Mishka Orakzai is the founder of thiscodeWorks, a Pinterest-inspired website for developers to share snippets of code. Lately, she hosted an Interintellect salon about coding to discuss the strong push towards learning to code. That coding literacy movement includes, for example, coding boot camps and events like Hour of Code. In our conversation at the salon, we took a step back first and tried to establish the meaning of coding literacy.
One way to describe coding literacy is thinking of it as a spectrum, with no-code being the low floor and advanced software engineering the high ceiling. The first and foremost goal is to demystify computing and develop a judgment of what’s even possible. Also, coding is a way of thinking, which I like to describe as algorithmic (or computational) thinking: being specific enough in your instructions to a dumb machine. Computers are deterministic and cannot understand ambiguity like humans. It’s possible to establish this mindset with a bit of self-taught coding without becoming a developer yourself. One participant mentioned he’s doing a “coder dojo” with his 10- and 12-year old kids. Even “toy programming” (think Roblox and Scratch) is still “real programming”, which makes it exciting, especially compared to other forms of building.
We talked about the education system as well. Compared to other subjects, high school computer science is relatively young, and the way it’s taught isn’t always good and sometimes doesn’t even cover coding. It may explain why few kids are excited about coding. On the other hand, maybe we’re expecting too much. Most children learn to pass tests and not because they’re passionate about every subject and want to continue learning in their free time. And nobody should feel guilty about not wanting to code. A more project-based way of teaching could improve education, though.
What’s the benefit of coding? Is the coding literacy movement’s purpose solely filling the demands of the growing tech sector? While that’s possibly true, coding can have additional benefits even when you don’t become a developer. For example, people in marketing can benefit from HTML knowledge. Again, the way of thinking can help in various ways. In the API sector, which is my primary field of work, there’s a lot of conversation about making the technical capabilities of APIs accessible to non-developers and more mainstream (lovely quote: “business developers are developers, too”). These capabilities can go beyond what the API provider intended. Coding can be a creative tool to unlock new possibilities (think of using a cup as a paperweight instead of a cup). However, it’s not the only one.
People like to have a creative outlet. It can be coding, sometimes it’s something else like homemaking, and for others, it’s creating TikTok videos. Sometimes we tend to think that previous generations were more creative, and our modern devices (like the iPad) are primarily consumption machines. For us nerds, it’s often the nostalgia of 90s websites. It’s important to remember, though, that in any community, it’s always few who create for a majority of consumers (look at the 90-9-1 rule). We believe that coding is an excellent outlet for creative building because you don’t need physical tools and material, driving the marginal costs to zero. That makes it accessible. Builders can avert the downside of non-tangible results with hybrid forms where digital things manifest physically, for example, through 3D printing.
Going beyond coding, Mishka had Marc Andreesen’s article “It’s time to build” on her reading list for the salon. Andreesen complains about a lack of desire to build stuff to solve problems in the world. We believe that there’s certain laziness and comfort in the Western world, and we make things for sufficiency rather than resilience. COVID-19 was a good wake-up call. Countries like Israel who are in a perpetual crisis mode were more capable of handling the pandemic than the West who’s invested in the good-enough status quo. Some people may have thought of themselves and their country as limited in the developing world, but remote work, often including coding, helps them grow out of that.
At the end of the salon, we discussed whether coding would remain an in-demand skill. We believe that digital transformation will change everything. No-code automation may make coding less critical, but related roles like user experience or management are growing. With artificially intelligent systems, new skills will become necessary. One participant described coming up with good prompts for GPT-3 as a coding-adjacent skill but more like writing magic spells. Interdisciplinary thinking becomes increasingly important, and the mindset learned through coding can help combine things and assist in learning other skills.
In summary, coding remains an excellent skill to have, but it’s not the most critical skill. Building the future is more than building apps. However, the coding literacy movement could provide a good blueprint for other fields to teach their skillset to a broader public.