in the management jargon such people love, "you can't drive by looking in the rear view mirror". (Translation: MY mistakes are not to be discussed, EVER. Let's focus on YOUR mistakes).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

"I've dealt with more than one PHB who's taken a timeframe from coders and halved it when passing it upstream".

Yes, that's typical in-house behaviour. The real fun starts when successive levels of management iterate, reducing the deadline by successive powers of 2.

Amusingly enough, in the world of contracting (especially government contracting) the reverse process can take place. I was once on a training course whose instructor, a Scot with delightfully dry wit and cynical attitude, told us during a tea break about one project he worked on while programming for such a contractor. He was told the requirements, and estimated that the work would take a month. Then the fun began, as his manager doubled that - only for his manager to double it again, before it was finally doubled once more before being given to the customer. As the customer was a government department and the contractor was a regular supplier, the estimate was of course accepted without question. So the future instructor went on site, did the job in about 10 days (being no fool, he had built in plenty of margin on his own account), and then spent the next 30 or so weeks hanging around reading books and pretending to work. But he got his salary, and the contractor got paid about 20 times what the job was worth - and it was only taxpayers' money, so everyone was happy.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

From the other side of the table, I was planning and estimating projects when I worked in the Civil Service. It would be virtually guaranteed that whatever estimate you gave for cost, you would be told to deliver the project for around 20-40% less money. This obviously meant you would automatically "pad" the estimates so you'd (hopefully) have enough money to complete. And employ the tightest & most painful Change Control process seen to mankind!

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

Even if he did sit around for 30 weeks pissing about, at least the project came in on time and on budget!

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Some managers view things differently

I worked in defence for over 10 years and often had to inflate estimates, a good 40% 'contingency', in order to get around managers who automatically reduced the estimates by that sort of order when communicating with their managers. They seemed to think that it was OK for them to work 9 to 5 but techies were clearly unable to socialise and therefore didn't need time away from the office when they weren't sleeping.

Things were better in the telco and web tech domains - the more technically competent/aware managers I met there were more reasonable in their demands, even though 9 to 5 was a rare luxury.

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Pint

Re: @Stacy

"He walked off grumbling, swearing, and complaining"

That deserves a few beers. Unfortunately, I can buy only one on this forum....

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

@Peter2

A reliable estimate then!

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

@h4rm0ny

I down voted you purely on your use of the oxymoron "reliable estimate". Just as good as saying "reliable guess".

Let's say we use the phrase 'well founded' as a synonym for 'reliable' then we can ask: what is the estimate founded upon?

Another note: In all my years of professional software development I only once booked / entered my time spent on a project on a system to collect this information and that was on a defence project which was a sub-contract. Even this time was not specific to any requirement or set of functionality.

When was the last time you did this sort of activity?

I also note that most developers are on salary and in due course, often do more hours effort than what are their 'nominal contract hours'. When was the last time this extra effort was collected and collated by your management?

The trouble with software development is that the balls of string we have to look at hide an untold number of knots and these balls can be very tightly attached to one another.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

There's a different scenario I've come across.

Work often comes down to the programmer through a chain of command. Programmer estimates finish in one day. Next up in line adds a couple of days for safety - 3 Days. Next up says - A week. Occasionally when the work order comes down, the programmer ends up with the best part of a month to do a one day change. And god help him if he sets a dangerous precedent by finishing sooner.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

Some ID10T's think that just because Scotty was a miracle working engineer, then we all must be.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

Scotty was considered a miracle worker because he multiplied his repair estimates by a factor of 4.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

Execs without exception believe that because a change takes 4 seconds to articulate, it will take roughly the same amount of time to develop.

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@ Vanir

Must admit it was a while ago (about 7 years) since I last worked in a place that logged actual hours, but there have been a few places that did. Interestingly, the employers who were best at requiring this weren't companies that were charging a customer but for people doing in-house development e.g. a financial services company, the Civil Service.

A big element of inaccurate estimating is not breaking a task down into it's component parts. I would ask a developer how long an activity would take, and get "about a week" back from them. I would then ask them about each individual task & how long THAT would take, and that tended to add up to well over 40 hours. Feed in any dependency time (amazing how many people think a code review can be done instantaneously with no resources used!) and you'd end up with a more realistic estimate nearer 2-3 weeks.

But a lot of the failure to estimate & track time spent on a project properly I blame on MS Project and lazy project managers. Nowadays PMs only seem to want to do "quick & dirty" planning & tracking with the nice & easy MS tool, which used to be incapable of true effort tracking and even now that is a pain to do. But it's quick and easy to produce an outline plan in, lets you do % based tracking (notoriously inaccurate) and produces pretty charts for senior management

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

hmm

this cuts both ways. I was once PMing a project with a critical module still not available aftere three weeks work and holding the whole project up when I foolishly said I could code that in a weekend to which the engineer said OK do it then.

I did - it took about 5 hours, 6 if you include test but it destroyed the (admittedly poor) engineer and it made me realise I really did not want to be a project manager.

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Dr?

Re: @Sandman

I've just started working on my first agile project. I'm a tester. I can see how it could work but I can also see the huge problems that could arise from a lack of specifications, a lack of documentation, a lack of issue tracking, a business that hasn't thought about exactly what it wants delivering and developers who think they know best. Not to mention "digital" who come in late in the day with big ideas but not a clue about the business, its customers or an idea about how their grand ideas can actually be implemented into something that is almost finished.

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Re: @Lusty

"You've clearly never dealt with management" Fixed.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

>Few coders know anything about running a company

Considering their delivery record, so do few CEOs and VPs.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

This is so true. I do remember one place where I was contracting the PM took me aside after a month and asked me to slow down as the rest of the team (and him) were being made to look bad and that they relied on the weekend overtime payments being slow brought them! This was a financial institution where they were all on bloody good base salaries and some were also contractors.

However, I have to say that, as a (now) senior manager who used to code for a living, the number of times I've been given delivery estimates which I _knew_ to be ridiculously long and grossly "padded" is legion. The trick is to discuss properly with the developers, challenge where necessary, sign off what's agreed and then have solid change control to avoid the dreaded scope creep.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

The point you are missing is that it is exactly the lack of basic coding skill or mere general idea of what it entails in everyday people is the thing that needs to change.

Would you have a writing department in a company led by those who were illiterate? Would you have a company where only a select few could write at all and all work was bottlenecked via them? That is the current situation.

While there will always be the specialist programmers with full understanding , we need to head towards a point where anyone can do basic scripting to automate their own repetitive tasks and a general understanding of what code is/what is possible. (Of course this also requires software to be scriptable and scripting to be as easy as possible - something we have rather thrown out the window in the touch generation)

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

One of the problems is the idea, coming out of the world of the MBA, that the guy in charge of the business doesn't need to know anything about the specifics of what the business does.

They don't need to be experts. They do need to know enough to understand the specialists.

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Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

You don't live in the real world do you?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Few CIOs or VP ITs can code

I hit this problem on an IT project management course at a major global financial institution.

Day one we were told that 90% of IT projects come in over budget and/or late or fail, never running to completion. Day 10 we had to present our case study to the IT director. Question one: what is your time and resource (staffing) estimate? Having been given that he said the organisation couldn't devote that amount of resource but the project could go ahead with 50% of the proposed resource. Question 2: "how certain are you that you can complete this within (his 50%) budget and on time". Any team that gave an answer less than 100% certainty failed the course.

In that situation, I just can't imagine why so many projects fail, can you?

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theres two parts to her having this job, they're polar extremes, im just pointing it out...

Ok, situation, Person gets a job teaching something she knows nothing about or in fact has any experience in (from the details of the article).

Firstly, you don't need to know anything about a subject to manage it at a very top level, her skills, albeit unproven, could well be that she is a master at planning and thinking of the big picture which hopefully is exactly what has happened, the flip side of that is shes a good "face" for the campaign with some even better connections....

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But we know it's already going pear shaped. If you look at any of the media reporting it seems the whole concept is being diverted into things like basic HTML markup. I wouldn't call that computer science, more an extension of the existing ICT syllabus.

If you really wanted to push CS into schools the way to do it is not as some kind of bit part. Use one of the very high level functional languages, e.g. SML, to reduce the amount of red tape, and introduce it in lower high school alongside basic algebra. That way the two areas directly reinforce each other.

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I'm still wondering how coding fell out of the syllabus.

When I started high school (Scottish system) we had computing in first and second year where we were taught basic and started with the mundane make the screen flash up to getting a car to move round a track. This was back in 1991, now it seems that that has been abandoned and forgotten, to suddenly be rediscovered by the current boom in the technology sector.

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