Definitions of “Code” and “Programmer”: Response to “Please Don’t Learn to Code”

Audrey Watters’ excellent post on Learning to Code in 2012 pointed me to Jeff Atwood’s piece (linked at the bottom). I want everyone to learn code, so I am in direct contradiction to his position, “Please don’t learn to Code.” Jeff and I disagree primarily on two points, both of which are issues of definition:

  • Most people who write code are not trying to create code solutions. Most people who write code are trying to find solutions or create non-code solutions. By “most people,” I do mean quantitatively and I do mean all people, not just professional programmers. We know that there are many more people who write code to accomplish some task, as compared to professional programmers. When I visited the NASA Goddard Visualization Lab last month, I met the director Horace Mitchell, who told me that everyone there writes code, whether they are computer scientists or not. They write code in order to explore their data and create effects that they couldn’t given existing visualization systems. They are trying to create great visualizations, not great code. They simply throw the code away afterward. This is a critical difference between what Jeff is describing and what I hope to see. We agree that the goal is a solution. I want everyone to have the possibility of using code to create their solution, not to create code as the solution.
  • Most people who program are not and don’t want to be software developers. Most of the people that I teach (non-CS majors, high school teachers) have zero interest in becoming programmers. They don’t want to be “addicted to code.” They don’t want a career that requires them to code. They want to use coding for their own ends. Brian Dorn’s graphic designers are a great case in point. Over 80% of those who answered his surveys said “No, I am not a programmer,” but everyone who answered his surveys wrote programs of 100 lines or more. Not everyone who “programs” wants to be known as a “programmer.”

The problem is that we in computer science often have blinders on when it comes to computing — we only see people who relate to code and programming as we do, as people in our peer group and community do. There are many people who code because of what it lets them do, not because they want the resulting code.“You should be learning to write as little code as possible. Ideally none.” And people who want to do interesting, novel things with computers should just wait until a software developer gets around to understanding what they want and coding it for them? I could not disagree more. That’s like saying that the problem with translating the Bible is that it made all that knowledge accessible to lay people, when they should have just waited for the Church to explain it to them. ”Please don’t learn to code” can be interpreted as “Please leave the power of computing to us, and we’ll let you know when we’ll make some available to you.”

It assumes that more code in the world is an inherently desirable thing. In my thirty year career as a programmer, I have found this … not to be the case. Should you learn to write code? No, I can’t get behind that. You should be learning to write as little code as possible. Ideally none.It assumes that coding is the goal. Software developers tend to be software addicts who think their job is to write code. But it’s not. Their job is to solve problems. Don’t celebrate the creation of code, celebrate the creation of solutions. We have way too many coders addicted to doing just one more line of code already.

Deepa Singh
Business Developer
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