Actually every good coder I’ve ever known is a good musician. When you think about it, music is code. Reading and writing music and reading and writing code are very similar. I’ve written code and so I have first hand knowledge of the similarities. I can only imagine that the connection here will continue to evolve. And eventually, A.I will write its own code; this is why I’m a little skeptical of teaching code other than the symbolic kind of logic! I also think that promoting foreign language skills and learning additional languages like French, English, Spanish can assist youth with better communication, listening and critical thinking skills — all skills necessary in STEM fields.
WCIT is the signature event of the World Information Technology & Services Alliance (WITSA), a consortium of information and communications technology (ICT) associations from 83 countries, representing 90% of the industry. During the 2019 WCIT held in Armenia this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Wycoff of The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international organization that works to build better policies for better lives. Andrew is the Director of the OECD’s Directorate for Science,Technology and Innovation (STI) where he oversees OECD’s work on innovation, business dynamics, science and technology, information and communication technology policy as well as the statistical work associated with each of these areas.
Andrew, thank you so much for talking to me today. I would love to hear a brief story about what brought you to your career path.
Well, I went to a pretty humble state institution, University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont. It was in the late 70’s. What was unique about Burlington, Vermont is it had two large high tech companies.IBM had a plant there and there’s a company called digital equipment corporation that had a plant there, too. So it meant that the university was awash in computing in the late 70’s, which is pretty rare at the time. So as a social science kid who was into history and economics, I quickly got exposed to all this computing and I had a professor who said “don’t leave this institution without taking computer science classes.” I was dumb enough to do what he said! It was really hard, but it exposed me to coding and to early computing and I kept at it. My first job out of college was as a programmer at a social science institution, the Brookings Institution, which was a pretty well known think tank. So here I am applying and using what was called micro data, which gives you an amazing level of insight. I quickly began to see the power of both the IT sector and its ability to help us do better social science and with it, policy. So very early on I got sucked into public policy and through it, the potential to use it to make the world a better place. And at the same time, I also just became enamored with the tech.
Again, this is 1981, 1982. The PC just came out in ’82 when I was in graduate school. I was still working on mainframes then, working my way through graduate school, working at the Harvard business school. Then I was lucky enough to get hired straight out of graduate school at an institution called the Office of Technology Assessment, a really fun congressional agency. It was apolitical and bipartisan, and included people involved in startups. There were only 200 of us at the time providing congressional senators and representatives — many of whom were lawyers — with complex science and technical information that was used to make better and more informed policy decisions.
That was great until ’94 when Contract with America happened, written by Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House of Representatives. The Office of Technology Assessment was dismantled in 1995, following the 1994 mid-term elections which led to Republican control of the Senate and the House. That’s what took me to OECD.
It’s been a huge luxury when I think about my work with OECD and that I’m paid to observe and watch how the digital economy has evolved and moved from back offices to now everyone’s got it in their pocket. Sometimes I’m a little jaded. I mean, some things we were hoping that would turn out, haven’t. And sometimes I look at digital over use and, well, I like my off-grid moments.
I hear you. That kind of segues into my next question. What are your thoughts on STEAM education versus STEM education? You know, there’s a lot of new language lately about bringing the arts and humanities into science and technology. The thought is that the inclusion of the arts component into STEM makes it more fun to learn and more approachable to kids, especially younger kids with shorter attention spans. What are your thoughts on that?
I completely agree with it and think this also ties into social skills, which when you combine with STEM skills are very powerful today because of the need to often work in groups in the workplace. So there’s a couple of things we can do to take this all the way up the pipeline. First, I think our educational system needs to change. It’s really rooted in a 1960, ‘70’s industrial format and it needs to become much more flexible and individually-based and much more group-oriented.
For me, the real worry is that a lot of the baby boomers — of which I’m on the tail end — are in the workforce, and those people really lack some of the STEM and STEAM skills they need to cope with our nation’s jobs as they’re evolving. There needs to be an effort to train our workforce in STEM and STEAM skills but as of now, we haven’t figured out how to do it right.
How do we introduce this at home? Like how do parents make this important? Is introducing the arts into STEM learning as simple as giving children music lessons?
Yes! Actually every good coder I’ve ever known is a good musician. When you think about it, music is code. Reading and writing music and reading and writing code are very similar. I’ve written code and so I have first hand knowledge of the similarities. I can only imagine that the connection here will continue to evolve. And eventually, A.I will write its own code; this is why I’m a little skeptical of teaching code other than the symbolic kind of logic! I also think that promoting foreign language skills and learning additional languages like French, English, Spanish can assist youth with better communication, listening and critical thinking skills — all skills necessary in STEM fields.
This is sort of a broad question, but let’s see where it goes. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would it be?
I have two big worries and neither of them are digital per se. So one is the rising poverty around the world. Poverty really pulls at the fabric of society and pits one of us against the other and builds walls and this just worries me and we need to really understand the root causes of poverty and then work to deal with them.
The other one is the current climate crisis. I stay up at night because of the climate.
I’m a climate scientist. I used to work as a climate change scientist in Alaska, so I am right there with you.
I rely on you as the expert, but I just see so many worrisome things happening right now. I think we need to take strong action right now to stop climate change but I know enough about modeling and mathematics to know that even if we hit the brakes right now, the freight train will keep rolling for quite a while.
Andrew, I’m so sorry to say that we’ve run out of time. Thank you so much for sitting down to chat with me! I have really enjoyed connecting with you.