The programming guild doesn’t want you to learn to code

June 6, 2016 at 7:54 am 7 comments

Medieval guilds were associations of craftsmen who carefully protected who had could practice the craft. In the end, they faded away because (as Wikipedia describes), “the guilds negatively affected quality, skills, and innovation.” The economy grew after the guilds faded away.

The below linked article in TechCrunch is an example of programming craftsmen protecting their turf, the way that the guilds did hundreds of years ago.  I have responded to some of these complaints before, like the one that suggested that people should just be users and not programmers. “You can’t do it as well as we can” and “you’ll just make a mess of it” are the kinds of complaints that professionals have made over the centuries to keep others from adopting their practice.  Of course, both of those are correct statements, as they are true whenever you’re talking about learners.  They are correctable problems.

The below quote is particularly aggravating because it says that programming is only right for a certain “type of person.” For the technology industry, that usually equates to privileged white or Asian males.

When has it ever worked to say, “You shouldn’t learn X” especially if X is valuable and useful?

Don’t get me wrong; I do believe that engineering and programming are important skills. But only in the right context, and only for the type of person willing to put in the necessary blood, sweat and tears to succeed. The same could be said of many other skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn to program than I would urge everyone to learn to plumb.

Source: Please don’t learn to code | TechCrunch

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. hobbular  |  June 6, 2016 at 8:15 am

    We had a conversation about this in my class this past semester, and someone pointed out that if everyone learned to code, the programmer would go the way of the typist – that’s just not a specialised job that we need anymore, because everyone can type.

    Do we still have authors and journalists, people whose jobs are not only typing but also creating good content? Sure, and I don’t think the software engineer is necessarily a completely dying breed either. But when everyone can code up a basic analysis in [paradigm du jour], it de-mystifies and likely ends up devaluing the work done by programmers to the level of your average journalist or author.

    Absolutely you’ll have your JK Rowlings of the programming world, but rather than every programmer at Uber pulling down six figures, it’ll be a much more “average” occupation. And that’s definitely threatening to our privileged white/Asian boys’ club.

    • 2. alanone1  |  June 6, 2016 at 8:36 am

      FWIW — I don’t think at all that the kid was referring to white/Asian when he describes the “type of person”. The sad thing is that the author could very well himself not be the “best type” of person to make real progress in computing — and this could generally be part of the large problem.

      Another way to look at this is that the languages and development systems are not at all well set up for “average” computerists (including most of the ones there now). One could well imagine some of the things that could be done to make things better and safer, and then we could very well have a “vernacular culture” that is far more “average” and wide-spread.

      My main view is that the bigger issues are about science and science-like thinking for the general public (and trying to figure out what that means in terms of both citizenship and general “richness”). I think computing/programming will figure heavily into the learning and doing of that new hybrid field “for all”.

  • 4. alanone1  |  June 6, 2016 at 8:18 am

    Interesting — especially since it seems to be from a person out of the pop culture who in part doesn’t want — perhaps subconsciously — more pop culture types like him on his turf. His idea that you “need to know a lot” — but that this doesn’t have to include Computer Science — is really interesting and revealing.

    Another slant on this might be to agree in the large with him, and wonder whether the terrible systems and weak thought of the last decades have been the result of the happening of what he doesn’t want to have happening.

    I remember being pretty much shocked at the computer cultures at both Atari and Apple in the early 80s — but then realized that they were very much like I had been in the Air Force in the early 60s — I really didn’t know anything, but only dimly realized this until I lucked into an ARPA grad school. There I -really- realized I knew nothing, but they had a “first wealth” of really good stuff to get started on.

  • 5. Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo)  |  June 6, 2016 at 11:25 am

    I would suggest everyone learn a bit about plumbing. Replacing a toilet or some pipes under the kitchen sink are useful skills. But that is a red herring of course.

    While we can’t learn everything we can learn a little about a lot of things that that is a good thing. For the most part we are asking students to learn enough about CS to a) understand the computing world around them and b) see if they want to dig deeper. Those are the reasons for a lot of subjects we make students take.

    • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 6, 2016 at 11:41 am

      I think that programming is more like plumbing than it is like typing or reading. It is a useful skill to have a little of, it is an essential skill for society as whole, but not everyone needs to do it, and bigger jobs should definitely be done by professionals.

      So I agree with Alfred—everyone should learn a little plumbing, but hire a plumber or plumbing contractor when the job is too big, too tricky, too urgent, or just too messy to do oneself. I feel the same way about programming, with the difference being that I consider myself a good programmer, but a lousy plumber.

  • 7. kirkpams  |  June 6, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    If you ignore the title and some cringeworthy statements (some revealing implicit bias, some just sounding like a bit of lamentation), he actually makes a really good point: “Selling coding as a ticket to economic salvation for the masses is dishonest.” Too many people seem to be scared to argue that learning to code has value in and of itself; instead, they rely on the jobs argument, which is problematic. (On a previous post, I was skeptical that people were actually doing this, but Mark corrected me with some nice counter evidence.)

    Taken in whole, the content of the piece undermines the title (which was probably hyperbole chosen as clickbait). The “Final thoughts” section goes directly against the title telling people not to learn. The story of the competitive programmer friend also directly undermines the argument, because the friend could only apply coding skills after solving the problem if he actually has proficiency with them.

    His gripe really seems to be with overzealous attempts to get as many people to pursue software development careers as possible. Because everybody will support any policy if it contributes to jobs. I agree with him there. However, I disagree with the title, because I view coding (i.e., crafting an explicit and clear sequence of steps to solve a problem) as a foundational skill. (No, I’m not making the causation argument that learning to code helps you learn to solve problems, but I digress.) Not everyone needs to know how to use the tool (i.e., do professional engineering work). But in order to know when and why such a tool is necessary, as well as the limitations of that tool, you need to understand the basics, which means you need to learn to code.


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