Should Everybody Learn to Program?


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New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously announced his intention to learn to code in 2012. It became a symbol of an entire movement where previously non-technical people take the plunge into programming’s logical waters. We have written before about building a conceptual framework and even what programming language to learn, but haven’t really talked about who should be learning to code.

The Mayor is Out

Michael Bloomberg by Imagine CupIt’s been over a year and a half since Bloomberg made his declaration. It was a New Year’s resolution, so we should all give him a break for not launching his app yet. I reached out to the Mayor’s office to find out how it’s going. “It’s on his list,” said a representative.

“Why?” asks Shawn Bernard:

“Should everyone learn to be a mechanical engineer? Or ballet dancer? I want my doctor to be the best the best damn doctor she can be. I’d rather she spend time honing her doctoring than learning programming”

Charlie Loyd agrees, but reasons programming should still be an option:

“Lots of people have better things to do. But everyone should get the chance to learn as much as they want.”

Perhaps everybody should learn some programming, but not necessarily build their own production apps.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Sphero programmingThere’s a lot of value in understanding a little bit about coding. Learning the flow of code is important, as Lyza Gardner tweeted:

“I think that everyone should learn the logic and relational/conditional algebra that makes coding relevant to life”

My friend Fritz Holznagel has worked as a writer in a number of tech companies, including Google. He gives a lot of credit to a single programming class he took many years ago:

“I can still look at that code and get a basic recognition of how such ideas are ordered, what the general challenges are, how information is stored and pulled from a database, and a host of other essential programming ideas.”

Any knowledge of what it takes to code means understanding how an increasing amount of the world around us works.

Programming as a New Literacy

Is programming like biology, chemistry, calculus and all the other commonly required courses for a well-rounded individual?

Isaac Rabinovitch thinks an understanding of programming is a basic understanding of the world around us:

“Everybody should know essential tech. Like knowing how an internal combustion engine works.”

Programming is the next form of literacy, said John Herren:

“Everyone already programs. Even setting an alarm on your phone is programming.”

Herren points to an interview with Robert Lefkowitz embedded below.

Source code is just another text, according to Lefkowitz, whose comparison to rhetoric gets a little heady. But the point resonates with me: words written for people move people to action; words written for computers move computers to action.

What do you think?

Whether to learn to code is obviously a personal decision. Should it be something everybody consider? Or are mayors better left to mayoring and doctors better left to doctoring?


Adam DuVander speaks fluent "developer" while serving as Developer Communications Director. He helps SendGrid connect to coders of all stripes. Previously Adam wrote for Wired, Webmonkey and edited ProgrammableWeb, the leading resource for APIs.

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