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Learning to Code Should Not Be a New Year’s Resolution January 7, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development.

I was surprised last week to see a post from mine a month earlier suddenly generate a lot of traffic. It was the post on learning to code, and the vast majority of the traffic came through searching.

I discovered the next day that the proximate cause of this traffic was the announcement by Codecademy of Codeyear, a resolution to learn how to code in 2012. By signing up, Codecademy will send you weekly interactive lessons on learning programming.

This publicity has caused me to rethink the position I stated back in November. That position was that you didn’t learn programming on a lark. It’s a difficult skill, akin in many ways to learning a foreign language but also in some ways more difficult, and one that Michael Bloomberg is probably not going to pick up over the next twelve months.

Was I wrong?

Sorry, I still don’t buy it.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions in general. If you need the turning of the calendar to resolve to change your life in some way, you’re probably not going to make very much progress.

But I stand by my original statement. Despite the really impressive advances in programming techniques, it’s a skill that requires dedication, practice, and purpose behind it. You don’t learn to code to become a better human being. And while acquiring that skill may provide a keen appreciation of programming and computing, or make you a better human being, I kind of doubt it.

On the other hand, if you’re already a programmer looking to broaden your skill set, this may be worthwhile. If you work in IT in some capacity and see a career path into programming, this may help (but isn’t the complete answer).

But it’s not going to make you a programmer, or even technical in any sense. It won’t help you get a job as a programmer.

I speak from some experience. I began my higher education with two degrees in psychology, prior to pursuing first applied math, then computer science. Even with this background, in the heated tech job market of the late 1980s in the Boston area, it took me a long time to find a relevant job. One online course just isn’t going to do it.

Well, I’ve had my say. Sign up if you want.



1. Ed Dodds - January 7, 2012

To the Readers:

I’ve always been a “systems view” guy but it wasn’t until the internet and html, later VB6, that I discovered that “code” was the language you use to solve problems. Much later, I learned that I needed and alliance of other coders–sometimes mentor/teachers, sometimes just buds who got that “the business” of the client usually didn’t understand either the technology nor the budgetary implications of the organizational change it would produce. This “wisdom” is quite helpful in regard to retaining one’s sanity when client rhetoric and actions went in opposite directions. That said, some recommendations (that are obvious now, but were not then and assuming you already get “the big picture”): 1) you need to build a personal code repository (so you don’t reinvent the wheel) [evernote, other cloud and back-upable solutions], 2) you need to discover the tools (and this is key–the combination of tools) which work best for your style of coding, 3) desire to be curious about the entire technology landscape (including how businesses actually make money, not just how they report they make money) but realize there isn’t enough time for you to do it all on big projects so find some other quality assets (HR calls them resources) who are your go-to-guys and gals; 4) learn your search engine and pick a bookmarking tool and us it (I like diigo.com because it has sharability features, others may by now); 5) understand fundamentally that as a code, whether as a contractor/consultant or an employee of a business firm you are in charge of your career–their job is to drive out costs. period. The rhetoric will differ. The team building sessions will be excellent. But when the budget ax comes you are are outsourcable first, and removable second. Remember: you can only be “indespensible” if the C-Suite is perceptive enough to know that. Tracking how they receive their compensation will give you clues as to whether or not this is likely in your firm’s case.

Further, their are reasons to code beyond making a living. Most NPOs/NGOs are desperate for an upgrade in there “infrastructure”. No they won’t “eventually hire you”; no the Board Members won’t “remember to recommend you to their colleagues”. You’ll do it because you believe in the mission, because you care about the population they serve and you’ll do it because you can’t not do it and be able to sleep at night.

In the end life is about three aspirations: Hope. Compassion. Excellence. I give you my best wishes as you go forth perceiving challenges, defining them, developing solutions, implementing them, and reviewing their successes and failures for lessons learned. Persevere.

Peter Varhol - January 7, 2012

Ed, good stuff. In some ways, I am a more complete person for having learned to code, even though I rarely do so any more. It’s given me insights into the way things work that I wouldn’t otherwise have. All that said, I have the feeling that trivializing the practice of programming in this way is going to frustrate and disappoint more people than it will help.

2. Ed Dodds - January 7, 2012

Corrections above: “an alliance”; “understand fundamentally that as a coder”

Also, don’t trust spell check when what you need is grammar help…

Ed Dodds - January 7, 2012

“there are reasons”

Also. don’t trust grammar check when what you need is spell check.

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