Jeff Atwood wrote a provocative blog post entitled Please Don’t Learn to Code that I wasn’t going to respond to because it looked a lot like trolling to me. What I think, though, is that Jeff is conflating the suggestion that people learn to program with the suggestion that everyone should be a software developer. In the end, though, the post is just a mess.
I’m not for falsely equating programming with essential life skills like reading, writing, and math, or with the things Jeff suggests people spend time on instead — learning how things work at a “basic level” or becoming better communicators. That said, I would encourage people to learn to program for a number of reasons.
The first is that much of the world is run by computers. Learning to program involves learning how computers work at a more basic level. Even just knowing how the Web works at a technical level is helpful, if only to know if something is broken on a site you’re using or on your local computer.
In some ways, the relevant analogy is to auto repair. Knowing how your car works and how to fix some things doesn’t make you a mechanic, but it does make it less likely that you’ll be stuck on the side of the road with no recourse other than roadside service, and also helps to ensure that you won’t be exploited when you have to deal with a mechanic.
There are many people out there who work with software developers who are not themselves software developers. Understanding how to program makes it easier to communicate with them.
The second thing is that learning a little programming can make you better at your job if your work involves using a computer at all. Here’s my favorite programming story of all time. I used to work with a software developer who started her career at a chicken processing plant in Arkansas. She started not as a programmer but as an administrative assistant. Back then, they didn’t do word processing, they typed on typewriters.
Even though she had no formal training as a programmer, she figured out that the electric typewriters they used were programmable, and learned how to program them to complete various forms rather than typing them in by hand. Her boss noticed her good work and had her learn how to program another computer they had in the office. Eventually, he encouraged her to quit and go back to school to become a professional software developer.
Had she not been a smart and curious person who figured out that programming would make her job easier, she may still be working in that chicken plant. Today programming is now a more fundamental tool of automation than it has ever been. How many people could eliminate redundant work if they knew how to write scripts to collect data for them and schedule them to run nightly? How many people struggle with terrible Web applications that could be improved with user-created style sheets or Greasemonkey scripts? Programming empowers you to remove annoyances from your daily life.
The third reason is that learning to program teaches you a different method of problem solving than most people are familiar with. Learning to program teaches you how to break down problems into familiar components and then meld those components together to create a solution. Programming is not the only way to learn those skills, but it’s a good way to learn them, and that skill is widely applicable to every day life.
I wouldn’t make the argument that we make programming courses mandatory in school, or that everyone should learn to program, but I would encourage anyone who has the slightest interest in programming to pursue that interest.