Endangered Languages and Soft Problems

July 20, 2017 Pivotal Software

This week for Pivotal Voices, we’re featuring David Edwards, Engineer at Pivotal New York

Growing up, my favorite things were languages and programming. I took Spanish and programming classes where they were offered in high school, but mostly taught myself. In college, I majored in Symbolic Systems which was a combination of computer science, linguistics, and psychology.

I wanted to learn a new language in college, and I wanted something different — Spanish felt too close to English — so I started taking Japanese, although I wasn’t very good at it. And the obvious next step was to also take Mandarin, at the same time, while taking a very credit-heavy major.

My experience helping native communities with their language programs is surprisingly relevant when helping clients build software; many challenges are the same.

Except that was really hard. But instead of dropping one of the languages, I started researching language learning methods to see if any could help. I came across Where Are Your Keys?, an organization that helps revitalize endangered languages through a rapid language learning game they created. It was a lot of fun, and helped me a lot. I’ve since worked with WAYK at several revitalization projects, which are always life-changing, and I play the game regularly with co-workers at Pivotal.

My experience helping Native communities with their language programs is surprisingly relevant when helping clients build software; many challenges are the same. Some people have had bad experiences in the past, and are quite rationally hesitant to jump in with the new, crazy thing you’re asking them to do. How do you help people navigate that in a kind and empathetic way? How do you make sure you’re doing the right thing? How do you improve your process over time?

I have gotten almost five completely priceless years of practical experience doing that with Pivotal. All of the software best practices I’ve learned are certainly huge, but the skills I’ve learned for solving soft problems — organizational inertia, team dysfunction, conflicting business priorities — aren’t as obvious at first, but are incredibly valuable. Kent Beck was right: behind every technical problem is a people problem.

David Edwards, Engineer, Pivotal New York

Change is the only constant, so individuals, institutions, and businesses must be Built to Adapt. At Pivotal, we believe change should be expected, embraced, and incorporated continuously through development and innovation, because good software is never finished.


Endangered Languages and Soft Problems was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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