We need to separate Computing for All from Software Development: Claims that coding is not “fun,” it’s technically and ethically complex

June 19, 2017 at 7:00 am 5 comments

The problem with the article linked below is that Code.org and the author mean two different things by the word “programming.”  Programming can be fun, insightful, sloppy, small, and still useful without demanding “superhuman focus” and “manic attention to detail.”  This is an issue I’ve talked about with respect to the thick line between programmer and user where most people will be in the future. I’m teaching an ethics course this summer — building software for others is technically and ethically complex, as the author states.  But building software as an end-user, as a hobbyist, as a scientist or engineer exploring an idea?  We need a different word.

Programming computers is a piece of cake. Or so the world’s digital-skills gurus would have us believe. From the non-profit Code.org’s promise that “Anybody can learn!” to Apple chief executive Tim Cook’s comment that writing code is “fun and interactive,” the art and science of making software is now as accessible as the alphabet.

Unfortunately, this rosy portrait bears no relation to reality. For starters, the profile of a programmer’s mind is pretty uncommon. As well as being highly analytical and creative, software developers need almost superhuman focus to manage the complexity of their tasks. Manic attention to detail is a must; slovenliness is verboten. Attaining this level of concentration requires a state of mind called being “in the flow,” a quasi-symbiotic relationship between human and machine that improves performance and motivation.

Source: Coding is not “fun,” it’s technically and ethically complex — Quartz

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Zamansky (@zamansky)  |  June 19, 2017 at 7:54 am

    Makes me think – – Playing the violin is fun and interactive. The art of making music is now as accessible as the alphabet.

  • 2. alfredtwo  |  June 19, 2017 at 9:27 am

    When I read articles like the one you link to (which appeared a lot in my social media feeds) I wonder what their agenda is. Are they afraid of competition? Are they yearning for the days when people who actually got to touch computers were almost a “high priest” of some sort with a special position? Or something else?

    Personally I have been coding for around 45 years. When it stops being fun I will stop doing it. Sure it can be frustrating at times but than so is golf. 🙂

  • 3. PhysicsTeacherJim  |  June 19, 2017 at 11:44 am

    In every field that comes to mind, we first teach small basic threads of skill and gradually weave them into the more complete tapestry of accomplishment. With longer study and practice comes more impressive tapestries.

    I learned sculpture and drawing in 8th grade. I had done both, but the formal education provided me with a small set of tools that I can still use today. Poorly, as I have not practiced and developed my skills much over the years, but the tools are still there.

    There was no implication that any of us would be reproducing David any time soon. We knew that professional work would take years of study and practice.

    What I tell my physics students is that the introduction to programming they get through computational physics serves several purposes. It shifts their perception of a computer from “thing that does stuff” to “thing that I can control to do exactly what I tell it to.” It gives them a tiny glimpse into what could be a career option if they so choose. It gives them a very basic idea of what they are getting into if they choose to learn and deploy new programming skills in support of their future non-pro-programmer careers. It may lead to hobby programming. And finally it opens the curtain slightly into the black box of programming, so that they will be better able to talk with programmers and software providers they work with later on. People who have no clue what programming is and have never tried it tend to have massively inaccurate perception of how much time, skill, and work goes into writing or modifying programs.

    I don’t think we need new words to describe programming. Perhaps we need those popularizing it to be more explicit about the intended outcomes and the paths to professional work in the field.

  • 4. gflint  |  June 20, 2017 at 10:39 am

    Is Rubik’s Cube “fun”? More like a frustrating challenge like most difficult puzzles and games. Brain surgery is not “fun” but I will bet the doctor considers it an ultimate challenge very similar to a high level, complex puzzle. I think you have to be one of those types of people who enjoy difficult puzzles to really understand why programming (or “coding”) is fun. If you are not that type then it is just a job.

  • 5. luxifess  |  July 6, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    I had issues with that article, too.
    I wonder where the author is getting their data.
    Anyone who says being “in the flow” is not fun, has not been “in the flow” recently, since it’s the single most amazing experience ever to be completely in the flow zone, no matter if that’s brain surgery, composing symphonies, or coding.

    Just to reiterate your point – Computer Science & Programming are huuuuge disciplines with careers ranging from engineers, to architects, to artist/web developers, consultants, security specialists, network administrators, pen testers, etc. The author of the linked article acts like unless you’re inventing Facebook, you’re a non-starter.

    Not all of those careers require godly skills. There are perfectly competent web developers who make mistakes. Heck, didn’t the ENTIRE tech community spent MONTHS fixing the Y2K problem? Were the folks who wrote the original programs somehow less valid as developers?

    A good comparison is this: Mozart versus Salieri. Some of us are Mozart, but most of us aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with being Salieri. He wrote perfectly good music that people still enjoy today.
    Not all of us are Mark Zuckerberg or Tim Cook or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. And that’s fine.

    I’m also against the linked article’s suggestion that somehow, kids aren’t taught that programming is ‘hard’. Of course they are! Every mention of computers or programming in the media reinforces the idea that only a few certain kinds of person can learn to code. Sure, there’s a steep learning curve, but 6 months ago I was doing codecademy, today, I can write scripts to automate things I could have only dreamed of. I’ve set up a raspberry pi to host a local website and database. I’ve made responsive websites. I’ve troubleshooted network problems. I do so with the understanding that there’s even more learning ahead.
    Studying is fun.
    Coding is fun.
    Computers are fun.
    Stop telling kids that learning and hard work aren’t fun! They ARE if you’re doing something that meshes well with your strengths.

    * I happen to be one of the messiest people alive.


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