Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why People Teach

Or maybe the title should be, "Why People Teach Who Don't Otherwise Have To". Of course, then I would probably hear from the person who designed the "I am the grammarian about whom your mother warned you" t-shirt. Dammit! Started another post with a digression, which is probably as bad as ending with a preposition.

Anyway, I am currently working as a researcher at a Large Southern University after spending quite a few years in commercial software development. A few years ago, when I was still actively involved in industry, I was invited to teach a course in software engineering at the aforementioned university. I taught for three years and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

I try to maintain contact with my industry colleagues, and last night I attended a happy hour networking event sponsored by the local chamber of commerce. Towards the end of the evening, I found myself talking to a business acquaintance whose duties include oversight of development at a research center associated with my university. As usual, our conversation eventually turned to the joys and pitfalls of software development.

At one point she recounted a meeting during which one of her developers said, "You know what would be cool...?", and I responded by saying, "I've always said that those were the most dangerous words in software development." She immediately asked, "Did you used to teach software engineering at the university?" When I confirmed that I had, she asked if I had taught one particular bright young man. Upon confirmation that the young man in question had indeed been a student, she told me that he had responded to the original developer's comment with, "My professor always said that those were the most dangerous words in software development."

I don't have children, but moments like that one afford me a tiny glimpse into the awesome sense of responsibility and tremendous satisfaction that parents must feel -- at least the ones that are doing it right. I know that there will be people out in the world years from now repeating words that they heard from me. Understanding that at least one of the people in the class was probably listening to what I said always drove me to strive to spend their time and attention in the most productive and enjoyable way possible. And on a number of occasions -- like last night -- I have been gratified to discover how often the things they remember are exactly the things I would want them to remember.

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