This post was originally published on Slate's Future Tense blog.
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Coding is the hottest skill on the job market, the modern-day language of creativity, and a powerful force in the economy. And now it’s making its way into Congress, high school classrooms, and even the newsroom.
A group of leading thinkers in technology gathered at New America NYC on March 28 to discuss the value of programming skills in the 21st century. Moderator Marvin Ammori, a Bernard L. Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, was joined by Zach Sims, CEO of Codecademy; Martha Girdler, engineer at Etsy; Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock, co-founder of Hacker School; and Julia Angwin, senior technology editor for the Wall Street Journal.
We’ve grown so accustomed to technology that we hardly ever question how the machines and applications we use operate. What would once have looked like witchcraft to us has become mundane. But the need for high-skilled programmers has skyrocketed—so why aren’t more creative visionaries stepping up to learn code?
All too often, we draw the distorted distinction between math- and science-minded individuals and the seemingly more “creative types.” But the speakers debunked this myth, explaining that coding is indeed an innovative and artistic process. Those equipped with programming skills can realize their creative visions and fashion new software, computer games, apps, and even companies. Coding gives one the power to build something out of nothing and then to distribute it quickly all over the world. “It’s not mathematical or lonely,” Girlder said. “It’s fun to create something and see how people interact with it online.”
And it’s this interaction and communication with others that’s essential to being a successful hacker. The speakers agreed that some of the best programmers are English literature or linguistics majors because of their strong communication skills. In fact, most programmers don’t have computer science degrees at all: Gridler herself was an art major, and Sims studied political science.
Those who code often find the process enjoyable, even exhilarating. Sims recalled the magic moment when he fashioned his first computer game, a basic version of Tic Tac Toe. “My code was garbage,” he said, but the experience of creating something for the first time was empowering.
“Algorithm,” Girdler said out loud. “Even the word itself is magical.”
The American education system quickly emerged as a major theme in the discussion. Sims lamented that education simply does not change as swiftly as technology, so despite the growing demand for computer science in high schools, many still don’t offer the classes. Etsy’s Girdler even suggested that everyone should be required to take computer science courses in high school just as chemistry or biology are mandatory.
To meet the demand, Bergson-Shilcock and Sims have created ways to better access coding instruction. Bergson-Shilcock, a product of a progressive form of education called “unschooling,” used his upbringing as a model for Hacker School, a three-month, full-time immersion program for anyone who loves programming and wishes to improve. The unique social environment at the academy encourages the community to ask questions and relies almost exclusively on intrinsic motivation. That is, there are no grades, degrees, and thus no fear of failure. Sims’ Codecademy provides students and teachers with free interactive materials for learning code as well as access to a supportive online community of programmers.
Learning instrumental coding skills outside of the university setting also holds exciting benefits for people of different backgrounds. The companies that hire programmers care more about an employee’s capabilities than whether or not she holds a degree. This could be a real game-changer in the modern American economy, and perhaps a strategic way to level the playing field.
So how can we promote innovation in the United States and satisfy the growing need for programmers in our society?
Ammori referred to the Congressional App Challenge, a new competition created by members of the House of Representatives under the Academic Competition Resolution of 2013, which was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in a 411-3 vote. The measure aims to recognize high school students for their achievement in science, technology, engineering and math.
Girdler, a female engineer at Etsy, emphasized the importance of bringing more women into the field. She attributed the tendency for more men than women to be interested in programing to the gaming industry, which often serves as an inspiration to learn code and is more geared toward young men. Girdler urged companies be more proactive about encouraging women to program so that they come to see it as a viable career option.
Although the speakers didn’t suggest that everyone become an expert in code right away, they all agreed that basic programming literacy would empower anyone who uses a smartphone or computer. It isn’t just about the job security or a hefty paycheck. Instead of blindly accepting and utilizing the technology we are given, learning basic programming would help us to interact more mindfully with the world around us.