Is learning to code a bad idea?

A picture of a computer with Scratch on the screen.

Icon-based programming tools, like Scratch, help to make writing code more accessible…and fun.

Last week I read an article that made me worried for the future.  I was afraid for my children’s future, for my own future and for the future of everyone in the United States – which was probably the emotion the author intended to invoke. Will there be enough jobs for everyone? How will the less fortunate children thrive in this new digital economy? What’s that going to mean for the peace of our nation?

Quite a way to start the weekend, no?

After the fear came annoyance and anger. Then, I stopped to consider the evidence provided by the author. There were a few links. I followed them and researched others that he didn’t directly cite (this review suggests another side to the research by the MIT professors). Yes, I don’t doubt that he has some credentials (so do I), but ‘predictor of the future’ does not seem to be one of them.

No one knows what the future can hold. Yes, we can make some assumptions based on past evidence and yes, we should have important conversations about the future (hello, global warming).

According to the 1999/2000 Occupational Outlook Handbook, there was going to be a glut of master-degree librarian jobs available. The need was going to be much bigger than than the current graduates coming out of school. And then the Internet grew and grew (and grew). The housing bubble collapsed and it affected the local tax market and now librarian jobs are hard to come by these days. Why didn’t anyone see that coming?

Frankly, it was an article such as this one that dissuaded me from learning more about front-end web development during my librarian years. Almost everyone was using Dreamweaver and it was said that no one would need to learn how to write HTML because computers will be doing it for you. Well, how wrong were those people? From what I’ve been reading, a lot of professional web developers still manually code their web pages since those software programs inevitably have bugs and problems. Even though I love my WordPress-powered site, I could do more if I had a deeper understanding of the code.

Besides, do we really know what type of jobs are going to be available? In what city? In what town? Certainly, it’s good advice to not take on too much debt while a learning a new trade, but learning something new, even if you don’t use it for more than a few years, is very, very valuable. It will still be valuable if all of the jobs disappear and you have to become an urban homesteader just to survive. At least you’ll be able to build your own automatic, Arduino-powered watering and lighting system. Your vegetable garden will be the most productive one on the block. All thanks to the empowerment you gained from learning a new skill. Even one that you don’t use anymore.