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CNN: Why I am Learning to Code and You Should, Too

(CNN) -- This week, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg tweeted his intent to learn computer code by the end of the year. He joined about 300,000 other people who have signed up at CodeYear to receive free interactive programming lessons each week from theCodecademy, a web-based tutorial. I am greatly relieved.

It's time Americans begin treating computer code the way we do the alphabet or arithmetic. Code is the stuff that makes computer programs work -- the list of commands that tells a word processor, a website, a video game, or an airplane navigation system what to do. That's all software is: lines of code, written by people.

We are socializing, working, consuming, and living in a world increasingly defined by programs. Learning to code is the best way to understand what all those programs do, or even to recognize that they are there in the first place.

Just a couple of years ago, I was getting blank stares or worse when I would suggest to colleagues and audiences that they learn code, or else. "Program or be programmed," became my mantra: If you are not a true user of digital technology, then you are likely being used by digital technology. My suggestion that people learn to program was meant more as a starting point in a bigger argument.

No, I did not expect American adults to take the two or three weeks required to get their heads around programming, much less the months of effort they'd need to become proficient. But I wanted people to at least become aware of the digital systems on which we are conducting so much of our activity -- and the sorts of thinking and behaviors those systems have been programmed to encourage.

Most adults realize that, say, Facebook is engineered to increase the value of our "social graphs" to its customers, the corporations and research firms that buy this data. We understand that we're not the customers, but the product. The more critically we engage with all of the iPhones and Google searches in our lives, the better we can tell what they want from us.

But I no longer think that's enough. It took a few centuries after the invention of text for regular people to learn how to read and write. The printing press, which democratized print by reducing the cost of manuscripts, certainly helped. Now that we live in a world with newspapers, road signs, package labels and drug inserts, almost no one still questions the idea that teaching kids to read is a good thing, or that basic literacy makes us more likely to create value for ourselves or our employers.

Well, we now live in a world with apps, networks, and stock market trading algorithms that we use, even though desperately few of us understand how they work. And while learning to code may have once been an arduous or expensive process, the college dropouts who developed Codecademy have democratized coding as surely as Gutenberg democratized text. Anyone can go to Codecademy and start learning and creating code through their simple, fun, interactive window, for free.

How can it be free? Is this a charity? No. It's big business. As my friend, Jason Calacanis -- CEO of Mahalo and founder of the startup showcase LAUNCH conference -- explained it to me, "The HR cost of landing an individual programmer might be $50-100k for a large company. That's taking into account advertising, headhunter fees, interviewing time and internal staff."

Still, competition for the few programmers out there looking for work is very steep. So few Americans know how to program that firms like Google and Facebook are actually buying whole companies just for their code-literate employees, in what are known as "talent acquisitions."

According to Calacanis, each employee who understands how to code is valued at about $500,000 to $1 million toward the total acquisition price. One million dollars just to get someone who learns code.

Firms' other strategy, of course, is to import Chinese and Indian programmers, through a costly and often only temporary visa. (That's because, unlike those countries, we don't teach programming to students in the United States. At best we teach kids how to use programs that are already on the shelves. But that's another article.)

All Codecademy needs to do to make bank is connect those of us who complete its courses and are looking for work with the companies paying good money to find us. It's a model that takes the cumbersome costs of education off the students, and puts them onto the companies benefiting from the skills we have learned. And it's a model that could be applied to many other fields.

So to anyone out there who says you can't get a job: You can have one. A fun one. Learning code is not about numbers and mathematics. It's more like architecture, where you are presented with a puzzle problem such as "How do we get all these cars from this highway to that one without having to build a bridge across this river or putting an overpass next to the hospital?"

Learning to code means being able to imagine a new way of using the camera in your iPhone, or a new way for people to connect to each other, and then being able to bring that vision to reality.

If you know how to code, you can likely get a high-paying job right now, or - better - make valuable stuff right now. You will understand more about how the world works, and become a participating member in the digital society unfolding before us. You will be enabling America to compete effectively on both the economic and military frontiers, where we are rapidly losing our competitive advantage due to our failure to teach ourselves code. We should not have to wait for the NYSE to be hacked by kids from Asia to learn this lesson.

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Reader Comments (10)

Reading Program or Be Programmed was definitely the inspiration and impetus for me to start learning how to code. And it's addicting. I love the problem-solving aspect of it. One of my friends recently said that soon, programming with be the next blue-collar job. I can definitely see that, because with programming you are actually building something. It is being a knowledge worker, but "using your hands" - well, as much as you can on a computer, to build something. Powerful stuff. In addition to Codecademy, I have also enjoyed TeamTreehouse and TutsPlus, and the HeadFirst books.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I agree that it would be beneficial for everybody to know how to do some coding. Just as it is essential to be able to write in order to request things from colleagues, it is essential that you know how to request things from the computer. Perhaps not everybody need to delve into the world of application programming, but understanding of some basics would be greatly beneficial. Consider that in virtually every application you use, ultimately you find you are repeating some task, or just wish it could do something slightly different. Being able to put together a simple macro program would definitely help.

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenteredA-qa mort-ora-y

I love Codecademy. It is one of the most useful learning resources on the web and will most likely become as valuable as Wikipedia in the next few years. However, I must disagree with your suggestion that a person need not enjoy math. Learning to code is all about Math. While one certainly does not need to be a graduate of mathematics, you still need to have a strong back ground in Algebra and logic reasoning. Trust me, not everyone has this.

I do agree that we should teach coding early on in school. Especially, in match classes. If there is one thing those of us on the web need, it is more proficient programmers.

January 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Veneris

I agree with you, creating software is very important and my dream is to present programming to very computer user

Project Name : Programming Without Coding Technology (PWCT)
License : Free-Open Source


January 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMahmoud Fayed

I agree with Nick. Since you all be memorizing codes and experimenting a new thing out of these codes, basically you're doing Math!

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina

Doug, I've been a programmer for 17 years, mostly because I couldn't exist on what I love, photography and film. Anyway, I like your other ideas on local money systems and was wondering what you think about using digital money, in the form of GU-IDs (a 16 digit identifier) as currency. Each business or individual would issue currency, so identified only by these digits (sort of how coupons work). Each business could also be rated by risk, much like we rate sellers on EBay or even stocks on Wall Street. I think the programming is relatively straight forward and simplistic. It could easily be set up online or even through cell phone apps. Im curious if you have further elaboration on how this would work. - Jon

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon

Your too late!
Learning coding now is has good has learning nothing!
Multitasking, requires NO coding skills what so ever!
However it is the way of our youth future!
Random curiosity IS the "evolutionary" process that will set evolutionary processes and curiosities to the next reality!
It's compulsive! Addictive!

Let's use a different expression/words!
Symbiotic enlightenment! Addiction is only an excuse!
Think about it! All a-tuned at once! attractive don't you think?

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGunther D

You have great insights in "Program Programmed". Learning to "see" the difference between a user's view of a system and the system's view of the user is important! For most people it's an effort, like "learning to see" for an artist who only discovers what they are looking at when they find how to draw it.

You might have an easier time than most understanding how our way of sustaining our economic prosperity has become a matter of also depleting all the affordable resources on earth as fast as we can. That's the big one. I nibble all around the edges of that and poke holes in the middle occasionally on my blog, Reading Nature's Signals.

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJessie Henshaw

Great the CodeAcademy. But I think you still stated it not really well.
This discussion is part of a bigger thing!.

It's about we became 'out of touch'. This is what Richard Sennett stated here in the Netherlands at his Premsela lecture.
I suggest everyone reads Richard Sennetts 'The craftsman'. It's all about to learn the values of good craftsmanship today.

But a great initiative this CodeAcademy

Best, Lucas Hendricks

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLucas Hendricks

Amazing site.Your views on economy and social medias and technology are just amazing. Put into words that anyone can understand is a plus. Favorited.

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTony H.

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