Best advice: learn to code first

“Hello world” is a not-so-secret phrase used by people who’ve learned to read and write computer code and generated that phrase as their first achievement. “Coding” is the term used by people who really do it and anyone using the phrase “computer programming” probably has no idea what it really involves.

Commodore Pets 

Commodore PetMy coding experience started in high school, way back in Silver Creek, New York. The school bought a Commodore PET that sat on an AV cart and was pushed from room to room (what else do you do with a computer, after all?). A friend and I dug into the limited manual that came with it, taught ourselves BASIC and designed a randomized blackjack game. We were hooked.

School hours weren’t enough to satisfy my coding desires, so I bought a Commodore VIC-20 and connected it to my home television. It wasn’t easy to compete with Hee Haw and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

From there, I was fortunate to enter college at the tail end of the punch card generation and was able to run FORTRAN and COBOL applications on the mainframe. It was an ugly, relatively slow green screen and it was wonderful. It was the Commodore without the cassette tape storage.

After flying for the Navy, I was hired into Perot Systems as part of their Engineer Development Program. The idea was to hire leaders who could learn to code, but I had a serious head start and had been moonlighting working with VisualBasic and SQL for several years. I aced the program and was running systems for the California Power Exchange in two years. Coding changed my life.

Even when you no longer code

Since the early 2000’s, I’ve moved into roles that don’t require coding but the skill set is still one of the most valuable things I have in my head. Even blogging is easier with a coding background. It is probably the one thing I would tell every high school and college student to learn. It should be a core course for graduation.

Even if you never touch code after learning how, you’ll never regret that glimpse into how our technology world works. You’ll understand databases and cache memory. Web services and log files will make sense. You’ll be better at anything that’s computer related, which is…everything.

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all learned how to code before they ever entered business. It doesn’t stop there, either. Many of the senior executives in Silicon Valley and beyond were once coders. In the video, below, you’ll see their personal statements about the value of coding and I can say that my experience and sentiments are exactly the same.

The video is about a new non-profit that was recently launched, that encourages computer science education. The founders recognize that we can’t have enough coders to fill the needs of the coming years. Remember this: There may be an unemployment issue in the developed world, but there’s no shortage of coding jobs.


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Categories: Future of work, Information Technology

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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10 Comments on “Best advice: learn to code first”

  1. Rob Mian
    February 26, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    Hey, Chris. In your research have you discovered any specific coding disciplines that are in more need than others?

    • February 26, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

      It changes with time, but any coding language is a great start. Right now, the hot languages are Python, Ruby and Objective C.

  2. February 26, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    Ah good old COBOL. I created a Blackjack program in COBOL just to prove it could be done. In a bank. In the mainframe. Probably still there.

  3. February 26, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

    I started to learn code in high school before I knew that I was learning code. I just wanted to build a website. I then took classes in college and realized what these strange symbols were. I am nowhere a cs major – not even close and I think that is for good reason. Is computer code ever going to become one of the three R’s? I don’t know and I can’t say. Why not? People should gain as many skills as they can. it can’t hurt to learn some kind of code and understand what it is that we are using with a little more depth than we do now. I agree 100% with the post and think people can only benefit from trying something new. How do you know you don’t like it if you never even done it.

    That all being said, there is something about the video that just bothers me. The fact that they have to use celebrity endorsements and that they even need to make this PSA for why “coding is cool” – makes it less cool. The impulse to mainstream code/programming etc. makes sense, but it seems a little presumptuous and self serving for coders to bask in their own glory for how cool/rich/successful they are. I have said it and I will say it again, this video itself and what is in it speaks to something that might be inherently wrong with going into the field. The fact that they need the celebrity cool factor ( and Chris Bosh) dilutes the video and looks like a distraction. Moreover, the confession: “to get the very best people we try to make the offices as awesome as possible” really hits at the heart of the fact that the work in itself may not be all that satisfying enough for everyone. Why all the distractions, slight of hand, roller-coasters in the workplace? I feel like I am being sold something with a REALLY hard sell. Should a video like this even be necessary? I think the hesitation for it to become mainstream is actually in the reason everyone says we should learn it. Technology is changing everyday – this is irrefutable. Because of that, there is little to sink your teeth into. What I learn today becomes outdated tomorrow. If these moguls want it to be taught in high school, they should stop saying technology changes everyday. People want a little more consistency and security. Computer code needs a new marketing strategy.

  4. Craig J Willis
    February 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    Or go one step further, I left school at 16 and went into electronics, understanding what those electrons were up to made understanding code even easier. Computer languages are just productivity tools for scientists.

  5. February 27, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    This posting has two different questions of origin attached to it: “Should College graduates know how to code,” and “Learn how to code first(?)” Different questions, different answers.

    I learned coding in NOMAD on an IBM 704 at GM Research in the early 60’s, then auto coder and assembler for the 14xx and 7xxx IBM computers. And, indeed, this kind of algorithmic thinking filters your perceptions and influences your thinking, in various ways, throughout your life.

    Most university students will go out of their way to avoid anything that smacks of programming. The reasons are many and complex. However, if they can see an objective they personally want to achieve, and “coding” is a way towards achieving it, then they’ll (somewhat) gladly endure. A few of the more recent “acceptability” waves were the mid-late 90’s e-commerce start-up boom, the virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life) take-up, and now, to a lesser extent, mobile phone apps. Because of this distaste, it’s a good way to control student enrollments in various programs :). Want to reduce it? Require a programming course or pre-requisite :).

    As for becoming programmers as a (starting) career, despite multiple job openings in a dormant economy, few aspire to this. They (or their parents) saw the effects of outsourcing and layoffs. They can read how they’ll become the new “dentists” (no kudos, lots of user flack, on-call when things don’t work out). No real career paths outside of IT, etc. While this may not be true for better organizations in specific situations, it’s the perception. And as we know, perception is what controls behavior. Take but the latest example du jour — Yahoo stating they no longer support teleworking. Doubtless many good reasons, but if you’re seeking flexibility (as many students are going forward) this is but one more indicator that this isn’t a skill or profession to seek out.

    Can this be “fixed.” Of course. But not with the kinds of prescriptions currently being put forward (like Rather start talking with the high school advisors, career counselors at universities, etc. They’ll give you rather different insights (if they’re candid).

    That said, “yes it should” would be my answer, followed up by, “no, it can’t for now.”

    • February 27, 2013 at 11:51 am #

      Fair enough. I also agree with your two responses…it should be and won’t happen for a while. There will be a time where the need to understand something deeper than a click or swipe will become more apparent, but we’re not there yet.


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