engineers jamming

Spoiler: Just Knowing how to Code won’t get Kids anywhere

Today a video of Code.org is making the rounds on social media and various tech blogs. You see a lot of high profile tech and pop culture leaders talking about their experiences of learning how to code and how it changed their careers.

The conclusion of the video is that we need to teach coding in schools and everything is going to be peachy for our kids in the future. They will work for awesome companies like Facebook, Valve, Dropbox etc have amazing offices, get free and healthy lunches and extra possibilities to spend their free time. Heck, even their clothes will be washed for them!

Though I agree that we need to teach more coding in schools, I think the message of this video (and others that went down the same road) is misleading. I am probably going to write a longer post about that on Big Think, but here are some initial thoughts.

First of all, there is not a scarcity of coders but of software and computer engineers. That’s what CEOs of successful tech companies are looking for. Zuckerberg even says it in the video:

Our policy is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find.

And just because you know how code doesn’t turn you into a talented software or computer engineer. It’s an asset or a step into the right direction, just like learning how to read and count is a step towards studying math or English literature.

Telling people that because they learn how to code they will land a highly paid job at Facebook is BS. It’s part of the bigger “we need to invest in STEM” hype that is going to lead to a scarcity in the liberal arts sector down the road which I believe will bite us in the behind twenty years from now.

Think about it. What jobs are going to be still there ten or twenty years from now? Those that cannot be replaced by computers, roboter or any other kind of automation. And guess what kind of skills are needed for those jobs? Right, soft and creative skills, the ones that are now frowned upon.

On top of that, take a look at the people who are shown in the video. They are not just code monkeys, they have other interests and skills they are able to use in their free time. Like the band that jams in the office. People who get the high paid jobs have many more skills than typing “if then else” phrases. They are foremost creative and can solve problems on their own. Facebook’s strategy is built upon small teams of creative thinkers who try out new stuff all the time. Just learning to code won’t get you there.

Last but not least, people are pampered this way because there is of course kind of a limited pool of highly talented people. And even if coding is a growth market at the moment, it will eventually turn into a classic lower skill job like working on the assembly line at Ford or sewering together the latest iPhone at Foxconn. It’s a simple question of supply and demand. The more people know how to code, the lower the wages and higher the working hours. No more playing ping pong or jamming with your band in the office.

Finally about Will.i.am’s argument, we use computers and smartphones and social media but don’t know how to code – well, we use cars and don’t know how a combustion engine works and I would be surprised if he knows how a synthesizer or mix panel works from the inside, as well.

To me, this is just another pointless hype (MOOC anyone?) of a generally valid idea and existing issue. But I think that what we really need to promote is to learn everything in order to become a well rounded person with enough skills to still find a job in the future. Yes, coding will be an essential part of it but don’t think it’s a magic potion.

Last but not least, if you want to read the opposite side of argument my friend and review:ed co-host Christopher Dawson wrote his thoughts on the matter over at ZDNet Education.

  • pv

    Definitely thought provoking. I like the part about the realization of if everyone learns to code, there will be too many programmers.. which leads to supply and demand issues.

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      Thanks PV. I think we are getting into this kind of education trap every couple of decades. People see a lack of skills in one field, push everyone to study it and then realize ten or fifteen years later that there are all of a sudden too many people with the same skills. For my generation in Germany it was law :)

  • http://twitter.com/startuup Ritu Jain

    I definitely agree with your points that the video though inspirational, paints a very jaded picture of the future. I was with friends the other day and someone shared how the job trends in programming are actually falling based on Indeed data- http://www.indeed.com/jobtrends/iOS.html

    What does this mean if HTML5, Ruby, iOS, Android are trending downwards? Is there a lower demand for these skills now? How will that impact people that are flooding to learn how to code?

    That being said, I firmly believe in getting fundamental knowledge and practice with programming so you can use it to create your website, critique a platform, or even understand the inner workings as it impacts us all. Its almost like learning how to cook. Not everyone will be a chef, but its a good basic skill to have. But we have to remember that writing, critical thinking and communication are as important as learning how to code.

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      I think it’s not about coding but getting people interested in how stuff (no matter what) works. We are now in a society that does not care where food comes from, how it is processed (unless we hear about horse meat in our $1.49 lasagna), how cars or computers work.

      It’s the Apple / AOL world: it’s just magic, it works = I don’t care – only if it breaks, then I am screwed. Which kid is allowed to tear down its toys today to see how it works? Would parents appreciate if they crack open the iPad to learn about it? Don’t think so.

      Also, we don’t answer questions anymore or, even more important, try to come up with a solution / wonder about it. We use Google or Wikipedia instead.

      Therefore learning how a computer works, tearing it down, upgrading the hardware, installing a new OS, booting Linux should come before coding.

  • http://twitter.com/CEOsherpa Michael Schutzler

    K, in my opinion, you missed the core point of the message. coding teaches you how to solve complex problems. learning how to code doesn’t mean you will be a programmer any more than learning CPR makes you a doctor. coding a very useful, highly transferable skill. if we were to follow your logic, then the average person gets no value from calculus, physics, chemistry, or literature. taken to it’s extreme, learning to work on the assembly line is enough for the masses. sorry, I don’t agree. coding is a very powerful skill that improves project management, financial analysis, proces analysis, system troubleshooting, collaborative creation, critical thinking, and many other highly valued skills besides getting a computer to draw a circle.

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      If that is the message of the video, I indeed missed it. I agree that coding can teach you more than just the direct result of “Hello world” but to my taste most (all) promotion of coding in schools is over the top and paints a picture of coding = success in your kid’s future career.

      And we could use the same argument for a variety of other subjects in school, yet not every kid is interested in arts, biology or even languages. I think we both know how important second or third language skills are in a globalized job market.

      As I said, I am for teaching more coding in school but I don’t like the hype at all. Look what it did to MOOCs – today everything is a MOOC but no one gets the real point of it, it seems.

      Btw, great to see you on the blog again :) It has been too long.

  • bnleez

    I always find it interesting how the same text can lead to two very different perspectives. On this one, Kirsten, I would have to beg to differ. Here’s why: http://bit.ly/13jeXkj

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      Sorry, you are not allowed to disagree :) Thinking about it, I think it’s a difference in mentality – US vs. German.

  • Ryan Henson Creighton

    >The more people know how to code, the lower the wages and higher the working hours.

    Sure. And if we apply that to your apt reading analogy, “The more people know how to read, the lower the wages and higher the working hours.” So is that a compelling reason to not teach people how to read? No. Everyone should code, just as everyone should read – commoditization be damned.

    > we use cars and don’t know how a combustion engine works

    To borrow from Rushkoff, a better analogy is driving. Someone who looks under the hood of a car = someone who looks under the hood of a computer. Someone who DRIVES a car = someone who PROGRAMS a computer. Many people know how to drive, and it’s an important skill that gets them where they’re going. You’re right – they may not need to know what’s happening in the guts of the box, but programming is DRIVING – not engine tinkering.

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      Hmm, I’d say using the operating system, a word processor or web browser is driving. Programming is being able to refill the oil and changing the filter, checking the coolant or changing the tires and breaks on your own.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.moran Mark Moran

    I’m the founder of an Internet start-up and formerly a corporate lawyer. I will never be an engineer, and will never be a “coder” – but I do want to learn to code, and I want my children to learn to code, even if they will likely focus in their education and careers on soft and creative skills. To be an effective leader in this century means being able to imagine what’s possible to achieve through the efforts of engineers and coders, and that’s hard to do if you don’t speak their language at all. It’s the same reason business majors take classes in accounting and business law even if they’ll never specialize in those fields. In the meantime, my children have taken classes on how to sew clothing and make eggs. I’d like to see these classes replaced with HTML5 classes.

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      Good point Mark. Definitely agree that being able to understand the thought process of a programmer is a good skill to have.

  • InAndOut

    “Finally about Will.i.am’s argument, we use computers and smartphones and
    social media but don’t know how to code – well, we use cars and don’t
    know how a combustion engine works”

    well, you shouldn’t be driving. It’s very important, to me at least to have at the minimum a very abstracted idea of how things you use on a daily basis work. i can’t repair or maintain an engine, sure, but i sure as hell want to know how it works.