One of the pleasures of summer is having a little bit of time to indulge myself in pursuits that aren’t directly related to my teaching, research, or service obligations.  It’s more frequent in the summer that I get a chance to listen to videos that my mother or partner forward me, and today I took 20 minutes to listen to a TED talk about political systems.  In the talk Eric X. Li argues that there is more than one political system that can result in a functioning government, discussing the ways that China’s one-party system has been successful.  It was a fascinating break from the usual routine.

Watching the talk reminded me of my favorite paper from the recently concluded FECS 2013 conference.  In a paper entitled ACM ICPC in China: Learning from Contests, Dalie Sun, Lixin Wang, and Zhaonian Zou discuss the relationship between their institution, the broader Chinese educational system, and the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contests.  China has recently started to perform quite well in those contests, and the authors provide an excellent explanation for the reasons behind that success.  First, and most obviously, the Chinese educational system is huge, and a great deal of attention is paid to participation in the ACM ICPC.  To give one example from the paper, 150 teams participate in the local contest at the institution of the authors.  Of those, only 15 teams advance to the provincial contest.  Five teams then go on to the national invitational, and a single team competes in the world finals (assuming they qualify).  By itself this certainly ensures that some excellent programmers will represent China in the competition.  But most interesting to me was hearing about the benefits that the authors believe the contest brings to their students, which is why they encourage participation so widely.  They believe that participation in the programming contest encourages problem solving skills, helps their students to learn to read English, teaches students to take testing, design, and efficiency seriously, and forces students to learn cooperative behavior.  The presenter at FECS stressed that the latter skill is particularly important in a society where the vast majority of families have a single child with devoted (and he suggested pampering) parents and grandparents.  Learning to work together on something is crucial for their development as computer scientists and as people.

So what do the two of these have to do with each other, beyond the fact that both discuss China?  It seems to me that both emphasize how important culture is for understanding how and why institutions and organizations are successful.  Eric X. Li makes a good argument that a one-party system works for China but recognizes it would be difficult to transfer to other contexts.  I argue that cultural awareness is also crucial for organizations that focus more narrowly on computing.  Chinese teams do well in the ACM ICPC for many reasons that may not transfer well to other countries, so simply imitating their system isn’t necessarily effective.  I do think, however, that awareness of the relationship between culture and approaches taken to technology education deserves broader attention than it has received in the community.  I would be very happy to see more papers like the one Dalie Sun, Lixin Wang, and Zhaonian Zou wrote at the conferences I typically attend.