Coding is Driving the Car (and More)


A couple of days ago there was a much favorited and retweeted tweet by the often funny Startup L. Jackson 

Whenever someone tells me “coding is the new literacy” because “computers are everywhere today” I ask them how fuel injection works.

Now I happen to think that this is wrong in an important way but right in another and it is important to pick those two apart.

Let me start by how it is wrong. Coding is knowing how to drive the car, not how to tune or repair the fuel injection. There is a huge amount of coding that can be done without understanding how a compiler or interpreter does its job or knowing about the registers in the CPU or any of the myriad of other pieces that go into making code execute (in fact see below for how that will go even further shortly).

But even equating coding with driving the car is somewhat short changing it. Because driving the car is still specific to driving a car and won’t let you sail a boat or fly an airplane. Coding on the other hand will let you program anything that’s, well programmable, which in the future will be everything.

So how then do I believe that the tweet is also right? Well it is right in that what we tend to think of as learning to code today is probably not what coding will be like for most people in the future. Instead for the most part programming will be closer to using IFTTT or Zapier than to writing code from scratch in an editor. Still, you will need some understanding of what inputs and outputs are and grok the idea of breaking a process down into smaller steps that can then be combined to give you a desired result. That will be the essential knowledge about coding for most people and that is in fact a new type of literacy.

One reason why that’s important is that there is currently a narrative that we can solve labor market problems by just training more software engineers and that there will be a nearly limitless demand for programming skills in the future. That I believe is the equivalent of thinking that everyone will need to be able to repair their car instead of drive it and training way too many car mechanics as a result.

“learning to code today is probably not what coding will be like for most people in the future” – we couldn’t agree more!

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