When I was a kid I had the opportunity to learn to code. It wasn’t a “right” – I was just lucky to be in a home where there was a computer (a BBC Micro that my dad had supplied by his work). In those days in the mid-Eighties, coding was pretty much synonymous with everything to do with using a computer. When you turned one on you were confronted by a blinking cursor and had to start issuing instructions to get the thing to do anything at all.
I owe a lot of my confidence with technology to those days of mucking around – either learning by retyping programs in from copies of Acorn User or Micro User, or hacking away at my own thing to produce fairly rubbish games (my nadir was a horse-racing game called Gee Gees).
Programming appealed to my problem-solving, logic puzzling nature. It was never something I was going to be able to do full time, though – the solitude required to concentrate was something I could only endure in short periods. The knowledge of boolean logic and code that I built up, though, certainly helped me through my A-Level physics.
When I was a kid I had the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. It wasn’t a “right” – I was just lucky to be in a home where mum and dad were able to scrape together enough money to pay for my lessons and eventually a saxophone of my own.
I owe much of my appreciation of music to those days. Initially it was fun, then the practising became somewhat arduous but was offset by the enjoyment of playing in bands and orchestras with others. Through my involvement in the County music programmes, it was clear to me that whilst I was OK I wasn’t a naturally gifted musician. I hacked away at it to Grade 8 and it allowed me to pass Music at A-Level, probably the academic achievement of which I am most proud (even though I barely scraped a pass with an “E”).
Over the past week, with the kerfuffle online about the Year of Code initiative, those two experiences have been going around my mind. “Every child has the right to learn to code”, apparently. Well, to my mind, just in the same way as every child has the right to learn to play a musical instrument. And I don’t mean that comparison to denigrate either discipline. I’m lucky to have been able to study both over my academic career and I’m a fuller person as a result.
The Year of Code initiative worries me, though.
There seems to be an assumption that that coding is the most important part of understanding computers. Back in the BBC Micro days it probably was the case, but today? Networks, security, data and databases, systems design methods, systems architecture, user interface, user experience… all of these things are as important as writing code even if some developers aren’t aware of that.
Understanding information technology by studying coding is like understanding housebuilding by learning to lay bricks. But moreover, for the better part of the past 20 years those outside of the software platform industry have been actively encouraging people to code less. “Buy not build” has been the overriding mantra, and with good reason: coding has a nasty tendency to make the flexible rigid, and businesses fragile to change as a result.
Making coding appear “easy” (learn to code in an hour!) runs the risk of making the complex stupid. If you’ve ever presented a prototype to a client and then had them think that the final system is complete, you’ll know exactly what I mean.