Do We Really Need to Code? Cracking an Industry Enigma
Armed with equal measures of scepticism and FOMO (a fear-of-missing-out), LBB’s Rachael Delahunty explores the real value in coding, and whether it is quite the vital life-skill it once promised to be. Sharing insights from coders and recruiters across the industry, she unearths some of the unexpected benefits of coding, as well as some of the misconceptions.
Coding. Cara Delevingne’s eyebrows. Food served on a slate.
There are some trends that we assume will be a passing phase, and then, often unexpectedly, they’re here to stay (whether we like it or not).
In an already saturated digital world, where some of us like to wait until the ‘moment’ has passed before bothering to download the latest app, coding has gone from being the thing we all must learn to… well maybe still something worth adding to your resume?
Coding is no new thing. The term is new (ish), but really just a sexier way to talk about a fundamental part of computer programming – the language that allows us to make our technology do that we want. Computer programming has been around forever (or at least since the first computer) and until very recently it was not a remotely hot topic.
But something happened around 2013. Suddenly coding was being mentioned everywhere. Bootcamps, app-building, team retreats. And then, if those of a certain age didn’t already feel like they’d missed the boat, children were invited to learn to code with Barclays! (Clever marketing for a bank.)
Today many schools teach coding as part of the curriculum, from building simple basics to breeding the next generation of developers. In 2014, the UK published a policy paper on teaching children to code, and in the US politicians were quick to endorse it as “becoming literate in code is as essential to being literate in language and math”.
By Kalamazoo Public Library [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Then there are those that maybe took the suggestion that coding would change your life a little too literally, resulting in one widely criticised social experiment that offered a homeless man $100 or a laptop with coding classes.
In the years following the massive uptake in code camp and code-a-thons, there has been much debate about the real benefit in learning to code. One can hardly be surprised that Steve Jobs said, “I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.”
So what impact did this all have on our industry?
“Coding, or at least a basic HTML/ computer language skill, is something I am seeing a lot more now, compared to 15 years ago,” says Jennie Child, International Director of Talent at AKQA. “Schools are offering a much more diverse range of skills and classes now, and with many professional roles increasingly encouraging the application of technology, it is much more common for someone applying for a role with us to have their own blog or website for instance. So this knowledge is essential to them and it’s a natural skill for them to have.”
But while the uptake has been noticed to those looking for new talent, is it just for the relevant roles or does coding present something more alluring in a candidate?
Steven Hansen, Chief Technology Officer at Rain, sees value across all businesses: “Every industry has been affected by computers and technology. Musicians can program their instruments, politicians can analyse their popularity, stock traders can monitor the markets, project managers can streamline their operations – all with computers and technology. Every role can be related to programming. An expert in a field that also knows how to program can better understand the complexities of that niche and can better program the right results to occur.”
Kimberly Easley, MD of Talent Acquisition for VML, agrees that it has a wider affect than the programming itself: “It can impact so many levels of the business. It can help team members better understand timelines and scoping, help you relate to your colleagues, create respect and increase productivity.”
For the code-literate, like Kathryn Webb, Creative Developer at AKQA, it’s a fundamental skill: “Learning a programming language is like learning any language. It’s often not about the learning of the language itself, but about the possibilities that open up to you once you can speak it.”
Much of the argument around coding remains whether we should be investing in training and bootcamps, to stay ahead of the game. Us non-coders can continue to weigh up the pros and cons, but perhaps we should be looking to the already established coders to understand the real benefit.
Rachel Mercer, VP and Digital Strategy Director at Deutsch in New York, started out as the kid that went to code camp. “I was that precocious child that was repeatedly breaking our computer from the MSDOS terminal and experimenting with the various commands, so I’m not sure if [my mother] was just tired of broken computers or felt like it was a curiosity that would be better harnessed. I was about 11 years old and learning Visual Basic, which I think contributed to my continued love of spreadsheets.
“I feel that the mental models that programmers follow can be functionally useful especially from a strategic standpoint – it teaches you how to deeply investigate your logic or your approach to any given problem; and a flexibility to test and learn as you go.”
As for the less expected benefits, she adds: “First, I feel like it has massively strengthened my logic-based approaches to key problems; I find myself consistently defining classifications or building 'if statements’ into my proposals or presentations. Second, I feel like a basic understanding of code gives me greater power and autonomy in finding my own answers to questions.”
Jon Lim [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Brittney Kernan, Senior Technologist at Big Spaceship, was another natural coder: “I was drawn to the idea that anyone could create a website to showcase things they were interested in, and connect it to this giant network of people. I had more fun making the website for my high school rock band than actually playing the guitar in it.
“Coding definitely changes your brain in many surprising ways. I have excellent short term memory for short sequences of text, like flight confirmation numbers and street addresses. As a coder, you use and remember formulas you learned in math class, like the Pythagorean theorem and the slope intercept equation.”
Laurent Pierre, Head of Engineering at Code and Theory, agrees: “Coding develops logic, as you have to find the best and most efficient (user friendly, optimal) manner to solve a problem. But, to be a successful developer, you also need to be able to decompose a very complex problem into bitesize increments that you can solve easily. That ‘incremental thinking’ is a very useful skill, globally.
“To some degree, I think that everybody should get a basic understanding of how technology works (which could include some aspects of coding), so that they know what to expect in their day to day interactions with their phones, tablets, and even TVs.”
Evidently it would be unfair to say that there aren’t extended benefits to coding, but with so many programmers out there already changing the world, have we missed the boat?
Child’s thinks not: “With the way that technology is constantly evolving and becoming a much more natural part of our everyday lives, there’s never been a better time to increase your skill level and we always ensure that we look for talent that is innovative, forward-thinking and leading the way in this sector.”
Of course those just looking to improve their resume should be wary warns Neil Thanedar, the CEO and Founder of LabDoor: “If you are truly on your way to building a huge, disruptive business, there will be little room on your long-term job description for coding.”
For those worrying about their lack of coding experience in the current market, it is not necessarily a deal-breaker – companies like VML are willing to invest in strong candidates that lack this competitive edge.
“It’s far tougher to find a candidate with the perfect blend of intelligence, passion and drive that fits your culture,” says Easley. “If you find an individual that has those components but may be missing a core coding skill or knowledge, our philosophy is that we can hire to culture and train to skill set.”
While the debate rages on about whether we ought to jump on the coding band-wagon – another discussion is disrupting the entire premise: will the coding we learn today be relevant in the future?
By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Coding has already been simplified enormously and some are asking whether coding is really the best way to build apps in the first place, or whether we need to remove it “and all its complexity” from the equation.
Machine learning is reportedly the latest advancement, whereby a computer is taught to learn to self-program, and eventually the engineer stops understanding how the computer accomplishes its tasks. Jason Tanz predicts that ultimately “’the code that runs the universe may defy human analysis”.
If this is true, and technology is willing to meet us halfway (or even better than that by the sounds of it), should we be wasting our time now learning skills that will become obsolete?
Even Mercer has her doubts as to the longevity of coding as we know it. “While there is no doubt an increasing demand for developers worldwide, we are also existing in an era where we have platforms that allow us to drag-and-drop designs (Squarespace), create interactive prototypes from static images (InVision, Marvel, Proto.io).
“Given that I have learned and un-learned technologies multiple times over (goodbye Actionscript), I hold a healthy scepticism for what the definition of ‘coding’ means for the future of our workforce, and if we’re adapting education programs quickly enough to keep up with the pace of change.”
So what does this mean for those looking to add coding to their resume? It is clear that there are huge benefits across all businesses and it strengthens core learning skills, so it’s a worthy string to any bow. And companies are willing to train their own people where they see it benefits their business.
For the next generation, it is already making its way into the curriculum and the foundations of code will undoubtedly become part of mainstream education.
But for the rest of us trying to predict the nature of coding in the future, are we chasing a skill that is on its way to being replaced? Are we trying to memorise π just before the invention of the calculator? Only time will tell.