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The technical literacy crisis




Do you know how the internet works?

Every now and then I get a Facetime request from my Grandma, from her 2009 iMac. She doesn’t have a smartphone because it’s too complicated for her. It’s cute, because we all kind of accept that older people generally don’t “get” technology.

But do we “get” technology? Like sure, we can use smartphones, but that’s really because we’re used to them, used to their interaction patterns, used to how they feel. The reality is that most of us don’t actually understand how most of the technology we use works under the hood. If you had to explain to me how the internet works, could you do it?

Obviously we don’t need to understand everything we use, in the same sense that I don’t quite know why boiling my potatoes in water with baking soda makes them taste better when I roast them, or why ice reduces swelling. But technology is a lot more practical than that, because a lot of us work at companies who sell software. All of us work at companies that use software.

And in case you were wondering, the internet is just a bunch of cables.

Being technically literate is really important

I want to argue that people are getting farther and farther from understanding the technology they use, build, and sell, and that it’s a problem that’s only going to get worse. But first, let’s define what it means to “understand” technology.

Being “technically literate” means that you’re comfortable with the basics of how technology works, and critically, you understand the area you work in with more depth. It’s not important for every salesperson to know how transistors work, but if they’re selling a database product, they should probably understand the difference between SQL and NoSQL. Useful and practical technical literacy has two layers:

  • The base: the basics of software and hardware
    • What’s a computer?
    • What’s the internet?
    • What’s a database?
  • The domain: deeper knowledge that’s relevant to your job
    • What products are we building, selling, and using?
    • How do they work? What problems do they solve?
    • How do our engineers build and use them?

So why are these important? Who cares if you understand this stuff or not? I think there are 2 big reasons that people – especially people working in knowledge jobs – need to be technically literate. And they’re getting more important over time.

1) Working internally with your company

If you work at a tech company that’s not stupid large, no matter what you do, chances are you’re going to work with engineers. This is obvious for roles in design and product, but support, success, people, marketing, and sales also work with engineers more than you might think. Anything from building internal tools to resolving support requests requires collaboration with developers, and it’s very, very hard to work well with them if you’re clueless about what’s going on behind the scenes.

The value of being technically literate internally isn’t just about working with engineers, though. It’s about just being a better teammate: you’ll understand internal systems better, more quickly identify bugs and how to get them solved, and have an easier time finding good new ideas. When projects get stuck, you’ll have a clearer view of where the problem might be, who can fix it, and what information they need to do that. (This has all been true for me, at least)

2) Working externally to build, sell, and retain

If you’re customer facing and working with a product that’s even remotely technical, you’re probably dealing with developers, data scientists, designers, product managers, or IT at some point in the build and sales cycle. Understanding the product you sell - and getting into the details of how it works – is so, so important. People want to talk to people who understand them and understand their problems.

Don’t just take my word for it, though; forward thinking technical companies already invest in employee education for this exact reason. MongoDB has an internal team fully dedicated to “sales enablement” – most of which focuses on understanding NoSQL and why the Mongo product is interesting to developers. Stripe and Twilio have internal coding bootcamps. You don’t need to actually be an engineer to be good at your job; you just need to understand them and what they’re working with. (Unless your job is being an engineer. Then you should be an engineer)

Being technically literate is really hard

Hopefully I’ve done an OK job convincing you that technical literacy is at least somewhat important. But there’s kind of a big problem: it’s really, really hard to actually get there. Finding the right level of detail is a hurdle, and the internet isn’t exactly overflowing with great content for people looking to level up their technical understanding from scratch.

1) Finding the right amount of detail is confusing

Which technical concepts are important for you to understand? How much detail do you need to have? How do you retain and remember information? How do you make it relevant to you and your job? These are all hard questions with no clear answers and they make achieving technical literacy challenging.

2) We’re missing great learning options

Let’s say you know what you want to learn: how do you go about actually learning it? Technical literacy is obviously not a part of high school or college education (because that would make too much sense), and there are no online courses dedicated to this specific level of understanding. There’s a lot of material on how to code, but that’s overkill; how do you learn what code is without actually learning to code? How do you understand Github without using it?

There’s a bunch of good content on the web if you search for it: the way organic search works has created quality content marketing, and quasi-news sites like ZDNet and TechTarget have not-amazing but not-horrible information on a broad array of topics. But these fall very short of really solving the problem. You wouldn’t read a series of unconnected articles to learn how to write Python; and you shouldn’t to improve your technical literacy either.

This problem is getting worse, not better

People working at tech companies aren’t the only ones who benefit from technical literacy. Across finance, healthcare, consulting, and really anywhere, software is becoming a bigger part of everyone’s day to day. If you’re not selling or building it, you’re probably using it. Goldman Sachs has a mobile banking app. Goldman Sachs.

Over time software is getting more complex, and we’re getting further and further away from the actual basics. Frontend developers work with packages on top of packages, and eventually there will be engineering managers who have never set up a web server themselves. And if you talk to CEOs of companies with technical products, you’ll hear the same thing over and over again: hiring technically literate people in sales and marketing is really, really hard.

Machine Learning is more of the same. Algorithms are getting more and more complex and more and more daily functions are getting automated. This is a classic buzz-phrase, but I actually know what I’m talking about (Data Science™ degree over here) . Trust me, it’s happening. And it’s the same problem. We don’t have visibility into how AI works, and nobody even understands what Machine Learning is. Software is getting more and more integrated into our lives, yet further and further away from our grasp.

So how do we fix this?

1) We need to integrate tech literacy into public education

Tech literacy is as important as anything we’re teaching in high school (like, obviously learn how to read and write first though). Teaching kids to code is great, but this is more fundamental and we do almost none of it. The good news is that this is already starting to happen: organizations like code.org provide high school classes for technical topics. But it’s just a start, and I’m not sure people appreciate the gravity of the problem.

2) Employers need to invest more in internal education

Employers don’t invest enough in employee education in general, but technical literacy is a particularly lacking focus area. Technical companies need to educate their teams on how their product works, but more deeply, how the things that power their product work too. Forward thinking organizations like MongoDB have already started this, but it should be more common. I suspect that part of why it doesn’t happen as frequently as it should is that employers themselves don’t really understand how important it is either.

3) We need to create content that guides learners through this journey

Formal education aside, the internet needs more engaging, accessible, organized content that helps readers understand the right level of detail for technical literacy. When content is built for search and ads, incentives are misaligned with readers: information is siloed, optimized for a single read, and pushes readers towards a view aligned with whichever company wrote the post.

I care about this problem kind of a lot, and I’m trying to help fix it with Technically. It’s a newsletter that explains technical concepts to non-technical people in a repeatable, simple, and engaging way. I’ve written about topics like What’s an API and What Your Developers Are Using: The Modern App Stack at a level of detail made for people who want to be successful at their jobs via technical literacy.

Right now, Technically is just a newsletter. But as these topics start to build up, things start to resemble a real way for people to learn. We’ll build pre-aggregated learning modules, integrate pieces together, add in retention mechanisms like quizzes, and customize content for different levels of proficiency. I’m pretty excited about it. And if you’re interested, you can subscribe (free or paid) here.

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