Please Learn to Code

I came across this post from Jeff Atwood in my Twitter feed this morning. It even sparked a conversation (as much of one as you can have 140 characters at a time) between me and my old co-worker Jon who agreed with Jeff Atwood in far blunter terms: “we need to cleanse the dev pool, not expand and muddy the water”.

While I understand Jon’s sentiment, “cleansing” vs. “expanding” just isn’t going to happen. Computer science as an academic discipline didn’t even exist until the 1950s, so it’s a very long way from having the sort of regulations and licensure of a field like engineering (a term that dates back to the 14th century). Combine that with the decreasing number of computer science graduates our colleges and universities graduate each year (much less the elimination of a computer science department), and it’s no surprise that people without formal education in computer science are getting paid to develop software.

While it does sound crazy that Mayor Bloomberg made learning to code his 2012 new year’s resolution, I’m glad someone as high-profile as the mayor of New York is talking about programming. When I was deciding what to study in college (way back in 1992), computer science as a discipline didn’t have a very high profile. While I knew programming was how video-games and other software was made, I had to find out about computer science from Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Jeff’s “please don’t learn to code” is counterproductive–the exact opposite of what we should be saying. Given a choice between having more people going into investment banking and more people going into software development, I suspect a large majority of us would favor the latter.

I also don’t believe that the objective of learning to code has to be making a living as a software developer in order to be useful. The folks at Software Carpentry are teaching programming to scientists to help them in their research. People who test software should know enough about programming to at least automate the repetitive tasks. If you use a computer with any regularity at all, even a little bit of programming knowledge will enable you to extend the capabilities of the software you use.

We need only look at some of the laws that exist in this country to see the results of a lack of understanding of programming by our judges and legislators. I think that lack of understanding led to software patents (and a ton of time wasted in court instead of spent innovating). The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act are other examples of dangerous laws proposed by legislators that don’t have even the most basic understanding of programming.

As someone who writes software for a living, I prefer customers who understand at least a bit about programming to those who don’t, because that makes it easier to talk about requirements (and get them right). They tend to understand the capabilities of off-the-shelf software a bit better and understand the tradeoffs between it and a custom system. In my career, there have been any number of times where an understanding of programming has helped me find an existing framework or solution that met most of a customer’s requirements, so I and my team were able to focus our work just on what was missing.

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