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Coding For All is a Distraction

Screen Shot 2020 06 09 at 4 02 50 PM

Remember when we were told that every student needed to learn coding? That programming skills would be essential for them to get good jobs in the future? And leaders told us that all those newly trained coders would be a big boost for the overall economy?

Except that, as an article in Wired explains, the ability to code is fast becoming unnecessary for entrepreneurs to build applications. New tools mean “you don’t need to know any programming to launch a company.”

Behold the trend known as “no code” (or “low code”). In the past few years there’s been a flowering of tools like those Bell used, all aimed at the nonprogramming masses.

It neatly inverts the cultural logic around programming and its unique value. A decade ago the rallying cry “Learn to code” emerged. The key to tech-fueled entrepreneurship—and its promise of independence and possible riches—was in learning to sling JavaScript or Python. Boot camps bloomed.

Plus coding is rather mundane, boring work.

Nuts to that, say the proponents of no-code. “Coding sucks,” laughs Emmanuel Straschnov, cofounder of Bubble, a service that offers a suite of tools for nontechies to build apps. “I mean, I code. But it’s tedious. I feel like it’s not reasonable to expect, you know, the vast majority of the population to be careful with their commas.” Indeed, one measure of social progress is how well we automate complex skills for normies, he argues. We became competent photographers not by honing our skills at hand-developing film but by using iPhones with filters.1

Ok, so the software needed to make computers do useful work isn’t going to write itself soon. But it probably won’t take long.

The emergence of no-code is, in a sense, the ur-pattern of software. We’ve been drifting this way for years. Websites at first were laboriously hand-coded, until blogging CMSs automated it—and blogging exploded. Putting video online was a gnarly affair until YouTube rendered it frictionless—and vlogging exploded. As no-code advances, “the amount of products is just going to skyrocket,” argues Nate Washington, an Atlanta entrepreneur who used the Bubble tool to help create the first version of Qoins, an app that helps people pay off debt by automatically rounding up on purchases and sending the money to creditors. Four years later, Qoins has helped users pay off $11 million in debt.

Not that long ago, I remember very well learning to code in HTML. At the beginnings of the web, that was how you created a website, although writing anything meaningful in HTML became tedious very quickly. 

Then, just after the turn of the century, the web exploded – but not because a whole bunch of people took HTML classes.

It happened because creative, but not necessarily geeky, people got access to powerful, inexpensive tools that made it easy to build web applications with minimal understanding of the code still hiding in the background. In fact, that code became more complex as the tools were getting easier to use.

Now the same thing is happening for computer applications. The Bubble tool discussed in the article is only one of several relatively inexpensive no-code packages that are available. Even more powerful tools will be coming very soon, making programming skills necessary for even fewer people.

Waaaay back in January I ranted that coding for all is the wrong goal. But, once again, I am not saying kids (or anyone else) shouldn’t study programming or that they don’t need to know anything about coding.

There is nothing wrong with students learning to code, if they choose to follow that path. The option to study computer science should certainly be available to all kids, especially in high school.

But not all, or even most of them will need programming skills in their life after school. Mandatory computer science instruction is in the same league as the standard K12 math curriculum that still prepares every student to study Calculus, something few will ever need.

Instead, students, and people in general, need basic knowledge of how computers work. More importantly, they need to understand how programming is used to “manipulate our digital environment”, in the words of Douglas Rushkoff.

The over-emphasis on coding instruction distracts from that more necessary, interesting, and complex issue.


Code is lurking behind every webpage you visit (the screenshot above belongs to the New York Times) should you wish to view it. Most of us would rather not.

1. I completely object to the idea that anyone became a competent photographer through learning to process film (or using smartphone filters for that matter), but I get what he’s trying to say.

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