Helping Hackers Hack survey results

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, while attending Dev8D, I surveyed developers working in or for universities. Here are the results. Click on the images below to view them full size. The data can be downloaded (minus email addresses and institutional affiliation).

What does the survey tell us? Well, it’s only 35 people out of about 250 that attended the conference. I also posted the link on Twitter, so it was open to abuse (it certainly wasn’t under controlled conditions!), but looking through the data, I don’t think it was spammed.

The last question shows that about two-thirds of respondents are keen to remain working in the sector and just under half of respondents are not looking for promotion. I expected that to be higher, given that a similar number have only worked in HE for 0-5 years, but maybe they’re entering at a level where promotion is less important to them. About a quarter of people said it was their first proper job. Other people are entering the sector from both public and private organisations in equal measure. A large majority of respondents are or have been in line management positions. Just under a third of developers can see themselves moving into management positions, away from day-to-day development, while a similar number aren’t sure.

In terms of how long they have been writing code, there was an even spread across the range of years and a corresponding response to whether people consider themselves novices, experienced or expert. Two thirds of respondents studied programming at university, but a larger number consider themselves self-taught. The two responses are not exclusive of course. The majority of people prefer web development and the choice of programming languages reflects that, too. There’s lots of use of source control applications, about half of people are using formal development frameworks and fewer people are using Continuous Integration.

Two thirds of people said that they work autonomously, are proud of the work they do, and get on with their colleagues, which is nice to hear :-) However, only a third of people think they are paid pretty well and just under a half said that they enjoy their responsibilities :-(

About two thirds of respondents feel that their work forces them to learn new things all the time. While others only learn new things occasionally or on side projects. The majority of people learn from figuring it out on their own, but many people also learn from web articles, forums, books and colleagues. Training opportunities also seem to be available and, not surprisingly given we were at Dev8D, about half of respondents are encouraged to go to conferences and workshops. Of course, time and money keep people from attending such events, but more worryingly, there’s evidence that at some institutions, it’s ‘not the done thing’.

From my own work, I was interested to see that there’s little culture of involving students in the work of developing services for HEIs, with two-thirds of people saying they never or rarely employ students.

There’s more detail in the numbers, so do have a look for yourself. For me, this was a useful first attempt to get a sense of the motivation, opportunities, interests and challenges for hackers working in universities. I intend to follow it up with a more formal and controlled survey, as well as observation of teams across the country. If you’d like to invite me to observe and interview you and your team, please do let me know :-)

Comments about the survey and the results are welcome below, too. Thanks.

The university as a hackerspace

Developers at Dev8D

Developers at Dev8D

I spend most of my time working with students and recent graduates. At first Alex, then Nick and Jamie, and in a week or two, Dale and Harry will join us. Dale and Alex are finishing up their final year in Computer Science and work as part-time Developers in ICT Services. Nick, Jamie and Harry graduated last year from studying Computer Science and work with me on JISC-funded projects. They’re all in their early to mid twenties. I learn a lot from them. Sometimes they make me feel old. I’m only 38.

In a year or so, they’ll probably move on to other things. Alex and Nick already have their own company and a business plan. Jamie wants to do a PhD. If I can secure us interesting and useful work, maybe Dale and Harry will stay on for a while longer, I don’t know. I hope they will stay but it needs to be for a good reason otherwise I would encourage them to look for new challenges.

These days I wonder how we (‘the university’) can support young hackers like the bunch I work with. Career progression for  developers working in universities is not great. Paul Walk recognised this as does the JISC-funded DevCSI project, run by Mahendra Mahey. Without their work, which highlights the importance of local developers, I think the HE sector would be a pretty barren place for hackers to commune. No Dev8D, no DevXS, fewer hack days and developer workshops. Along with several other people, I was invited to be on the Steering Group for DevCSI today, which I am very pleased about, and I look forward to working with the project more closely in the future.

There are a few things I’d like to focus on with DevCSI, based on my experience working with young hackers: the first is about how hackers learn. As I see it, this requires research into the history of hacking in universities, the role of undergraduate and graduate students in funded research, from ARPANET to Total ReCal, hacking as a cognitive craft that has its own learning communities and learning environments, that creates tools which help improve the effectiveness of learning and how those tools eventually shape the tools the rest of us use to learn.

The second thing I’d like to focus on, is how universities can learn from what we see happening in hacker culture: new reputational models, fablabs and hackerspaces, peer-production, and new methods of funding. On this last point, I’d like to develop an academic programme that attracted hackers and graduated start-ups. I think the Y Combinator model is a good example of this already happening, where students and recent graduates are receiving a little funding and lots of support, while asking for just a very small cut of the company.

Finally, I’d like to think about how we can break down the distinction between developers working in professional services and developers working on research projects and remind ourselves that we all work in universities: autonomous institutions for research, teaching and learning, and that when companies want to instill a culture of innovation, they often emulate the research culture of universities. I’d like to work towards developers in HE knowing there was the opportunity to be paid the same as professors when they clearly add similar value to the institution, which I think is easily possible. I see no reason why  great hackers  - experienced software craftsmen and women – working in universities shouldn’t be paid £100K or more, just as professors and other senior staff can be. Of course, working in a university, they would teach other hackers, run software development projects, contribute to the strategic direction of the university and produce superb software for the institution, too. Would they be on an academic or a non-academic contract? I don’t know. At that level, I don’t think it matters, but at the junior and middle periods of their careers it remains a divisive distinction that affects people’s aspirations.

Being great hackers, they would attract students that aspire to be great hackers, too. Just as I decided which graduate school to study at based on the reputation of a single professor working there, so young hackers would want to work with and learn from great hackers in universities, even more so if their programme of study included a Y Combinator style opportunity for angel investment.

I’d like to see an academic programme led by experienced software craftsmen with reputations to match, where students from different disciplines spend their degree in a university space that resembles a hackerspace or dojo, working together on ideas of their own under the guidance of more experienced staff, leading to potential angel investment at any point in their degree. Those that don’t get funded, leave with a degree, a valuable experience and a network of alumni contacts. Those that do get funded are given the support they need to develop their work into a real product or service. Sometimes, it might be one that the university would use itself, but not always. Over time, successful alumni would help attract more students to the programme, developing a culture of hackers and successful startups attached to the degree programme.

What excites me about this is that it’s a mixture of what universities always say they are about: research, teaching, learning and enterprise, but it recognises that those processes are changing and that hackers are already developing a model that is replacing these functions of the university: the opportunities for learning, collaboration, reputation building/accreditation and access to cheap hardware and software for prototyping ideas, can and are taking place outside universities, and so they should. However, I think that university culture is still a place where the hacker ethic (respect for good ideas, meritocracy, autonomy, curiosity, fixing things, against technological determinism, peer review, perpetual learning, etc.) remains relevant and respected. A university is a place where people come to learn from each other and we should be creating these new spaces and programmes that recognise the value of developers in universities.

Like any programme of study, work and investment, it needs careful thinking about how to set it up right, but from where I stand, it feels like a gaping hole in higher education that needs to be filled. Do you know of any examples that are already running? A ‘MIT Media Lab lite’ could be close to what I have in mind, but I have no experience of how it’s run and whether it breaks down the distinction between academic and non-academic staff to the extent I have in mind.

Hacking the University

RepRap demo at Dev8D

RepRap demo at Dev8D

In my previous post, I mentioned a small on-going project I have started to collect short interviews with developers working in universities. It is inspired by The Setup and relates to my interest in hacking in the academy. I hope that over time, it will provide a record of the people working in the developer community and add to the recognition of the work we do, how developers learn and how their working environment impacts upon their work and learning. Here’s the initial announcement I made at Dev8D. Please spread the word.

Calling all Developers working in Higher Education!

I’m setting up a site based on but focusing on Developers working in HE. It’s part of a research project I’m embarking on to understand how software developers (in universities) learn their craft.

It would be great if you could send me something. It will be published here It shouldn’t take more than about 15 mins to write and about 5 mins to read (although longer is OK). Over time, I hope to compile a rich profile of developers who happen to work in universities.

How you answer is up to you; browse the site and read other people’s contributions. Alternatively, I’d be happy to accept something different, like this: You don’t need to hyperlink to your software and hardware. I will do that, in many cases automagically!

Here are my interview questions. If you don’t feel like writing, I’d happily accept an audio file to transcribe.


Who are you, and what do you do?


Who taught you how to do what you do?


What tools do you use?


Describe your dream working environment.



I need a nice image of you, too, at least 500×335 pixels.


DevXS: Improve, challenge, positively disrupt

Even student hackers need to rest

I’ve spent the last five months helping to organise and host DevXS, a national student developer conference. The conference on 11-13th November was fully booked and a great success. Over 170 students attended from across the UK, representing 37 universities, as well as a further 20 tutors and developer mentors working in the Higher Education sector.

You can read more about DevXS on the conference blog which was updated throughout the weekend by a superb team of media students. There are lots of videos and presentation slides on the blog as well as pictures and information about the prize winners and their applications.

It was a really exhausting and satisfying experience to be involved in and not only was it the first conference of its kind in the UK but it looks like it will become an annual event hosted by a different university each year and organised by the JISC-funded DevCSI project.

You can read a report about the conference on the DevCSI website. The Guardian also published an article (originally titled ‘Hacking the Academy’) in the run up to the conference, which I wrote with Mike Neary.

Aberystwyth hardware hackers

Aberystwyth hardware hackers

Team HTTP Error #418

Team HTTP Error #418

Some brought their desktop rigs

Some brought their desktop rigs

The Aberdeen team raised sponsorship to attend

The Aberdeen team raised sponsorship to attend

The venue

The Engine Shed, where we lived for two days.