20 June 2013

Learn Many Languages

Around twenty-five years ago, I was trying to solve the problem of recruiting suitable developers for a large business. I visited the local University (it was a Technical College then). My mission was to remind them that we were a large, local employer of technical people and to suggest that, as they were in the business of educating young people for a career in IT, we should work together. I anticipated a harmonious chat where we could suggest to them the idea of mentioning our name to some of their graduates. It didn’t go well.

The academic staff displayed a degree of revulsion towards the whole topic of IT in the world of commerce that surprised me; tweed met charcoal-grey, trainers met black shoes. However, their antipathy to commerce was something we could have worked around, since few of their graduates were destined for a career as university lecturers.

They asked me what sort of language skills we needed. I tried ducking the invidious task of naming computer languages, since I wanted recruits who were quick to adapt and learn, with a broad understanding of IT, including development methodologies, technologies, and data. However, they pressed the point and I ended up saying that we needed good working knowledge of C and BASIC, though FORTRAN and COBOL were, at the time, still useful. There was a ghastly silence. It was as if I’d recommended the beliefs and practices of the Bogomils of Bulgaria to a gathering of Cardinals. They stared at me severely, like owls, until the head of department broke the silence, informing me in clipped tones that they taught only Modula 2.

Now, I wouldn’t blame you if at this point you hurriedly had to look up ‘Modula 2’ on Wikipedia. Based largely on Pascal, it was a specialist language for embedded systems, but I’ve never ever come across it in a commercial business application. Nevertheless, it was an excellent teaching language since it taught modules, scope control, multiprogramming and the advantages of encapsulating a set of related subprograms and data structures. As long as the course also taught how to transfer these skills to other, more useful languages, it was not necessarily a problem. I said as much, but they gleefully retorted that the biggest local employer, a defense contractor specializing in Radar and military technology, used nothing but Modula 2. “Why teach any other programming language when they will be using Modula 2 for all their working lives?” said a complacent lecturer. On hearing this, I made my excuses and left. There could be no meeting of minds. They were providing training in a specific computer language, not an education in IT.

Twenty years later, I once more worked nearby and regularly passed the long-deserted ‘brownfield’ site of the erstwhile largest local employer; the end of the cold war had led to lean times for defense contractors. A digger was about to clear the rubble of the long demolished factory along with the accompanying growth of buddleia and thistles, in order to lay the infrastructure for ‘affordable housing’. Modula 2 was a distant memory. Either those employees had short working lives or they’d retrained in other languages.

The University, by contrast, was thriving, but I wondered if their erstwhile graduates had ever cursed the narrow specialization of their training in IT, as they struggled with the unexpected variety of their subsequent careers.

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