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Breaking the Code: The Creativity of Technology

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So many people are stifled by their own preconceived beliefs about what they can and can’t do. That’s a shame and in our household we try hard to remove “can’t” from our vocabulary. The biggest tragedy is when someone is afraid of, or steered away from, trying by stereotypes and social norms that are in a large part incorrect.

Our society desperately needs innovation. Technology in the U.S. is driving virtually all the productivity gains over the past decades, with information technology centered on the Internet delivering a large part. Continuing our country’s leadership in this area and enjoying the fruits of this success depends on broadening our talent pool to include more innovators. We often hear that the U.S. is having a crisis in science, technology, engineering and math education—the so-called STEM subjects. Even in a tough economic climate, we are still seeing projections that over one million STEM-related jobs will go unfilled in this country by 2018. The opportunities here are enormous both for the country and for individuals. One way to help us get there is to close the perception gap as it relates to creativity and technology.

Blackstone’s William Murphy talks to middle-school students at the Chinatown YMCA.

Creativity is often associated with artists. I remember thinking and being told I wasn’t creative since I couldn’t draw particularly well (at least that is how my eight-year-old brain remembered it). Luckily, I was good at math and science so my “non-creative” abilities were steered towards computer science. That was a happy coincidence for me, and one that doesn’t happen for enough young people. While I ended up in the right place, it was for the wrong reason.

I learned at an early age not to be afraid of technology. So many of my friends and co-workers are still afraid of technology – they use it, but are daunted by how it is produced. That doesn’t need to be the case. Computer science is seen as the purview of “math people” and, dare I say, “nerds”. Programming, and the problem solving that goes along with it, is an incredibly creative endeavor. It empowers you to make something from nothing and, with today’s tools, often for free.

"Fabric of My Heart" by Mary-Frances Main via Flickr

Persistent stereotypes about science and math and linear, in-the-box thinking are hurting our children and damaging our economy. Who’s more creative, the people making movies, painting, playing music and designing clothes, or those designing software? Difficult to say, but the conventional wisdom is that it isn’t the software guy. Yet where else are there an unlimited number of ways to solve a problem and an amazing number of factors that need to be considered in one’s solution?

Building software not only is creative, it’s also interactive, busting another stereotype. The designing of the solution has always been the most fun part for me. Being in a room with our teams, brainstorming, going in all different directions—that creative process is exciting and interactive. The vision of the solitary genius writing software alone is horribly outdated. It shouldn’t just be males who are obsessed with video games that love programming. It should be everyone who wants to have an impact. The more people that know this, the better.

Blackstone’s William Murphy talks to middle-school students at Chinatown YMCA.

The YMCA of Greater New York has launched a new after-school program to promote the STEM subjects in some of our city’s most underserved neighborhoods. The idea is simple: the Y is asking professionals who work in the STEM space to come give a one-hour talk on just about anything they like, with the goal of sparking kids’ interest in scientific or technical careers. I had the pleasure of meeting with about 30 middle school kids between the ages of 11 and 15 from the Chinatown Y. I talked about my experience creating and building solutions with technology. The kids were amazed to hear that technologists could make more money than doctors and that you can learn those skills online for free.

Fortunately, various organizations are working to make the initial steps into coding more easy to digest, less daunting and available to the masses. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently launched www.code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science by making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color. So far, nearly 30 million have tried spending an hour writing computer code. Another nonprofit, www.girlswhocode.com, launched in 2012, strives to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering sectors.

I count myself fortunate to have fallen in love at an early age with something that enabled me to feel empowered. If more young people feel that way the future will be so much brighter.

Blackstone’s William Murphy with middle-school students at the Chinatown YMCA.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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