Why Everyone Should Learn to Code: An Event Recap

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 29 2013 5:27 PM

Why Everyone Should Learn to Code: An Event Recap

Coding is the hottest skill on the job market, the modern-day language of creativity, and a powerful force in the economy. And now it’s making its way into Congress, high school classrooms, and even the newsroom.

A group of leading thinkers in technology gathered at New America NYC on March 28 to discuss the value of programming skills in the 21st century. Moderator Marvin Ammori, a Bernard L. Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, was joined by Zach Sims, CEO of Codecademy; Martha Girdler, engineer at Etsy; Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock, co-founder of Hacker School; and Julia Angwin, senior technology editor for the Wall Street Journal.


We’ve grown so accustomed to technology that we hardly ever question how the machines and applications we use operate. What would once have looked like witchcraft to us has become mundane. But the need for high-skilled programmers has skyrocketed—so why aren’t more creative visionaries stepping up to learn code?

All too often, we draw the distorted distinction between math- and science-minded individuals and the seemingly more “creative types.” But the speakers debunked this myth, explaining that coding is indeed an innovative and artistic process. Those equipped with programming skills can realize their creative visions and fashion new software, computer games, apps, and even companies. Coding gives one the power to build something out of nothing and then to distribute it quickly all over the world. “It’s not mathematical or lonely,” Girlder said. “It’s fun to create something and see how people interact with it online.”

And it’s this interaction and communication with others that’s essential to being a successful hacker. The speakers agreed that some of the best programmers are English literature or linguistics majors because of their strong communication skills. In fact, most programmers don’t have computer science degrees at all: Gridler herself was an art major, and Sims studied political science.

Those who code often find the process enjoyable, even exhilarating. Sims recalled the magic moment when he fashioned his first computer game, a basic version of Tic Tac Toe. “My code was garbage,” he said, but the experience of creating something for the first time was empowering.

Algorithm,” Girdler said out loud. “Even the word itself is magical.”

The American education system quickly emerged as a major theme in the discussion. Sims lamented that education simply does not change as swiftly as technology, so despite the growing demand for computer science in high schools, many still don’t offer the classes. Etsy’s Girdler even suggested that everyone should be required to take computer science courses in high school just as chemistry or biology are mandatory.

To meet the demand, Bergson-Shilcock and Sims have created ways to better access coding instruction. Bergson-Shilcock, a product of a progressive form of education called “unschooling,” used his upbringing as a model for Hacker School, a three-month, full-time immersion program for anyone who loves programming and wishes to improve. The unique social environment at the academy encourages the community to ask questions and relies almost exclusively on intrinsic motivation. That is, there are no grades, degrees, and thus no fear of failure. Sims’ Codecademy provides students and teachers with free interactive materials for learning code as well as access to a supportive online community of programmers.

Learning instrumental coding skills outside of the university setting also holds exciting benefits for people of different backgrounds. The companies that hire programmers care more about an employee’s capabilities than whether or not she holds a degree. This could be a real game-changer in the modern American economy, and perhaps a strategic way to level the playing field.

So how can we promote innovation in the United States and satisfy the growing need for programmers in our society?

Ammori referred to the Congressional App Challenge, a new competition created by members of the House of Representatives under the Academic Competition Resolution of 2013, which was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in a 411-3 vote. The measure aims to recognize high school students for their achievement in science, technology, engineering and math.

Girdler, a female engineer at Etsy, emphasized the importance of bringing more women into the field. She attributed the tendency for more men than women to be interested in programing to the gaming industry, which often serves as an inspiration to learn code and is more geared toward young men. Girdler urged companies be more proactive about encouraging women to program so that they come to see it as a viable career option.

Although the speakers didn’t suggest that everyone become an expert in code right away, they all agreed that basic programming literacy would empower anyone who uses a smartphone or computer. It isn’t just about the job security or a hefty paycheck. Instead of blindly accepting and utilizing the technology we are given, learning basic programming would help us to interact more mindfully with the world around us.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.