The Economist: Cracking the Code
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There are certain skills that fundamentally give you a leg up in the workplace (and life), regardless of occupation. Some of these are the familiar subjects of much of our education: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Mounting evidence suggests we should add “coding” to this must-have list. For those of you who aren’t as technology-oriented, the type of code I am referring to is the systems of symbols and commands used to translate tasks into languages computers can understand.
Codes are nothing new. Encrypting information has been crucial to everything from successful military operations centuries ago to protecting account information for an ATM transaction today. With the proliferation of technology in the workplace, the importance of knowing how to use it effectively has increased. Now, we’re at the point where regardless of the type or size of business, there is probably a website to maintain, a database to keep up with, and myriad ways technology could be harnessed to increase sales and/or efficiency (and, therefore, profits). Taking care of these things can be handled by an outside consultant or someone within the firm with specialized knowledge. However, looking to the future, it’s likely that most people coming up through the ranks will be expected to take care of these routine aspects of the business world themselves.
Looking around my office (where there are a number of really smart people in their twenties), I see the benefits of this skill first hand. My younger employees are often more at home with all things technical, and several have picked up some coding skills along the way. Although I’m not hiring them to be programmers, their knowledge is of value to me as an employer in that I can ask them to combine those skills in their work (automating processes we use every day, for example). I suspect that my firm is typical, and in the decades to come, those without coding skills will be at a distinct disadvantage in landing the best jobs.
One good thing about coding is that you can do some of the learning on your own. There are resources ranging from online courses to short “boot camps” to fit virtually any schedule. People who have the skills are being hired by top technology companies regardless of formal training. In some cases, it’s the skills that matter, rather than the credentials.
Even so, a computer science or related degree remains the gold standard. Such educational programs combine technical coding skills with a broader understanding of issues such as how to approach the types of problems coding can solve, software design, and much more. While there may be ways in the future to automate some low-level coding tasks by making the languages even more like natural ones--where you can basically speak in common words what you want the machine to be able to do and the necessary code is generated--there will still be a need for people who can think strategically and critically about the process (and generate the code used to generate the code).
For 2013 college graduates, data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicate that computer science majors were a close second to engineering majors for the highest starting salaries; computer engineering was second only to red-hot petroleum engineering. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting that there will be a need for far more computing experts than there are computer science graduates, a situation which will work to increase salaries.
One problem is that many students in public K-12 schools never take computer science classes and, hence, don’t consider it as a major or a career. Sometimes it’s not offered at all, and in other cases students elect to take other classes. This is particularly true of girls, who tend to be extremely underrepresented in the field.
Code.org (which is sponsoring Computer Science Education Week this year) was founded to get the word out about coding. Supported by some of the biggest corporations in the business as well as a number of high-profile individuals, the code.org and Computer Science Education (csedweek.org) websites provide pathways for anyone to spend an hour getting a free taste of various types of programming. Its “Hour of Code” initiative, which is underway in mid-December, seeks to provide an introduction to coding to 10 million people. By giving young people (and middle-aged and old people, for that matter) a glimpse of the power of knowing a little code, the hope is that they will go on to pursue additional training. It’s worth a look and an hour of time for anyone who has never been exposed to coding.
As we sit here today, it is impossible to precisely predict how the future of technology will look. One thing I do feel certain about, however, is that we will continue to integrate it into our work and daily lives. As that happens, people who understand how to harness the power of programming, whether full time or as an add-on skill, will have a decided edge.
Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com). He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.