Should you learn to code?

Opportunities for software developer

Business Week, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other major publications have recently published articles on how non-IT professionals who learn to code are more employable.

I especially recommend the Business Week short book length article by Paul Ford ( in their June 11 edition, already considered an absolute ‘must read’ for novices who want to get a feel for what coding is. The online version of the article is wonderful because it incorporates fun, interactive graphics with an application exercise at the end.

A college degree no longer guarantees a job

It only takes computers seconds to learn and transfer to permanent memory what carbon-based life forms like us learn in high school and college (with most folks retaining only about 2-3% of that information to long-term memory). Also very concerning–Artificial Intelligence (AI)-supported technologies are already encroaching on white-collar jobs.

As mentioned in a previous OWDT blog article, some universities are slowly moving towards cross-departmental curricula that focus on real world interpretive and entrepreneurial skills for liberal arts majors. This pivots on the assumption that computers lack the creative capacity to compete against us in those areas. Keep in mind, however, that as AI breakthroughs continue, the distinction between digital and human abilities will require continual reevaluation to determine which career paths remain viable.

Coding boot camps

Following the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s, opportunities for software developers, engineers, and digital scientists held up surprisingly well. The much hotter current IT professional market is especially promising for those with cloud computing, mobile app and data analytic skills.

The New York Times recently ran a story about how millennials stuck in dead end jobs are moving from $20K to $100K a year jobs after learning to code. There are over 30 reputable (3 +/- months-long) coding boot camps across the country, most of which are located in cities like San Francisco, New York and Seattle. The White House’s TechHire Initiative has helped coordinate federal, city, corporate and educational efforts to provide this training–typically for post-graduates (or those with some college) in their late 20s and early 30s. The cost? Typically $10K+, often supported by scholarships and/or loans. Strong analytical aptitude is the primary requisite. –One promising development is the higher representation of women in these certification programs (35% as opposed to only 18% from four-year university programs.

Next, I’ll share links to online platforms that provide initial exposure to ‘recreational programming’ for the uninitiated. I’ll also provide a quick overview of coding boot camp programs for those of you who think you’d like to be a ‘techie retread.’

Difference between recreational and professional coding

Did you have a chance to read Paul Ford’s Business Week article “What Is Code?” If so, can you now imagine overseeing a high-stakes redesign of your website? No? That’s OK, because it’s so much safer to let us at OWDT do it for you. Even if you’re a highly skilled programmer, that kind of challenge is best met by a team of IT professionals.

You don’t have to read Ford’s Business Week article to get a feel for coding basics (or to get a sense of whether you have the aptitude required to be a programmer). Instead, check out online resources like the introductory programming tutorials found on Codecademy, W3schools, Khan Academy, and Coursera.

There’s a world of difference between recreational and professional coding. However, because both coding and mathematics are universal languages, success in life and work is increasingly contingent not only on having basic math skills, but also on an understanding of coding fundamentals. Especially if you’re a manager, you don’t want to risk being like the clueless pointy-haired Dilbert boss when confronted by IT issues.

Coding skills sharpen enhance critical thinking

Steve Jobs once said, “I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.” Good coding is an iterative process that allows us to test ideas and solve problems, similar to the trial and error process of doing scientific research or writing a flawless instructional guide. The Precision Question/Answer decision-making method described in recent OWDT blogs reinforces this mindset.

When I worked in an aerospace IT environment for nine years as a writer/trainer, I observed that the programmers I worked with were (1) highly detail-oriented, (2) could hold multiple variables in mind at the same time, and (3) had strong analytic and math abilities. Two of the best coders I knew were former high school math teachers.

Software runs everything

“If coders don’t run the world, they run the things that run the world.” Software seamlessly manages systems and data we rely on for virtually everything in our work and personal lives. For starters, it governs our infrastructure, communication venues, financial systems and automates an increasing percentage of jobs.
Bringing any idea to life requires new software. To create the necessary new code, you need to be able to ask programmers the right questions to determine (1) their qualifications and (2) their digital strategy for fulfilling your vision.

In the concluding segment of this article, I’ll discuss more about why coding isn’t for everyone, why it requires an artistic/craft sensibility and make some coding boot camp recommendations.

One in ten schools now require introduction to coding

In previous posts in this series, I explained how coding has joined mathematics as an indispensable universal language. Kids in the eight European nations, New Zealand and Singapore now include coding in their elementary and secondary school curricula. In the U.S., one in ten schools now require introduction to coding coursework. In many other countries and U.S. localities, after-school coding programs are rapidly growing in popularity.

Children who discover they love it may be getting a preview of their future career. Though most will eventually choose other paths, they’ll benefit later in life by having a baseline understanding of this critical ‘lingua franca.’

In fact, companies prefer to hire non-IT employees who are familiar with coding. Why? They know that such candidates will be better able to understand inevitable IT challenges and, in addition, offer demonstrated problem-solving and critical thinking skills that transfer directly to other responsibilities.

Prerequisites and challenges

Candidates with the required skills can launch IT careers noted for good pay, excellent benefits and high morale. However, full-time coding definitely isn’t for everyone.

Do the following resonate for you?
  • As a full-time coder, you’ll need to enjoy ‘thinking’ like a computer to navigate the digital domain. Paradoxically, the best programmers have an artistic sensibility to complement their digital skills.
  • Choosing to become a full-time coder requires a serious love of and commitment to the work. You need to think abstractly about big picture software functions while being able to easily shift focus to catch small scripting mistakes to prevent them from cascading into implementation failures.
  • Coding demands continual learning and constant practice. Successful coders thrive on the intensity of resolving complex, multiple challenges every day. When promoted to management or otherwise diverted from the demands of the craft, coding skills can quickly deteriorate and/or become outdated. Regardless, without continual practice, you are no longer hirable without updating your certifications and/or learning new languages, perhaps as part of a state-sponsored career transition program or on your own dime.
  • No matter how attentive to detail you are, most code requires continual testing and debugging. Fatal software errors can be deeply embedded and virtually invisible. You need to be able to deal with the multiple failures that pave the path to eventual resolution. For these and many other reasons, programming can be stressful.
  • There are over 1,700 different programming languages, so you’ll need to make choices about which among them you want to master. How to choose? After doing comprehensive research, select which among them are the most marketable in organizations you are want to work for.
  • For IT managers, laying out priorities and establishing a division of labor in updating program frameworks, or creating entirely new software, requires that you develop a close rapport with and understanding of each staff member’s level of ability on different tasks.

In the last installment of this post, I’ll provide a list of commonly recommended coding boot camps for those interested in a total immersion experience.

Gain critical coding skills

If you’ve been following this blog series, you’re probably thinking, “Sure I’d like to learn basic coding skills…but I also want to learn Spanish, Chinese or (?). I’ll get around to it…eventually.” But not committing to an action plan can result in long-term ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ regret when you’re later passed over for a new job, promotion, or high-profile assignment.

Outstanding, free online training options

There is a wealth of free online coding skills resources to help non-IT professionals gain critical coding skills. Begin with the introductory programming courses and tutorials, many of which are self-paced, found on Codecademy, Coursera, Khan Academy, and W3schools.

  • Codecademy’s comprehensive project-based learning programs are geared to different skill levels. You can begin by creating and implementing code for your own projects on their interactive website. If interested in taking it further, you can also learn the basics of HTML/CSS, Javascript, PHP, Python or Ruby on Rails (very hot right now) with their project-based tutorials.
  • Codecademy’s Code Year initiative introduced almost a half million people through a beautifully developed series of weekly code exercises. Building on that, they recently released an Hour of Code app for the iPhone–helping beginners code and run their first program in under an hour. This even got the attention of President Obama recently quoted as saying, “Don’t just play on your phone— program it“.
  • Two phenomenal, also completely free Ivy League options are Stanford’s Computer Science 101, and Harvard’s Introduction to Computer Science, courses tailored for people with no previous programming knowledge. Many high-level non-IT professionals, including executives, have taken them, giving them consistently rave reviews.
  • To get a compendium of the top university-based online coding courses, go directly to Coursera. When there, be sure to check out Open Yale’s excellent course offerings, comparable to those of Stanford and Harvard. is another free learning platform sponsored by Silicon Valley players like Facebook, Apple and Google. It offers free beginner’s coding tutorials for all ages, including for children.

Tuition-based boot camps for dedicated IT professionals

The plethora of for-pay coding boot camps is fueled by money from diverse sources, including tech industry recruiters who want to ‘mint’ coders as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, some certification programs are sub-standard. Because these training programs can cost upwards of $15K, buyer beware. That said, most boot camps have a good reputation and provide scholarships plus other tuition support.

Recommended lower-budget boot camps include CareerFoundry (online); App Academy (in-person); Apprentice.lo by throughbot (in-person); Craftsmanship Academy by RoleModel (in-person); Brainstation (in-person); Treehouse (online); Udacity (online); Tealeaf Academy (online); General Assembly’s Web Design Circuit (online), and; Firehose (online). The online options are generally less expensive, but not always.

If you have the resources for one of the more expensive in-person boot camps, consider a program like Codeup (San Antonio), MakerSquare (Austin); The Iron Yard (Houston, etc.); Hack Reactor (San Francisco); Epicodus (Portland); Fullstack Academy (New York); or Starter League (Chicago).