God In The Machine

March 17, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Perhaps more so than any of his peers, achieving the educational goals of Calvin College proved difficult for first-year professor Patrick Bailey.

“A goal as teachers in a Christian environment — and one which we particularly believe in at Calvin — is to show how Christianity plays a role in our vocations,” Bailey said.

But in his 20 years as a software engineer, the link between faith and computing has been tenuous, at best.

“Let’s face it. Writing code — it’s hard to find the religious connection there,” he said.

There is a strong link between the attitude and general discipline of a software engineer and the quality of the work produced, and that quality is one of the primary reasons low-level computing jobs have gone overseas.

As emphasized in the school’s new information systems degree, employers value a person who understands the business they’re in and knows how to make the technology work for that business, Bailey explained. There is an emphasis on technical leadership, business savvy and strong interpersonal communication skills.

But concerning the question of faith — one that persistently arises among frustrated Calvin students — there are few answers.

“If you’re working on a spreadsheet, you can look at it from the standpoint that God created everything in the tools he’s given us to do things,” Bailey said. “But we’ve always wondered, is there maybe more?”

To address that, Bailey is in the midst of a six-month research project collecting opinions on issues of faith and spirituality from the software industry. Through parish outreach, he hopes to survey at least 200 engineers. With minimal effort, he already has received a few dozen enthusiastic responses. The survey should wrap in midsummer, and Bailey will present his findings at Calvin Oct. 25, in conjunction with a conference by the American Society of Quality.

“I’ve had to ask myself the same question: ‘What’s the religious implications? Are there certain things that even influence us in how we develop software?’” Bailey said.

In some respects, Bailey believes there are aspects of software development that support the Christian ethos. One example is pair programming. In this form of the “extreme programming” practiced locally by firms such as Atomic Object and Priority Health, two programmers work side-by-side, collaborating on the same design, algorithm, code or test.

One programmer, the driver, has control of the keyboard/mouse and actively implements the program. The other programmer, the observer, continuously observes the work of the driver to identify defects and guide the direction of the work. On demand, the two programmers brainstorm challenging problems, and periodically switch roles.

“If you look at that in a spiritual sense, you’re reminded of how Jesus served,” Bailey said. “As a teacher, primarily.”

As may be expected, managers often avoid this method, believing it is “using two people to do the work of one.”

“Sometimes it’s just part of a bigger picture,” Bailey said. “It’s good to remember that there is something more significant and very beautiful going on every day, and that’s why I think the question of faith in the workplace needs to be explored.”    

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