July 26, 2013

Hey college grads (and everyone else): If you don’t know how to code, no one will hire you.

This was the gist of a May 10, 2013 Wall Street Journal letter to the editor written by Kirk McDonald, the president of ad tech firm PubMatic.  Though it may sound extreme, he has voiced the concerns of many business leaders, especially as business becomes increasingly dependent on complex computer systems to accomplish almost everything.

He also addresses the fears of many new grads—and workers in general—who have a sneaking suspicion that companies feel this way.  He’s certainly not shy about his stance on the issue:

“I’m your next potential dream boss. I run a cool, rapidly growing company in the digitalfield, where the work is interesting and rewarding. But I’ve got to be honest about some unfortunate news: I’m probably not going to hire you. … If you want to survive in this economy, you’d be well-advised to learn how to speak computer code.”

So that’s it, then: learning to code as soon as possible is the best way to get hired into almost any field. But as many commenters on the article pointed out, it’s really not that simple.  We did some investigating and came up with this breakdown of the pros and cons of learning to code early on in your career:

Pro: Knowing code gives you the vocabulary to communicate with your more technical co-workers

The desired end result is, of course, clear and efficient communication.  What primarily concerns Mr. McDonald is the inability of his prospective new hires to exchange information with clients and coworkers with more technical experience. The idea is that by learning a computer language or two, you’ll gain the skills necessary to have those conversations and build those relationships.

Con: That’s nice, but it’s not nearly enough

The flip side of this logic, as pointed out by many commenters, is that learning a little Python can actually put you at a greater disadvantage than someone with no programming knowledge at all. A great analogy used by this commenter compares coding dilettantes to amateur photographers: “You know you are in a group of amateur photographers when they have $3,000 cameras but don’t know what an f-stop is or how it affects depth of field. Professional photographers talk about composition and lighting, not camera features… The grammar and logic of computer languages are not the big picture. Programming languages are not the hard part of programming; not even the most important part.” It’s not enough to throw terms around—conceptual understanding is the goal, not elementary competency.

Pro: Learning to code is like learning to write—everyone needs to know how to do it

In today’s market there are many routes to success, but it’s generally accepted that no matter what you do, you’ll need to know how to write. Emails, status reports, meeting notes—these are inescapable aspects of most business. Coding, it could be argued, is the same way. No matter what your company does, or what you do for them, McDonald makes the point that you almost certainly will need to deal with computer language on a regular basis. Coding is a new baseline job skill to many employers.

Con: Coding is definitely not for everyone

But coding isn’t the new writing, not yet, at least. “Very few people find programming interesting or fun,” the commenter writes. “Students sit through the courses because they have to.” Because of this, prescribing it to everyone as a necessity for employment of almost any kind is actually a bad idea.  Best case, it’s a temporary distraction for students interested in something else; worst case, it’s as demoralizing as trigonometry, another case in which many people are told them must master something that a lot of them will find “uninteresting and difficult”. From this point of view, demanding that jobseekers learn to code is creating “a phony bar to entry”.

So, what’s the final answer? It really depends on who you are. For new grads interested in both a career with a firm like Mr. McDonald’s and computer languages, it might make sense to spend a summer learning a little. However, it doesn’t appear to be as much of a necessity everywhere else as he would have you believe. If you’re so inclined, spend your summer or your weekends learning to code—but if you’re not, don’t worry about it.

What do you think? Is coding the next essential skill, or just a passing fad? Give us your two cents in the comments below! 

Posted By: Madeline Stone

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