More Laypersons Are Learning Programming Languages

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 impli...
More Laypersons Are Learning Programming Languages
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  • 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]

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