Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The School of Information's Alumni Day: What I said and wish I'd said

In 2006 I graduated from UC Berkeley's School of Information. One of my professors, Bob Glushko, who runs 202, the Information Organization and Retrieval class, invites alumni to come back every year and discuss what they've done with their education. I thought I'd write it up as a blog post incorporating what I said, my responses to some of the questions, and a few bits I wished I'd said:

Bob wants me to talk about how this class helps me with my work, and I'll certainly be doing that. But I also want to talk about how your two years here will inform the work that you do, since these are probably two of the most important years of your life.

I'm Mano Marks, a Developer Advocate at Google. What that means is I travel the world helping Developers put Google Geographic technologies on the sites, and advocating on their behalf with the engineering teams. People who graduate from the School of Information have gone on to be user experience researchers, designers, coders, policy wonks, product managers, directors, developer advocates, academics, lawyers, and much more. They work at Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, startups, design firms, consulting firms, nonprofits, think tanks, for the government, and many other places I haven't thought of.

Back in 2004 when I started at what was then the School of Information Management and Systems, or SIMS, we were trying to figure out what the program was. One of my classmates, Benjamin Hill, who taught 290TA the Information Organization Laboratory this semester, ran a survey asking people what their elevator pitch for SIMS would be. The answer that won was something like "Mumble it's interdisciplinary and walk away." SIMS, now the I School, was in search of itself. No one knew exactly what we were doing. But at the same time the professors, and hence the students, were passionate about it. I hope that hasn't changed. The dynamic tension inherent in the exercise of what-are-we-doing drove innovative new approaches and discussions that I still value today.

What does 202 do for you? What it did for me give me a greater sense of the whole picture of organizational practices. We can get lost in the details of a particular system, which database we use, whether to use Python or Ruby, all the fascinating and fun details for geeks. But what 202 got me to do is look at an organization as a system built on top of information flows. How information flows internally but also how it flows in relation to external partners and customers.

This helps me in my daily work, working with external partners who are using Google's mapping products. It helps me see, and hopefully communicate to them, that their maps are not just a map slapped up on a site, but rather a way of communicating information to their partners and customers, and gathering information from them. It is a part of an entire ecosystem of data that their company/organization/loose network uses, consumes, and produces. Our maps (or substitute your own application or document format) don't just have to be artifacts or dead things, but living interaction devices.

But beyond 202, beyond the underlying data and information flows in an organization is a whole context that the organization exists in, a legal and sociological framework that shapes and guides it. That context is what the rest of the I School experience is about. Understanding that context, and how it relates to the core concepts of 202 is what the School of Information is all about. Or at least, that's my proposal. Please challenge that, after all I'd hate for there to be a last word on what the I School is or does.

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