A recent article in the increasingly indispensable International New York Times highlights the increasingly important position being assumed by computer programming in education curricula around the world. From America’s Hour of Code project – which claims that it has managed to get 28m people to try their hand at coding – to tiny Estonia’s ProgeTiiger technology teacher training effort, sitting in front of a computer and inputting dry lines of text is in vogue in an almost unprecedented way.
And this is not a development to be underestimated – nor undervalued. Coding is something that is entirely necessary for what we broadly recognise as modern life: everything from the App Store to the deliveries of basic utilities is underpinned by competence in computer programming. Removing software engineering capacity from the economy would be akin to asking for a transfer to the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, numerous major economies – including but not limited to the United States and the United Kingdom – routinely run computer science graduate deficits. Getting more people into coding is therefore helping rebalance the composition of the labour forces in these countries towards a more sustainable configuration.
However, for all the wonderful work that these coding projects are accomplishing, we feel compelled to ask the following question: are initiatives such as Hour of Code and ProgeTiiger merely treating a symptom rather than the actual root cause of the computer science shortfall?
Computer programming requires the ability to understand and manipulate computer languages. Computer languages are symbolic systems which are broadly incomprehensible unless one has a reasonably sophisticated level of linguistic and mathematical competence. It is the latter two skills which are really at the heart of successful coding. Exposure to coding at an early age may be an excellent idea, but it might not necessarily prove decisive in producing computer scientists who can code well enough to make a profession out of it; conversely, a solid grounding in languages and mathematics can open up the entire gamut of high-end employment opportunities.
In this context, it is worth noting that while the last couple of decades have produced a generation with more exposure to computers than anyone sane can really stand, various respected entities are consistently forecasting a shortfall of symbolic analysts in the years to come: Kenichi Ohmae’s old hunting ground McKinsey & Company have posited a global gap of c.40m vacancies by 2020 in precisely the sectors which a technology-defined world should be producing a surplus of candidates for. Focusing on instructing students to instruct computers while ignoring more prosaic structural deficiencies is not going to help bridge this chasm anytime soon – or help young people carve out a viable future for themselves in an increasingly harsh economic environment.