How to build a Github in a university?

This post is not about building a source code repository in a university.

Alex posted this presentation to our group’s mailing list a while back. If you are a developer or work with developers, it will mean something to you. Take a look and then read on.

Github are one of a few companies that talk openly about how they organise themselves and their work. Valve (cf. their Handbook – PDF), Automattic and 37signals are similar examples of how technology companies are both using and building technologies to change the way they work and the way they understand the role of work in our lives. When I watch presentations of enviable working environments like Github, I try to think of how it translates to working in a university, which in many respects also offers an enviable working environment in that academics at least, manage our own time, pursue our own interests, receive decent paid holidays, a pension, full pay while sick, etc. etc. There might be aspects of university life which we complain about, but relative to most other work, it is good work. I enjoy it and on the whole find it very satisfying.

In LNCD, we’ve been watching companies like Github for a while now and have been trying to learn from them and put their approach to work into practice. It is not easy and, off the top of my head, here are a few reasons why:

  • It is not a case of companies like Github employing an ‘agile methodology’, there are significant structural differences between technology startups and large institutions, too.
  • Github is a relatively small (108 employees) company compared to a university, which in our case has over 1300 staff and 12,000 students.
  • Github offers a single service (, which although comprises a large number of underlying technologies, provides focus and direction for employees. Such narrow focus could grow dull over time, but I’m sure that the scale of growth (1.9m users over 4 years) keeps things interesting and challenging and during that time new complimentary technologies have been introduced which they have leveraged (e.g. configuration management software like Puppet).
  • Github appears to be a rapidly growing, dynamic company that currently works on a 1:17500 staff:customer ratio. Their customer-base is technologically savy and so they no doubt benefit from fast and valuable feedback, which drives the product forward. They release a new version of their product/service between 20-40 times each day.
  • A university’s focus is broad, loosely arranged around the themes of research, teaching, learning and enterprise. ‘Education’ doesn’t sum it up. I can’t think of a word that does. Sometimes universities focus on ‘the student experience’ or ‘research excellence’. Within these themes there are then multiple disciplines (e.g. Engineering, Arts, Humanities, Social Science), which have their own needs and expectations of the institution that supports them. Traditionally, they have operated quite autonomously and still do at some institutions. Organisationally, they are brought together as Colleges, Faculties, Schools, Departments, Teams and Committees. Perhaps it helps if we think of universities as a federation of multiple organisations. In some ways, research groups are similar to firms.
  • Universities grow quite slowly. They typically require large amounts of land, building work and the staff:student ratio at Lincoln is 1:9, which includes non-academic staff. Communication and ‘feedback’ within a university tends to happen quite slowly, too. We have annual surveys of both staff and students, course evaluations, committees and ways of providing adhoc feedback, but compared to Github, a university is a relative stable organisation and they tend to have a great deal of longevity.
  • Github’s message to other companies who wish to emulate them is ‘automate everything’; that is, where a machine can do the work better than a human, the machine should do the work and that the short-term effort put in to taking this approach will reap rewards in the long-term. This approach frees up the relatively few staff they have to be productive and creative. So far, no-one has left Github to work elsewhere. Employees are not being made redundant because their work has been automated.
  • Github builds the tools it needs to develop as a company. There are a number of examples in the slides above. We use one of their tools here at Lincoln, called Hubot. Github (the product) might appear to be a single, coherent service, but it is built on a great many underlying services which are coupled together. Github (the company) have built the service from the ground up using largely open source technologies and, where necessary, developing their own glue and renting complimentary services such as Rackspace, Campfire and Heroku.
  • Github claims that is has no managers. I am a manger and I can tell you that as far as I’m concerned, the holy grail of management is to be able to do away with it. The problem is creating the conditions that allows this to happen. What might they be?
  • Here are a few ideas off the top of my head: A relatively small company, working on a prestige product, where employees feel fortunate to work and can quickly see the benefits of their work; they are aware that their work matters and that people rely on them; there is a great deal of focus on improving internal communication and automating processes wherever possible; they do not require face-to-face contact to be able to contribute, so they can recruit nationally and internationally without employees having to relocate; despite this freedom, all productivity is logged through version control software, campfire chatrooms, issue trackers, etc. which discourages freeloaders; and employees are encouraged to work on tasks/projects that interest them and might at some point bring benefits to other employees. Interestingly, Github employees regularly open source their project code, which suggests that even with the freedom to hack on stuff of interest, employees are not always required to turn over their IP to the company.
  • There is a culture of innovation in a university – it’s called ‘research’ – but that does not necessarily mean that the university itself as an institution is innovative. At Lincoln, I think that we have been innovative in our teaching and learning strategy and curriculum design, Student as Producer, but this has not yet translated to equivalent technological innovations. Much of the time, I feel like we try to keep up with technological innovations led from elsewhere.
  • Specific institutional innovation groups (e.g. ‘Skunkworks’ teams) seem very rare in higher education. There are Educational Technologists or similar in most universities but their remit is rarely research and development. Most Educational Technologists are regarded as support staff. I find it perplexing that institutions comprising of thousands of people do not typically have a small, dedicated R&D team that are core funded. Over time, the value that such a team could generate for the institution should be far greater than the relatively small cost of running it but it is an investment that may take years to recoup and some of its value will be hard to evidence as it may not result directly in income generation (i.e. patents, grants, commercial services, etc.) Through innovation, such a group could contribute to the reputation of the university as well as overall efficiencies, which are harder to place a value on.
  • Finally, on a more positive note, I think universities could be ideal places to grow future companies like Github. Y Combinator recognised this in its early days, and universities have played an important role in the history of hacker culture and venture capital. It seems quite feasible that universities could become hackerspaces whose work fed back into the transformation of research, teaching, learning and enterprise across the institution.

The Economic Impact of Peak Oil. Where do we begin?

Throughout the last few months of my research into the implications of an energy crisis on Higher Education, one of my main weaknesses was knowing where to start when considering the impact that a Peak Oil energy crisis would have on our economy and therefore on the economic input and output of the HE sector. When considering an energy crisis scenario in the context of Higher Education, it seems to me that we can broadly divide the impacts into 1) Economic; and 2) Infrastructural. By this, I mean that we should be asking ourselves questions that relate to how we operate in an economy with significantly declining GDP and how we operate under circumstances where our energy infrastructure itself declines  (both transport and coal and gas dependent electricity are, in a sense, underwritten by oil production). ((There is also the problem in the UK that many of our power stations need to be decommissioned around 2016. See this and this.)) Simply put, what happens to universities when there is a lot less money in the economy and energy in the form of electricity and petrol is rationed in one way or another? This was my original question and, I think, still remains valid.

I think that Educational Technologists should be thinking hard about the second part of the question, which implies that the provision of educational technology will be disrupted for decades. What is HE’s educational provision under a scenario of disrupted ICT?

The first part of the question should be of wider interest to people working in the HE sector (in fact, people in all parts of society, but this is where we work so let’s concentrate on HE). There has been some useful research done on the possible economic impact of Peak Oil. It cannot be conclusive, but it does provide us with the basis for our scenario planning. I would recommend these two recent papers which examine the likely short-term (i.e. 20 yrs) economic and social consequences of Peak Oil.

Hirsch, Robert L., 2008. “Mitigation of maximum world oil production: Shortage scenarios,” Energy Policy, Volume 36, Issue 2, Pages 881-889

Jörg Friedrichs, 2010. “Global energy crunch: How different parts of the world would react to a peak oil scenario,” Energy Policy, Volume 38, Issue 8, Pages 4562-4569

In summary, Hirsch’s paper shows that we can work on the assumption that global GDP will decline at about the same rate as global oil production, which is anticipated to be around %2-5/yr. The minority of oil exporting countries will fare better than the greater number of oil importing countries. Friedrichs’ paper, based on an analysis of historical examples, suggests that this will result in North America resorting to greater military coercion until a crippled economy forces the administration into ‘coercive diplomacy’. Western Europe, reluctant to engage in ‘predatory militarism’, “could hardly avoid a transition to a more community-based lifestyle. Despite the present affluence of Western European societies (or precisely because of it), this would be extremely painful and last for several generations.”

These papers, and their references, provide a good starting point for modelling the economic and social impacts on all aspects of society, including the UK Higher Education sector: Less money, more re-localisation.

On a related note, here are a few graphs which nicely illustrate the correlation between oil, money and debt. What they suggest is that oil production closely correlates with GDP and that since oil production plateaued in 2005, debt has been the driver of GDP where oil has been lacking.

The debt information is pretty suggestive of what is going on, and that is, the reason the world has been able to keep increasing GDP since 2005 is because it has been borrowing from the future to fund the addiction to economic growth. But this situation cannot continue without serious problems in terms of repayment. And we have imminent peak oil, with the consensus dawning that soon after 2011 oil supply is highly likely to start declining with decline rates anywhere between 2% and 8% per annum. ((I am Perplexed: Comments on the World Financial Situation and Peak Oil))

Oil demand and GDP

Oil production in million barrels per day plotted against the square root of world GDP in constant (US$)
World debt from 1999 to 2010

Reading ‘The Edgeless University’ and ‘HE in a Web 2.0 World’ reports

I have been asked to present the recent Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report to the University’s next Teaching and Learning Committee. The report came out shortly before, and is referenced by, The Edgeless University. Why Higher Education Must Embrace Technology, which was launched by David Lammy MP at the end of June. I’ve been going through both reports, pulling out significant quotes and annotating them. Here are my notes. It is not a comprehensive nor formal review of the reports, nor a statement from the University of Lincoln. Just personal reflections which I will take to my colleagues for discussion. I don’t whole-heartedly agree with every statement made in both reports or even those quoted here, but I do take government promoted reports, and the funding that accompanies them, seriously.

I include quotes from David Lammy’s speech, as it can be read as a formal statement from government on the recommendations of the ‘Edgeless’ report and a commentary on future funding priorities.

If you’ve not yet read the reports, my notes might provide a useful summary, albeit from the bias of someone charged with supporting the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning.  I am also an advocate of Open Access and Open Education on which the Edgeless report has a lot to say. Methodologically, the writing of both reports combined both current literature reviews and interviews across the sector and as I write, they are the most current documents of their kind that I am aware of.

If you have commented on either of these reports on your own blog or have something to say about the excerpts I include here, please do leave a comment and let me (and others) know.  Thanks.

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