We overvalue innovation and entrepreneurship: Shifting the focus to Maintenance over Fads
Until I heard this recent Freakonomics podcast, I was not aware of this response to innovation and entrepreneurship trends. The quote below speaks directly to engineering education, but is as much about computing education.
The value of engineering is much, much more than just innovation and new things. Focusing on taking care of the world rather than just creating the new nifty thing that’s going to solve all of our problems. If you look at what engineers do, out in the world, like 70-80 percent of them spend most of their time just keeping things going. And so, this comes down to engineering education too, when we’re forcing entrepreneurship and innovation as the message, is that we’re just kind of skewing reality for young people and we’re not giving them a real picture and we’re also not valuing the work that they’re probably going to do in their life. That just seems to me to be kind of a bad idea.
The quote is from Lee Vinsel who was a co-author on a thought-provoking essay, Hail the maintainers, sub-titled: “Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more.”
To take the place of progress, ‘innovation’, a smaller, and morally neutral, concept arose. Innovation provided a way to celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age without expecting too much from them in the way of moral and social improvement.
It’s easy to see this emphasis on innovation over maintenance. We talk about disruption and transformation much more than reforming, repairing, or improving. We talk more about creation than understanding.
We increasingly teach computer science to prepare students to be innovators and create new things (e.g., join startups), when the reality is that most computer science graduates are going to spend the majority of their time maintaining existing systems. (See the papers by Beth Simon and Andy Begel tracking new hires at Microsoft.) Few who do enter the startup world will create successful software and successful companies, so it’s unlikely that those students who aim to create startups will have a lifelong career in startups. In terms of impact and importance, keeping large, legacy systems running is a much greater social contribution than creating yet another app or game, when so few of those startup efforts are successful. Aren’t we then as guilty as the engineering educators, described in the first quote?
In terms of what we teach in computing and how, innovation and maintenance is a hard balance to strike. As Alan Kay has noted, “The computing revolution hasn’t happened yet.” We’re still inventing and innovating because what we have isn’t good enough. But, that desire to value what’s new leads us to overvaluing the fad of the moment, rather than exploring, developing, and understanding what we have at-hand. Why do we have to keep changing the introductory programming language, when it’s clear that we don’t understand how students learn (and don’t learn) the programming languages that we currently teach? Why did we give up on Logo when it’s still better than most languages for children today? It’s a tough balance — to strive for better than we have, but valuing, developing, and improving what we currently have.