Is Interdisciplinarity critical for future Software Innovation?

Later this month the Digital Repository of Ireland are hosting a event, entitled Realizing the Opportunities of Digital Humanities. The focus of this event is to engage academia, industry, cultural institutions and public bodies to identify the key research challenges in digital humanities, and to further build the academic-industry partnerships that will enable adoption of digital humanities skills, technologies and tools. This focus will extend to the innovative use of digital humanities technologies in the public sector demonstrating social benefit, such as the digitisation of the Irish census and the use of open linked public data.

Being a vociferous proponent for diversity and interdisciplinarity, I’ve been asked to sit on the “Digital Humanities Skillset” panel which will examine the transfer of skills between the humanities and the software industry, and the opportunities that this could realize for both sectors. I spoke very briefly on this topic nearly a year ago and wrote a short blog post at the time, Software Industry badly needs an injection of Diversity!, but I feel its time for me to re-examine this topic and look a little deeper.

When I graduated from college in the early ’90s there was no such thing (at least in Ireland) as a degree in Computer Science, instead software companies were an eclectic mix. In my first job, I worked in a development team that comprised a Chemist, Mathetmatician, Architect, Geologist, Philosopher and I was an Applied Physicist. In the last two decades things have changed significantly. Today we have highly specialized computer science degrees with software companies tending to overfit the hiring process to a narrow set of technical requirements, with less focus on hiring a diverse mix of people from different intellectual and academic backgrounds. This strategy is understandable in the backdrop of globalization driving competitive pressure to maximize resources, which includes minimizing the training required for new hires.

Today we also see a shift towards Consumerization of IT with software infiltrating every aspect of our lives and driving huge social and cultural change. This shift is not only putting pressure on software companies to come up with a new generation of products that are consumer-focused and very easy to use, but also to identify the social transformations that will drive demand for new products and services (or vice-versa). Can software companies be successful with this blending of technology and culture if we continue with our current skills profile? Is it time for us to revert back to hiring an eclectic mix of backgrounds? And assuming that we wanted to bring more Science, Arts, and Humanities into our software organizations, how would we integrate these skills into our organizations? And would this mean significantly changing the process through which we create software?

If you have any thoughts, please do. I am curious to know how folks feel about this diversification & interdisciplinarity question :)


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