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Could coding be the next mass profession?

Like farming was in the 17th century, factory work during the industrial revolution, construction during the Great Depression, and manufacturing after World War II. Better, because writing code is a creative act which can be done with or without a traditional (antiquated?) office-based job, and can create enormous personal and economic value.

Most young people start in jobs that don’t have much of a future. Most don’t get higher education – only a third get any advanced degree. In the past, students who missed out on a higher education learned vocational skills – but this stuttered as we moved to an information economy.  Today, students without a higher education generally enter service professions or trades where employment, if they can get it, doesn’t offer much career growth.

There is a new opportunity emerging for young people to do productive, entrepreneurial, satisfying work: they can learn to code. Code isn’t that hard to start to learn – one outsourcing firm takes people with no training and makes them full-time Java programmers in 3 months. (Of course, mastery takes tremendous talent and craft.) Coding isn’t expensive – with netbooks, cloud hosting and storage, and open source software. Beyond a certain point, coders are self-taught, and can continue to advance their skills.  

They’re handing out Gutenberg printing presses out there: with services like Treehouse (I’m a dues-paying member) and Codecademy (and its expertly-timed year of code), countless university courses free online, Google Code University, the warm embrace of Stack Overflow, in-person courses like Dev Bootcamp, summer camps for kids, even the promise of a one-day result with Decoded (the six-minute abs of learning to code), and great organizations like CodeNow (which I’ve been supporting) reaching out to teach code in underserved communities. I’m sure I’ve left many out.

Yet very few high school students learn to code. Almost no high schools teach code as part of the curriculum. Though of course they should — code is literacy, not (just) a specialist skill.  And kids can get started coding early. Many students who would be terrific at coding, a creative, tinkering act, also may not thrive in institutional (school) environments.

There is real demand for coders – even despite overall unemployment – so learning to code produces rewards quickly. Online marketplaces like oDesk and Elance hire starting programmers at rates as high as $15-20 an hour or more. Learning to code is one of the best paths to entrepreneurship. Coding also offers students the joy of creation and mastery of a complex skill. Code may one day be a basic workplace expectation – like emailing, or “proficient in Word.” Young people are also willing to learn: coding now has a brand. The kid who writes an iPhone or Android app, these days, gets the girl (or boy!).

It might even be possible to do more than just learn to code – but also to become an elite coder – without necessarily going to college. We are in the early days of teaching code as a profession. Most academic training is focused on teaching students theory, not practice.  (One Ivy League computer science program only required one course where students actually write code.) Imagine if students who might not otherwise even attend college could become elite coders.

In the U.S., the STEM line of thinking is about creating the next generation of scientists.  In computing, this is even reflected in what we call the study of programming — computer “science.” We could be doing something different (and complementary), teaching students to be makers, not scientists: creating the next generation who can hack, beget, get paid right away, and maybe become entrepreneurs. Learning this would make the high school experience more rewarding, because it would have an immediate result. (I went to a high school with a vocational tradition, Stuyvesant in New York, and wish I had more courses like the architectural drafting class I took for a year.)

I’ve become personally passionate about this idea over the last couple of years. I think it could be a path to helping fix a lot of what doesn’t work right now: our ways of teaching students, powering our economy’s future, and making work a creative and fulfilling way to spend time.

I’m sure there are many more out there working on this — if you’re one of them, hit me up and let’s find a way to make common cause.  And if you think I’m crazy, tell me why.

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