Our economy is at an interesting juncture. After years of working with computers and technology, we’re finally hitting the point where technology has permeated nearly everything we work with on a daily basis. Law firms are using technology to speed up the discovery process, investors are using technology to source new investment opportunities, and companies like Google are using it to create self-driving cars. But as technology helps to increase the possibilities of automation in many industries, there’s the possibility of tech-driven job displacement.
In books like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine, or Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed, the authors argue persuasively that as technology improves, white-collar jobs are going to be increasingly outsourced to machines. But if you’re worried about your job, there is an easy solution: Society’s increasing dependence on automation means it’s more important than ever to understand the systems that we depend on every day. I recently talked to a journalist who, frustrated at his continued dependence on the "black box" that is GPS, insisted on relearning celestial navigation. A more practical way of taking control of the systems we use on an everyday basis is to understand how they function and gain control over them. How do you do that? Learn how to program.
As the cofounder of Codecademy, which teaches people how to code online, I spend my days working with our hundreds of thousands of users to get them to learn to code in an effective manner online. In 2012, we launched a new program, Code Year, to get more people to realize the importance of programming. In a week, more than 250,000 people have signed up to make 2012 the year they learn to code. Among them are people you’d never expect, like New York City Mayor Bloomberg, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, and others.
So why are all these people—most of whom don’t want to become full-time developers—learning to program? Like learning a foreign language, programming expands your mind and helps you to think more algorithmically. Even knowing a little bit of scripting can help people improve and automate stuff they’re working on in their daily lives. Doing research and data collection on the web? Write a script to find important information sources. Doing basic financial calculations? Automate them using Excel or do some data analysis in Python.
Programming isn’t only for programmers. But as we move towards a world where technology controls more and more of our lives, it’s a skill that’s virtually guaranteed to help you get a job. A great piece in Forbes a few weeks ago referred to the new world of Developeronomics, a world in which the best place to invest your money is in software developers. We’re facing an economy that depends more and more on hard technical skills, not soft skills, for productivity.
For years, the value of a liberal arts degree was entirely uncontested. As an undergraduate at Columbia University majoring in Political Science, I found that most of my fellow students were more interested in pursuing investment banking than they were in pursuing a field that took advantage of the analytical and writing skills they built while studying at Columbia. Biologists, physicists, and those with similarly difficult liberal arts majors often took the same route. Programming is one of the few disciplines taught today in schools that virtually guarantees students a job upon graduation. Beyond that, it’s one of the few fields where students are creators—they’re building games, websites, applications, and more. Mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, and most other engineering fields require students to have access to a whole array of tools in order to create something basic. With only a computer, programmers can create a world of their own.
Programming will become more important as every day goes by, and 2012 is Code Year. Will it be the year you learn to code and join the ranks of the creators?