Why do people want to learn to code?

Inevitably, after the hype, there’s the backlash against Codecademy, or, at least, a questioning of why suddenly “everyone” wants to code.  It’s a good question so here are a few very personal thoughts.

I completely missed the programming revolution that started thirty years ago with the BBC Micro etc.  My year group at secondary school was the first year to be offered computer science at O-level but I thought it’d be a waste of time because I would never, ever have access to a computer so, like, what was the point?  It had nothing to do with being scared of any potential maths/logic/science stuff that might be involved.  It had nothing to do with being a girl (I went to a girls only school and the computer science teacher was female).  I just couldn’t see how it might ever have any relevance to my life.  That was a bit short-sighted…

Dave Winer is a big name in the pretty small world of journo programmers.  In fact, the Nieman Journalism Lab describes him as “one of the most important figures in the evolution of online media.”  In a recent blogpost, he asked why he was reading about so many people wanting to start coding for the first time.  He says he’s “flat-out seriously shocked” by the trend!

“I’d like to get a sense of what they’re looking for? Are you trying to acquire a skill? Is there software you want to see made but can’t get anyone to make it for you? Are you curious, do you want to know how computers work so you can have a better idea of where we’re going? Are you seeing programmers get rich and you’d like to get some too? All of these are valid reasons to want to do anything, btw — I’m not judging — I just want to understand.”

Well, it’s certainly not about getting rich!  And I really don’t have any grand plans to make some software because I really am not deluding myself that I can ever make it to that level. I think the option I’ll choose is simple curiosity.  I like learning new stuff especially if not a lot of other people in my circle are learning it.

I have spent most of my working life tapping away on keyboards and making stuff appear and disappear on screens.  I think it’s natural that at some point you start asking yourself how the computer does that stuff.  What has the computer been told?  How do you tell a computer to do stuff in such a way that it can cope with all the possible permutations?

So for me, just learning the very basics of the concept of loops and conditionals is a massive revelation.  It’s hard to explain the excitement of this to somebody who’s been coding for ever and takes these simple things for granted.  But for somebody in my position, the beauty of these concepts is just incredible.  It enables me to peek for a moment at another world.  (I can’t peek for long because the light would kill me.  Coding is powerful stuff!)

I now have a tiny inkling of how human and machine interact.  I feel like a new, dormant part of my brain has been tickled into life.

Whilst Dave Winer seems genuinely interested in finding out why a person might suddenly want to code, Jon Evans – “a novelist, journalist and software engineer” – writing at Techcrunch is “uneasy” with this “sudden surge of enthusiasm” for coding.

“Learning how to program for its own sake is like learning French purely on the off chance that you one day find yourself in Paris. People who do that generally become people who think they know some French, only to discover, once in France, that they can’t actually communicate worth a damn.” 

Hmm, whilst I agree that people who went around claiming to be fluent in Javascript after a few months with Codecademy would be pretty tiresome, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with learning something for its own sake.  Just for the fun of it.  Just for the challenge.  Just for the thrill of taking your brain somewhere it’s never been before.  So long as you have the insight to realise the limitations of your knowledge, I think that’s great. It’s certainly much better than telling everyone to stay in their comfort zones and stop trying to tinker with things they’ll never properly understand.

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2 thoughts on “Why do people want to learn to code?

  1. I for one would be happy to see the divide between “programmers” and “non-programmers” get narrower. Sure, most people (and most programmers) will never be Linus Torvalds. Just like most people who write will not be Mark Twain. But in today’s world just about everybody can write at some level, and at least understands what it is. Computers are an increasingly important part of our world and people in general should have some notion of how they work.

  2. Exactly. And to extend Jon Evans’ analogy, people don’t learn French because they want to become a French person! They learn French so that they can have a better insight into the French culture. It’s a compliment! (Not that all French people see it that way!) So native programmers should be flattered that newbies like me want to learn a little bit of what they know so that we can see what makes them SO special.

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