Why you should learn how to code

Marketplace Contributor Mar 9, 2012

Sarah Gardner: It’s never too late to learn! That’s what they tell us anyway. “Re-training” is the word that’s on everybody’s lips these days. I keep hearing that rather than just using a computer, I should learn how to program one. Learn how to “code,” they call it. It sounds useful. But it also sounds expensive and boring.

Fortunately, commentator Farhad Manjoo has stumbled onto a solution.

Farhad Manjoo: Even if you’ve already got a job, coding will help you keep it, or help you make a case for a raise.

In the early days of computers, the only way to use a computer was to program it. Now computers require no technical wizardry whatsoever — babies and even members of Congress can use an iPad. This is obviously a great thing. Yet the fact that anyone can use a computer has lulled us into complacency about the digital revolution.

Last year, I spent a few weeks looking at the robotics industry and the machines that are stealing people’s jobs. I was surprised to find that many people who are vulnerable to replacement by machines had no idea how quickly they could become irrelevant. There’s bliss in this kind of ignorance, but it’s dangerous. You don’t need to know how a computer works in order to use it — but if you learned how computers work, you may one day avoid losing your job.

Say you were a travel agent in the 1990s: If you didn’t know how to code, you wouldn’t have been able to see the coming demise of your profession. But if you’d dabbled in programming, not only would you have had the skills to appreciate how the Internet might hurt your profession — you might also have been able to play a part in the online travel bonanza, either building your own travel site or going to work as an expert for one of the new Web travel firms.

Code Year’s minimum commitment is one new lesson every week. The company says that it will take a typical person about five hours to complete a lesson, so you’re looking at about an hour of training every weekday. That’s not so bad, considering that the lessons are free and the reward could be huge.

By helping you get acquainted with the primary force driving the modern economy, learning to code is becoming nearly as important as knowing how to read and write. One more thing — it’ll be fun!

Gardner: Farhad Manjoo is the technology columnist for Slate magazine.

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