Jiva Technology

Ideas needed .. quickly.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in conjunction with UK in a Changing Europe, a think-tank drawing on academic research to look at the UK-EU relationship, have been taking a closer look at the issues that drove voters to choose Leave in the 2016 EU referendum.

Setting aside the politics and sometimes angry debate that goes with those politics, the picture that emerges is reasonably clear. The report identifies five key issues, but also asks participants to suggest solutions to the problems they see.

Of the four suggested solutions, 2 relate to skills and training. What is becoming evident is that whilst the UK has invested heavily in the provision of tertiary education, not everyone wants to go to university and for those people who choose not to, skills training is thin on the ground. Its even worse when you consider low-paid workers who want to gain skills or retrain as a way of moving up the pay scale.

Making it hard to acquire new skills away from university is hard, not only on those directly affected, but on the economy in general. As we’ve said before, technology and demographics mean that people will need to train and retrain multiple times in a working life. Skills obsolescence will become the norm not the exception.

Solutions to these problems are needed and they’re needed quickly before the political frustrations that have surfaced across Europe turn into something ugly. Deploying solutions quickly means using technology, because bricks and mortar solutions won’t move quickly enough to solve the problem. That most likely means an EdTech solution to at least some of the problems. Not everything can be delivered over the internet, particularly when it comes to practical skills, but a blended approach, along the lines of certain Swiss DUAL-T model, goes at least some way to show the problem is being addressed.

Where do the smart ones go?

Take a step back and take a deep breath and you can start to see some pretty significant new technologies beginning to emerge. And when I say significant, I don’t mean a new social media platform or a new VR-Based game. I mean technology that’s good for all of us: green tech.

By happy coincidence, something is also happening in a very important part of the workplace. For the best and brightest, a slot at a big bank or a major consultancy used to be the natural gig. You could argue that it was rational for them; it was a “follow the money” strategy, but increasingly it’s not only not cool, but it’s not where the excitement or the money is. Its in new ideas and new technologies. And many of those ideas and technologies are in green tech; what will be the biggest show in town

Much has been made of the UK grid running on zero coal power for multiple weeks this year, but not much attention was paid when the UK was running primarily on wind power last weekend. At several points, wind made up over 1/3 of grid energy and zero-carbon energy sources contributed more than 1/2 of the electricity supply. Its a remarkable turnaround from only a few years ago.

What is also zero is the mass media reporting of another critical piece of green infrastructure: large-scale storage of energy from renewables. As has been well-documented, wind energy in particular doesn’t generate electrons when they’re needed the most, so you need a way of time-shifting supply, otherwise known as storage. A range of technologies, from battery to compressed air have been proposed, but the UK is about to engage in a large scale trial of these promising technologies. Renewables plus storage could transform the UK electricity grid from large scale carbon dependency to large scale wind dependency. Throw in the appearance of solid state batteries for transport in the next 5 years and you will see a huge tipping point away from carbon emitting transport toward clean energy driven cars, trucks and buses. It will be nothing short of transformational. And it will represent the biggest business opportunity in a generation … did I mention that?

Once the world of transport makes the decisive shift away from burning fossil fuels, its not hard to imagine that other sources of carbon-emission will come under the spotlight, from the heating of homes to construction materials. A domino effect is likely to take place as social norms shift to a point where carbon emission is seen as just “not done”. Most commentators think it will be decades before this occurs, but I have a sneaking suspicion that social pressure will move things at a faster pace. Who wants to turn up at the school gate in a diesel SUV when everyone else drives electric?

When a whole sequence of technologies – the pieces of the puzzle – move forward at different rates it can be hard to make sense of the rate of progress or what the final picture will look like, but what’s absolutely certain is that the technologies are advancing quickly and when they arrive, demand will be there. Its not before time, but equally its exciting. Amongst the doom surrounding climate change, its important not to forget that.

It’s all about the trees.

Going back a few years I spent a lot of time in the far north of Scotland. The Caithness region can be a little wild and windy, but it has a dramatic natural beauty that’s reinforced by the almost complete absence of trees. I thought the lack of trees was a natural thing, but it turns out I was wrong. Caithness used to have trees (romantically called the Caledonian Forest) but a combination of small changes in the climate and the arrival of agriculture and humans around 4,000 years ago put paid to both the trees and the bears, lynx and other animals that lived there.

Fast forward to the present day and we worry about the destruction of Amazonian rainforest, its unique biodiversity and the impact the loss of trees will have on global warming. But what is happening in the Amazon today is what happened in Britain (albeit on a smaller scale) several thousand years ago. And what’s important is that to a certain extent, its a reversible process. Just as we can chop down trees, we can plant new ones. The Committee on Climate Change has reported that the UK will need to plant 1.5 bn trees to meet the goal of net zero carbon production by 2050. At a time of climate pessimism, that sounds like a lot, but the UK was once almost entirely shrouded in forest. Returning swathes of the countryside to its former state in combination with rewinding that can have astonishing effects in a relatively short period. There work of Sebastio Salgado and the Instituto Terra show just what might be possible in even the most damaged landscape. Which is why the Department of Environment initiative to offer grants to plant 130,000 new trees is a brilliant initiative and hopefully the start of something big. The magazine entrepreneur Felix Dennis left an amazing legacy with the Heart of England Forest that plants over 300 acres of new trees per year.

The point is that whilst its easy to become despondent about climate destruction, its also easy to miss the things that are being done and need our support. Major news outlets very rarely concentrate on the good news stories because bad news sells. But the good news stories need our help because that’s the only way that they can expand and make more of a difference. Tackling the greatest issue of our time is not just about electric cars and renewable energy, its about taking the carbon out of the atmosphere thats already there and the best technology we have at our disposal at the moment is the mighty tree. Natures capture capture technology.

What makes a good software engineer?

With so much software being produced these days, it seems as if no product can be released without a dash of software added to the mix. We’ve hired many software developers over the years: everything from junior developers straight from university to grizzled veterans who can still spell Cobol. But surprisingly, it’s only recently that I can remember a conversation where we talked about what actually makes one software developer better than another. That isn’t to say that cv’s and skills aren’t heavily scrutinised, tricky interview questions devised and code tests demanded in abundance. But somehow, amongst all of this, there was an unwritten agreement that a developer with a neat code test, the right skills and a passable interview was good to go. It should matter, because good developers are considerably more productive than average developers. Some argue up to 30 times more productive, which sounds a little outrageous, but we get the gist.

Oddly enough there seems to be universal agreement that specific expertise is overrated, so that huge list of skills and products mastered doesn’t mean a huge amount. A decent developer can pick something up quickly even if they haven’t used it before. Which makes me think that a good developer should be quick to learn. The reality is that new stuff is coming out all the time, so the shelf life for all those skills is fairly short.

Some folks will add in general skills like, “good communicator, hard worker and team player” but if we employ the eternally useful Law of the Ridiculous Reverse, who ever wanted to hire a bad communicator, a lazy tyke and a rubbish team player? And in any case, aren’t those qualities that you’d look for in any new hire? So do they really make a difference in the specific case of software developers? Probably not. There is an argument to be made about one particular generic attribute, which is time management. In theory, we should all care about time management, although the advent of social media has perhaps made goofing-off irresistibly attractive. But there is something different about managing time in a software development project. There’s a cadence associated with agile sprints that feels a little like the rising and falling of the tide; with the inevitable mad dash at the end to get final development, bugs squashed and code pushed in time. Time management needs to include an ability to change gears when needed. To work incredibly intensely at times and feel okay about lessening the pace at others (no one can work at pace indefinitely). So maybe there is such a thing as developer time management, which could be the reason why GTDs are so popular in the developer community.

So we haven’t really got that far: good at time management or changing gears and a quick learn doesn’t feel like an exhaustive list. But there is one skill which seems to very prevalent amongst the best developers I’ve come across. Call it problem solving, critical reasoning or whatever you like, the best software engineers share this with the best engineers of all disciplines. Its the ability to understand a problem at more than a superficial level, to understand what is the core of the problem, the difficult nut to crack and to sketch out solutions that may not be from the standard recipe book. The greatest engineers in history … I’m talking to you Isambard Kingdom Brunel … were exemplars of this trait. Of course a major part of this is an ability to empathise with the end user, with the person whose job has to be supported or automated or otherwise coded. Its understanding that its not just about the process, but the way that human beings interact with the process and adopt it, or not. Which in turn suggests a curiosity about the problem and the people that is too often absent in projects that I’ve seen in the past.

So perhaps we have an answer to the question, “what makes a good software developer?” A quick learn who has good time management skills and critical reasoning skills; is curious, empathises with end users and a decent time manager. So far, so easy. Now how do we design an interview process to test all of that.


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