John Pientka

Learning to Code is as Useful as Learning Ancient Greek

Your children will be left behind if they don’t learn to code. Really? What if coding as we know it is already a dying language? What if most programs in the future will be coded by Artificial Intelligences? Where do humans fit?

Do you know friends or family with children ten and under? Should they learn to code? The “learn to code” movement stresses how essential it is for the next generation to learn to program computers. There is a veritable litany of testaments to its goodness from business execs, government leaders, sports stars, and you name it! Not to mention the millions being poured into organizations to encourage coding, as well as the millions entrepreneurs hope to make from it with coding schools, etc.

It seems like there is a huge demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that software developers will add nearly 300,000 jobs over the next ten years. Coding schools should be going gangbusters. But there is something odd going on. Why have two of the biggest in the U.S and backed by big money closed? Why also is the unemployment rate for computer science grads, six months out of college, the same as for philosophy majors?

Could the demand be overstated? The topic has attracted a lot of hype and wild numbers, like there are over 500,000 unfilled computer science and software positions, right now. Seems a bit at odds with the BLS projection of an additional 300,000 being added over ten years. There is probably some (ahem) exaggeration. But, let’s look deeper.

The answer is basic economics: when there is a shortage either the price rises to induce more supply or buyers find substitutes. Surprise! It doesn’t look like prices rose. Census figures compiled by William Lazonick, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, show that average inflation-adjusted pay for computer programming actually dropped 1.2 percent between 2001 and 2014.

OK, if it is not prices, then we need a substitute. First place to look is offshore, for low cost coders. The notorious H1-B program has been championed by tech companies as needed to meet their shortage of talent but many suspect it is really a way to just lower its cost. The current administration is definitely squeezing the program and slowly limiting the availability of this substitute.

What else could be a substitute? How about automation? Already there is a lo-code/no-code movement that enables ordinary business professionals to create programs needed for their field by arranging functional modules through easy-to-understand graphic interfaces. This minimizes or even eliminates the need for programmers.

But these are just a bridge. The real killer will be artificial intelligence (A.I.). As early as 2014 it was recognized that as machines became smarter and smarter we would move away from programing to a point where we would tell the machine what we were trying to accomplish and it would figure out the way to accomplish it. Given the rapid advances in A.I. do you really think that even the BLS’s huge projection of growth in programmers ten years from now will be accurate? (Just remember: ten years ago there was no iPhone, no cloud, no streaming services, etc.)

In light of all this, what should we teach our kids so they’re ready for this new era? Probably not coding, per se. “There is definitely a need for people to learn kind of a computer science way of thinking about problems, but not necessarily the language du jour,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of best-selling books about computers that are going to steal our jobs.

Says Irving Wladawsky-Berger, formerly of IBM and now at New York University, “We should definitely teach design. This is not coding, or even programming. It requires the ability to think about the problem, organize the approach, know how to use design tools.”

It’s kind of ironic, don’t you think? We are the beginning of the end of the 60-year reign of programmable computers that required us to tell them what to do step by step. The next generation of computers will learn from their interactions with data and people. In another decade or so, we won’t program computers—we (that includes you) will teach them. A.I. will eliminate the programmers!

By John Pientka

John Pientka

John is currently the principal of Pientka and Associates which specializes in IT and Cloud Computing.

Over the years John has been vice president at CGI Federal, where he lead their cloud computing division. He founded and served as CEO of GigEpath, which provided communication solutions to major corporations. He has also served as president of British Telecom’s outsourcing arm Syncordia, vice president and general manager of a division at Motorola.

John has earned his M.B.A. from Harvard University as well as a bachelor’s degree from the State University in Buffalo, New York.

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