Coding is overrated.
Still here? Haven’t decided I’m a know-nothing blasphemer who can’t tell her Python from her Ruby and has no business talking about this? Ok, good.
First, let me say that I have nothing against coding (computer programming). It can be of great benefit to many people, especially those who genuinely enjoy it and find their niche with it, and should be an option for anyone who wants to learn it. There’s still something to be said for knowing enough HTML or CSS to be able to make small customizations to your website that go beyond what your site builder’s template might allow.
What does concern me, though, is the over-emphasis on coding above all else as a path toward a stable career and lots of money. It can be a great career path for many, but it’s not for everyone and shouldn’t be marketed as a be-all-end-all.
For starters, while coding may be hot right now, the number of computer programming jobs is projected to decline over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an 8%, decline in the number of available computer programming jobs by 2026, which amounts to over 22,000 fewer jobs. These roles are getting more competitive and less available in the US. So banking on teaching everyone to code in order to solidify or ensure future job prospects is misguided.
But what about right now? Couldn’t people just learn to code now, and capitalize on it while it’s still going strong? Sure, but that’s not a long-term solution. Plus, things may not be as rosy as they seem now, either.
Silicon Valley might not seem like it’s showing signs of slowing down, and there are mini-Silicon Valleys cropping up with tech startups all over the place. But it’s a bit like the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s (or even the dot-com bubble of the 1990s): limited. And even now, most apps and tech launches fail within a few years of starting, most startups don’t make it past that initial phase. So the likelihood that every programmer will land in a lucrative tech role that he can ride out into a buyout or IPO in the next few years. Silicon Valley is saturated.
While it’s unlikely that the entire tech industry will collapse or that it will scale back as dramatically as other industries have — and of course all industries need programmers to some degree — it’s also not infinite. And the types of programming jobs that the world needs today may be very different from what it needs in 10 years.
Right now, the best coders are writing automations, developing template builders, working on Artificial Intelligence (AI). They’re simplifying things so that people who don’t know how to code can more easily access options, from drag-and-drop website design to frameworks that let anyone build apps with no prior experience. Things that required programming knowledge a decade ago no longer do. And with the rise of AI, I think we’ll soon be seeing machines that can do a lot of the coding for us. Yes, someone will still need to program the AI, but once that’s in place, that AI can produce more code, more efficiently, with fewer errors than we humans can.
The very basic principle of supply-and-demand says that coding isn’t as good for career prospects as we might think. While it’s hard to get a sense of just how many people are going into computer programming, because not everyone learns to code in an undergraduate setting (and not everyone who majors in computer science does so with the aim of being a coder, nor is a degree in computer science even necessary for that kind of role anymore), we have seen an huge rise in the number of people enrolling in alternatives like coding bootcamps and online courses.
Coding bootcamp graduates were projected to grow from 15,077 in 2016 to just under 23,000 in 2017 (the final tally isn’t out yet). While a little over 7,000 more people looking for coding jobs may not seem like a lot, keep in mind that it represents a growth of more than 50% in a single year. Just 5 years ago, in 2013, there were only 2,178 coding bootcamp grads. That’s almost 1000% growth in a super short amount of time. Now think about what would happen if that growth continues at the same rate for the next 5 years, all the while the number of programming jobs steadily decline. How valuable will that coding skill set be when a ton more people possess it and a lot fewer jobs require it?
That’s the crux of coding: it’s simply a skill (or a set of skills). This makes professions that rely solely on those skills as vulnerable as the hundreds of other jobs that have disappeared due to technological advances, and the hundreds more that will continue to disappear. Like assembly line workers, coders are replaceable if their knowledge can be taught to anyone or if machines can be trained to perform those same tasks.
The more we tell people that coding is the future (as opposed to one approach to the future), the more competitive the market becomes and the worse job prospects actually get for people who put all of their eggs in that one basket.
Even the mindset required to be a successful coder is limited. Basel Farag put it best when he said that, “Focusing on coding inflates the importance of finding the ‘right’ method to solve a problem rather than the importance of understanding the problem.” Even the notion that there is one right way to approach a problem is limiting and narrow. And that’s trouble, because as global problems become larger and more nuanced, we’ll need creative thinkers and trailblazers who can dig deep in order to grasp the full range of complexities and be willing to try a number of potential solutions, instead of focusing on getting it “right” the first time.
Coding is also, like everything else, not for everyone. We should never encourage large swaths of people whose tendencies, strengths, and preferences we don’t fully know to all take up a specific type of work. Especially considering how many options there still are, and how many yet unforeseen options there might be in the future.
A Better Way Forward
Now that I’ve laid out my objections and nay-saying, I owe you a better solution. Luckily, I’ve got one: Cultivate mindset over skill sets.
As I mentioned in my post about hiring rockstars for your startup [link if that post is up before this one], mindset is way more important than skills. With the right mindset, skills can be learned, people can adapt, grow, and flourish in new fields or new roles. But without that foundation, they cling to their skills and don’t see a way beyond what they know how to do right now. That’s the real reason so many people get left behind when something gets automated or an industry starts to lose its importance or moves many of its jobs overseas or to a different part of the country. It’s not because those people aren’t trainable in new skills, it’s that skills are often the only things considered when we discuss job readiness or qualification. And because we’ve been teaching people to drill down on skills instead of to develop creative thinking around problems, we’ve strangled their potential and left them feeling hopeless when the skills we emphasized are no longer as in-demand.
The mindset we should be cultivating in young people is one that’s brimming with curiosity, a desire to dig deep into the world’s problems and find innovative ways to solve them. We should be teaching young people to look for ways to make their own future and in the course of that also make something about our world better. In other words, an entrepreneurial mindset. One in which they decide where their careers go, how they build them, what they contribute.
If you’re still unconvinced, I have a great example of someone who started out as a coder, but was able to adapt to the changing landscape of technology because of his entrepreneurial mindset. Elon Musk. Musk began his career as a self-taught programmer. But even before that, he was a voracious reader, tinkerer, learner, and his mind set on changing the world. His entrepreneurial spirit moved him from one endeavor to another, helping him not only dodge the dot-com bubble burst of the late 90s, but leading him to helm some of the most exciting and innovative companies of the 21st century.
Had Musk viewed coding as the be-all-end-all of career prep, he may have gotten trapped in the dot-com bubble and been forgotten when it burst. We might not have Tesla or SpaceX or even Paypal. Instead, he stayed true to his childhood curiosity, never stopped learning, and continually branched out. That made all the difference, for him and the world.
So what goes into this self-determining entrepreneurial mindset? Creativity. Inquisitiveness. Willingness to try new things. Big picture thinking. Willingness to be wrong, fail, and try again. The ability to take calculated, smart risks.
We should be encouraging young people to come up with innovative ways to solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems, be it through inventions, policy changes, nonprofits, technological advances, or something else. We need to encourage them to explore their interests, get intense about things they care about, and allow them to be inspired by the things see, read, and learn, instead of trying to put everyone in the same box and suggesting they all just learn to code.