Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Do you even code, bro?*

It's funny how ideas tend to percolate through the quintessence. After coming back from a fun and extremely knowledge-packed ILLiad International Conference in Virginia Beach last month, I was doing my best to digest all of the cool things that my resource sharing colleagues were up to and ruminating about coding, libraries, and how to foster a culture of innovation myself when I stumbled across Jenica Rodgers' excellent post "Considering the librarian tech skills gap."

In her keynote for the New Librarians' Symposium at the Queensland University of Technology**, Jenica said:
Or the best new idea requires skill sets we aren’t training for and don’t have, except for a dozen people who are all being hired by Google, and that one guy who can write his own ticket and you could never afford him anyway. Or even smaller scale: Griffey shows me his LibraryBox and enthuses about how straightforward it is, and I totally want to make one to take to every meeting I ever have and insist that people download the files we’re going to be working with instead of printing them out… and then my eyes glaze over when he starts talking about the code that you need in order to set one up. I, um, was hoping for a nice little point and click and stick the cord in the hole kind of interface and he’s talking about GitHub…
Oh, how much of this rings painfully true! As a librarian who openly embraces technological innovation, I am constantly running into examples of phenomenally bright people doing amazing things. For all of the hand-wringing about the future of libraries, there's an awful lot of inspiration to be found out there if you look for it. The tricky thing, as Jenica so rightly identifies, is taking that inspiration and transforming it into something actionable at your own library. In so many instances, the innovative spirit may be willing, but the coding flesh is just too weak.

When I got into the resource sharing business all those years ago, I don't think it ever occurred to me that interlibrary loan would be such fertile ground for the library hacker set. Never mind the fact that the predominant ILL management system, ILLiad, was the brainchild of a bunch of programmers in the Virginia Tech library system who were tired of doing things the hard way. In my mind, coding was something that vendors did. Even if you did manage to pick up some new and interesting stuff at a conference or elsewhere in the library blogopshere, your local IT department was usually too busy supporting all of the existing systems to commit resources to adding anything else to their plate.

Somewhere along the way, however, a tipping point was reached in the library world where frustration with waiting on vendors or systems staff to provide desperately-needed solutions met with a critical mass of programming skills in the latest crop of library school grads. This was nothing short of a revolution for librarians, but like all revolutions it has come with its share of turbulence, as disruptive technologies have pushed administrators, staff, and IT folks out of their comfort zones and into unexplored territory. And also like many revolutions, this one has not been equally distributed. While through the serendipity of fortuitous hirings and receptive management some libraries have transformed themselves into hotbeds of innovation, others find themselves scrambling just to keep the basic service points staffed and the library budget in the black.

Contrary to what many people might think, this isn't just about the money. I've seen library systems with deep pockets struggle to get themselves out of the 19th century, whereas libraries which have been financially challenged for years somehow find ways to cultivate and sustain a culture of innovation. In her subsequent blog post, Jenica explores the nature of this disconnect. Her conclusions, below, are of course spot-on:
  1. We aren’t taught crunchy tech skills. 
  2. We don’t know how to learn crunchy tech skills.
  3. It’s not our job to learn crunchy tech skills. 
  4. The technology headspace is openly hostile to most of the profession.
While all of these are true, I would submit that the following is also true:  We don't know how to manage librarians with crunchy tech skills.  And this is just as important as #1, 2, 3, and 4.

I will never have enough time or energy to learn how to code like a Mover and Shaker. And chances are, that if you're already a director, assistant/associate director, or department head, nor will you. But what we can do is focus on developing our skill sets so that we can effectively manage the innovators in our midst and create a work environment where future Movers and Shakers are not just happy accidents but an inevitable outcome.

How do we pull this off, exactly?  Well, that's what I've been trying to figure out. While this is by no means an exhaustive list of suggestions, here's what I've managed to come up with so far...
  • Learn to code. But wait, didn't I just admit that I'm never going to be able to code like Matthew Reidsma?*** Well, yes, but you can't manage what you don't understand. I may never learn how to write a script in Lua, but I sure as hell will have an easier time asking other people to code one for me if I know what it is I'm asking for in the first place. Managers are interpreters between the people with the skills and the people with the budget lines - if you don't learn how to speak both languages, something is going to get lost in translation.
  • Cultivate your talent. This is rarely about hiring people from the outside, especially in these times of shrinking library budgets and hiring freezes, but finding out how to develop what you already have and don't even know it. For example, student labor used to be about staffing the circ desk or reshelving books, but chances are these days that you're employing student assistants who have some l33t skillz (grad students can be especially useful trainers in this regard). I've had the good fortune of managing some talented student employees, some of whom I've been able to successfully hire as library staff. 
  • Challenge your staff to learn new things. At the same time, don't neglect the staff you already have. This one comes down to basic transformational leadership. If you want to foster an environment that is friendly to technological innovation, you need to encourage your staff to become managers of innovation themselves. Doing so means throwing out all of your assumptions about what your staff is or isn't capable of. This is often much harder than you think, but experience has taught me that it's almost always worth taking that leap of faith in empowering your staff to develop their own skills and tools to become the agents of their own continuous improvement. 
  • See what other people are doing. Steal from them shamelessly. Share your successes with others so that they may see, steal, and share in return. My favorite example of what all librarians should aspire to be is the IDS Project in New York State. If you are not familiar with the work they've been doing over the past several years, it's nothing less than extraordinary. The IDS Project has fostered a statewide culture of innovation predicated on a collaborative model of training, support, and mentoring which consistently puts them on the bleeding edge of the resource sharing world. Somehow they've managed to find that magic balance between tech skills, strategic thinking, and good old-fashioned librarianship, and I've done my damnedest to replicate this magic in my own workplace.
I'll admit, it's still a work in progress. And there's a lot more going on here that I think Jenica does a brilliant job of deconstructing in her posts about this topic, especially insofar as coding culture is still a hostile space to women in general and not the most accessible subject matter to our profession. But I hope that I've been able to contribute one library manager's perspective to how we can start to bridge the tech skills gap and incorporate technological innovation into the DNA of the library workplace.

** Note to self: I need to get my sorry librarian butt to Australia... 
*** Sorry, Matt, but I couldn't resist (congrats again on being a 2013 Mover and Shaker!)

1 comment:

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