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More Laypersons Are Learning Programming Languages

Move over, Spanish. Hello, SQL?

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More Laypersons Are Learning Programming Languages
[ Technology]

I’m a borderline luddite. Yes, a borderline luddite tech news writer — I have made my peace with this. But despite the wary glance I cast toward new technological developments, their implications on personal privacy, and on overall quality of life, I’m also pragmatic enough not to want to be left in the dust of economic evolution. I know I need to stay employable both now and in the future, and to do so will require at least basic (and up-to-date) technical competence. Beyond that, I figure if you’re going to be concerned about cyber security breaches, your own compromised data, or devices that insert themselves increasingly into your life, you have a duty to yourself to understand such technology rather than merely embrace or avoid it.

I may be a part of the fringe in that latter line of thinking, but I still refuse to let my preference for traditional skills and a simple life hold me back from future employability. With the lightning speed at which technology develops today and the reliance of nearly every element of business on some degree of technology, your skill set can become obsolete in just a couple of years of stagnancy.

The New York Times reports that this concern is driving more and more laypeople to after hours coding classes. Increasingly, people employed in all variety of industries are looking to learn more than just how to use computers. Instead, they want deeper knowledge of how computers work.

“To be successful in the modern world, regardless of your occupation, requires a fluency in computers,” said Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association, to The Times. “It is more than knowing how to use Word or Excel but how to use a computer to solve problems.”

This necessity to understand computers at a higher level has led to a groundswell of free and paid programming classes both online and in classrooms, especially for languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, as well as a general increase (10 percent in 2010, according to the Computer Research Association via The Times) in students enrolling in college computer science programs. But The Times notes that for most aspiring code-learners, the resources and time available to them may be insufficient to gain a solid grasp of programming principles. Many would be programmers learn only snippets of code and simple commands, or simply to “parrot back lines of code,” as programming guide author Juli Meloni told the newspaper. From The Times:

    Seasoned programmers say learning how to adjust the layout of a Web page is one thing, but picking up the skills required to develop a sophisticated online service or mobile application is an entirely different challenge. That is the kind of technical education that cannot be acquired by casual use for a few hours at night and on the weekends, they say.

Is that really the point of learning code after work, though? I go to a gymnastics class once a week, but I’m not planning on trying out for the Olympic team any time soon. You don’t have to be able to write complex or elegant code in order to benefit from a knowledge of programming principles. It’s useful enough for the layperson, especially in starting out, to gain an understanding of commands and the general logic of program design. Just that much knowledge, along with a reference manual and an analytic mind, can be enough to read and understand the gist of a program’s code, to troubleshoot small errors, or to write simple applications. It’s kind of like developing passive knowledge of a natural language. You’re never going to write like Thomas Mann, but if you can understand the Deutsche Bahn’s train timetable, you’re doing all right.

Speaking of natural language, The Times suggests that the desiring to learn a computer language is overtaking the desire to learn a natural language:

    Parlez-vous Python? What about Rails or JavaScript? Foreign languages tend to wax and wane in popularity, but the language du jour is computer code.

This strikes me as an apples-to-socket-wrenches comparison. They’re both called languages, sure, and in the strict sense have principles of syntax, semantics, and a new lexicon to learn, but they’re very different skill sets that don’t engage all the same areas of the brain. It can be tough to learn one foreign language, but learning two simultaneously is a herculean feat that can lead to a lot of confusion and “code-switching” between languages. By contrast, a foreign language is hard to learn — and a programming language, hard as well — but if you have the time to devote to each, you’re not going to accidentally swap over to HTML when you were just trying to speak French.

Both are legitimate skill sets, and proficiency in both is a growing necessity in our increasingly globalized and technological world. In the next 20 years, you’ll likely have to know at least one foreign language and one programming language (probably more of each) in order to be competitive in the global business world (though native English speakers have at least a bit of a cushion here).

So what languages should you learn? I won’t tell you that. I’ll tell you, though, that Spanish (if you live in the U.S., especially) and Chinese will be good ones to know. (Good luck with Chinese if you’re over the age of 12, but don’t let me stop you from learning.) And how about programming? It’s probably best to take the plunge with a language that’s easy but useful. Many of my coder friends prescribe Python to beginners because of its relative simplicity, its functionality, and the wide variety of free resources available online for the language. If you need to do a lot of web-page formatting or development, consider starting with HTML or JavaScript.

What do you think? Are you learning a programming language, or hoping to in the future? Are programming languages more useful to learn than natural languages these days? Let us know in the comments.

[New York Times, Image Source: ThinkStock]

More Laypersons Are Learning Programming Languages
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  • Julian

    I totally agree with this. As a high school student I know first hand what kind of irrelevant subjects school’s are teaching. The problem with public education nowadays is that school’s are not emphasizing the importance of modern day skills in order to have a successful career in the future. Maybe the budget crisis wouldn’t be such a problem if they cut off programs like physical education and implement computer science courses.

  • Chris Byrne

    It’s rapidly becoming a case of when not if. And it’s easy to get started with so many grassroot initiatives like @coderdojo and MIT’s @scratchteam. #thefutureisage9

  • http://www.litso.com Stephan

    Surely you mean JavaScript, not Java? For a webdeveloper Java is becoming less and less inportant, and if you eantto learn a ‘real’ programmin language C# or C++ might be a better option (although there’s nothing wrong with Java probably).

    JavaScript on the other hand is now more important than ever with all the libraries like jQuery that can serve almost every purpose you can think of on the web, including the flash/Java-replacing HTML5 ‘canvas’.

  • http://www.webpronews.com/author/jonathan-fisher Jonathan Fisher

    I did, actually. Thanks for the catch, Stephan.

    Christ and Julian, thanks for the comments. It’s my personal opinion that education would benefit greatly from starting kids early in learning programming. They could learn more than just a practical and useful skill, but teachers could easily incorporate code class into teaching principles of math and logic, giving students both a fun challenge and a practical application of what they were learning.

    Think of the economic advantages of having an entire nation of people who were at least literate in several languages. More importantly, think how much more attention our society and laws would give to the importance of safeguarding personal data.

  • Julian

    The truth is programming languages are the key to the future. Everything will revolve around coding in the near future.I currently Picked up my first Java book (Java for dummies) I am determined to learn it because I know if I can get a good understanding now I won’t be left behind in the technological revolution. I really wish public school’s could offer programming courses.

  • http://www.webpronews.com/author/jonathan-fisher Jonathan Fisher

    Julian:

    Stick with it. You can learn a ton by self-study — especially with the huge number of good, free, interactive tutorials available online today. We were lucky in that our school offered two programming classes, though it would have been nice to have a larger program.

    Meet other programmers, hang out with them, and swap knowledge. The great thing about the computer community is that there’s still a strong DIY ethic of experimentation and collaboration. I have no doubts you’ll learn a lot and become a talented programmer.

    My only other advice for staying ahead of the game is to diversify your skill set. Learn a few other handy things, like accounting, gardening, writing, or how to run electrical wire or speak spanish. Explore diverse interests. You’ll be more well rounded and you’ll be a candidate for a lot more jobs if the IT/development market is saturated when you hit the scene.

    Good luck.

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