Learning to code is not a meme

Jeff Atwood, programmer for 30 years, is annoyed that lots of people want to learn to code. In fact, he asks them to stop. Naturally, this reminds me of the journalists who are annoyed that posts on Quora and Twitter can replace the skilled work that they do … can “everyone be a journalist”? Sort of. 

But the argument about everyone learning to code is different, for a reason that Paul Graham highlights really well in his book Hackers & Painters, which I am reading now.

Everything around us is becoming computerized. Your typewriter is gone, replaced by a computer. Your phone has turned into a computer. So has your camera. Soon your TV and VCR will be components in a computer network. Your car has more processing power in it than a room-sized mainframe did in 1970. Letters, encyclopedias, newspapers, and even your local store are being replaced by the Internet. What’s next?

Hackers & Painters examines the world of hackers and the motivations of the people who occupy it. – Paul Graham

So, if the mayor of NYC is learning to code, it is not because he’s actually going to build something – he needs to understand what code is capable of and the motivations of the type of people who are building with it. The innovations coming out of his city will have an impact on the people who live there.

I’ve decided to learn to code for the same reasons as Lisa Williams – I have ideas and don’t want to wait for others to build them for me, or pay anyone to build for me. As a journalist, coding is slightly more relevant for me than it is for my friends who are teachers and whose work is tangible/in-person rather than shareable online.

Or, wait. One teacher I know is out of a job and looking into publishing curriculum and selling it. The Internet is totally useful for that. 

Coding takes goes a step further than the printing press – something built once can reach many people at the same time. As Sacha Greif points out:

I can’t think of many other skills that enable you to create something from scratch and reach as many people as knowing how to set up a simple website.

Esmooov adds (not sure his real name?):

Jeff equivocates because he has missed the point about why we learn. We learn new things because our perception of the world is shaped by our mental catalogues of what is possible and what it useful.

Yes, I think CodeYear was a bit of a bandwagon push, it was super easy to sign up and stuff like this always reminds me of the scene in Legally Blond when Reese announces she’s going to law school and a sorority sister says “Let’s all go!” as if it’s just a road trip. 

But it makes me sad to see an experienced programmer being an exclusionist and saying, you can’t do what I do, go do your own thing. I think we should all welcome people to be amateurs at what we do professionally. And if you are doing CodeYear (here I am!), get in touch and let’s keep pressing on in this wonderful adventure.