Ever heard the old saying, “everyone should learn to play an instrument?” How about “everyone should learn how to speak a second language?”
These self-betterment arguments have a modern equivalent, which is that everyone should learn how to code. I see it everywhere. Steve Jobs certainly thought so. Google auto-fill thinks so too when you prompt it with “everyone should know” and “everyone should learn.” It became so ubiquitous last year, it reached meme-status, with New York mayor Mike Bloomberg tweeting a New Year’s resolution that he would learn to code. #codeyear.
Techies themselves are split into several camps. First, those who think everyone can and should code. Then there are those who think everyone can but shouldn’t necessarily code. Lastly, there are those who think coding is unattainable for certain types of minds.
Another iteration of this argument focuses solely on girls and women, vehemently defended by frustrated teachers who see their young female students already passing the baton to the boys.
(Or, programming is annoyingly simplified by female-centric blogs who tease, “Want to be super-employable and well-paid?”)
Anyway, since I’m only on the periphery of the “tech world,” I decided to ask one of our lead software developers at Tempworks, Maggie Pint, what she thought of this democratization of programming, and what it means for both employees and employers.
Do you think everyone should learn how to code?
Can everyone learn the basics of coding? Yes, but it’s like learning the basics of any other exercise. I think that there’s an art to coding well. So whether or not you should code perhaps is a different matter. I guess I don’t really sit in the camp of everyone should learn to code, but what everyone should learn is the same troubleshooting process we use when we code… because we’re in a completely IT driven world… So, it’s not necessarily a matter of being able to write a program, it’s a matter of being able to troubleshoot… The “everyone should learn to code” argument reminds me of the exact same argument we have for “every child should learn math.” … Coding is actually a really good way to learn how to work through every possible case scenario and come up with the best solution… It really pushes you to think. Do I think that that should be everyone’s career? I mean, no, if you don’t like it, then it shouldn’t be your career.
Do you think we need more women programmers?
Yes, we should be pushing girls to pursue programming more... The number of women in IT has gone down since the eighties. In every other STEM field, the number of women went up. But in IT, it went down. The president of Harvey Mudd college is a woman. She was a software developer; her background’s IT. What she finds is that in their entry-level computer science classes, [males and females] are actually even and after that, they drop off. Just an immediate drop-off. One class, drop off. What she found was that most young males who were attending college already had some programming knowledge, and most young women didn’t. She couldn’t establish exactly why, but I think it’s likely that it had something to do with video games or geek culture and they feel like they shouldn’t be a part of that. And programming is sort of that geek culture. The concept is that there’s something about geek culture that women feel like they don’t belong there.
So how do STEM classes combat this drop-off?
First, [women] feel – going back to that study at Harvey Mudd – by the time they’re in college, they’re already lost, because when they get into that class, everybody knows how to program but them. They’ve already fallen behind… Imagine that you are the valedictorian of your high school graduating class, and you got into Harvey Mudd, and suddenly you get into a class where the other half of the class left you in the dust? The way they can improve that is they actually split them into two classes – black and gold I think they call it – one for people with programming experience and one for people without, and the women stopped dropping out immediately.
Any other reason there might be low numbers of women in tech roles? Is it lack of encouragement?
We’ve come so far in other fields, so I don’t feel that girls generally are getting a workover from their parents... My mathematics graduating class was more than half women. And [programming is] a close friend. But to me it feels like a cultural issue… of feeling welcome in a sort of nerd sub-culture. Part of it is that the guys are really nervous around women. The result is that when women come to hang out with them, it’s really awkward. Like, they just hadn’t grown into their own skin… I don’t know how else to say it!
Uncomfortable enough not to pursue that career?
Yeah, believe it or not… As for me, both of my programming teachers were women. It may have helped. But both were excellent teachers. I think the fact that they were women meant less, but… I just noticed that I ended up really liking it. And programs such as "Sit With Me" are trying to change things.
Do you think programming should be considered one of the required liberal arts?
I actually would be a tentative proponent of that. In a college liberal arts program, replacing a math requirement with a programming requirement at some level might be really good. Definitely you’re more likely to use coding skills in life than college algebra, which is what most people, if they aren’t going down the STEM road, stop at. When I was a math tutor, I struggled with telling them why they had to learn certain things. I would always just smile and say, "It's good for you." However, programming is much more useful. They’re able to see [how it can be used]. It justifies it.
Is there any truth to the statement “you’ll be super-employable and well-paid” if you learn to code?
I love being a software developer. I’d do it anyways, but there’s a high demand and there’s a fairly high pay scale… The current reality is that there a good amount of jobs out there. Certainly now it’s a good industry and I know that some of the biggest places where the industry is growing are less the hardcore programmers and more as business analysts… who go between the programmers and the client. That position is exploding right now. The majority of women are ending up in business-analyst-type positions.
Would you say that you approach problems differently from your male counterparts?
I definitely am aware that I approach a problem differently from my coworkers. There are many times when I will be in a planning meeting, and I actually want to be like “You are driving me nuts! Quit geekin’ out, quit talking, and think a little bit!” (laughs). And I don’t know if that’s a man-woman thing or just a me vs. everyone thing. I know that I have moments where I’m like, I don’t follow the way you’re interacting with each other, and I would approach this problem completely differently. They’ll be discussing something, and I’ll just be sitting there quietly. What I often find is that they really focus on something that doesn’t matter that much. I’ll be sitting there saying, did you just spend 30 minutes talking about this issue and not come to any conclusion on it? The best thing you can do is walk away and redress it later. They get focused on one thing that they think would be cool, or neat… move on, guys. Move on. That talking is done.