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.

5 thoughts on “The university as a hackerspace

  1. Much as I wish it might be otherwise, I think there’s a reason that experienced software craftsmen and women aren’t paid top-tier salaries by universities, however good and however highly regarded they might be. Their work isn’t strategic to the mission of the University. By strategic, I don’t mean helping the U to fulfill it’s bread-and-butter roles, but helping to distinguish it from other similar Us, attracting better students, researchers, research money, etc., and generally increasing its standing in the all-important rankings.

    Maybe this could change, but it will be an alignment of technical and university-business-strategy skills that does it, not just craftsmanship.

    I’d say there’s a better prospect of big rewards by working for a company that supplies software to universities.

    There are of course reasons other than pay-grade for working in a university – the opportunities to meet and work with some really smart people, and to occasionally work on boundary-pushing ideas are among mine.

  2. Pingback: What I’ve been reading | DavePress

  3. Pingback: The researcher programmer, a new species? | Dirk's Page

  4. As you progress with this work, I am interested to hear what you learn about informal hacker communities and the various shibboleths people need to learn to enter them and how this compares with the model in formal ed, both how they differ but also how they might inform each other. My limited experiences are that both have (different) legitimate and illegitimate barriers for entry, and I think embedding one in the other offers some fascinating potential to learn.

  5. Pingback: Orbital: Impact and benefits | Orbital

Comments are closed.