Teaching young Americans to be code monkeys

“How Silicon Valley Pushed Coding Into American Classrooms” (New York Times) is worth a look mostly for the disconnect between reader comments and the enthusiastic journalist.

How do humanities majors see computing?

Computer science is also essential to American tech companies, which have become heavily reliant on foreign engineers. Mr. Trump’s efforts to limit immigration make Code.org’s teach-Americans-to-code agenda even more attractive to the industry.

i.e., a person who can write a basic program in an imperative language (BASIC?) is learning “computer science.”

Which of these does Rachel Dolezal join?

Along with groups like Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code and Latina Girls Code, Code.org has worked to make the subject accessible to a diverse group of students.

Does a student with fluid gender have to bounce between the Girls Who Code classroom and the Code.org classroom?

Mr. Partovi noted that Code.org had opposed a “more extreme” coding bill in Florida that would have required students to obtain industry certification.

Nothing’s scarier to educators than a test that students might actually fail!

As with most NYT articles, the comments are the most interesting part, offering us a window into what Americans (or at least Americans who voted for Hillary) think.

As an ex-college professor I would like to point out that many students do not know when the first and second world wars occurred. That about four-fifths of Americans cannot find Iraq on the map (despite the fact that it has been in continuously in the news for over a decade). That about half of Americans believe evolution is not true. That about 40% of college undergrads need remedial classes in math and English coming into college. That a large number cannot even write a coherent essay.

Perhaps these can be solved first. They are of greater much importance than providing a specific industry with workers it “needs” (ironic considering that high tech industry throws out employees over the age of 40 [or less], when they become obsolete).

This professor does raise a good point. If programmers are in such short supply, why can’t old programmers get jobs?

To all this talk of teaching computer programming in schools to fill tech jobs, why won’t the tech companies create their own apprentice programs? Why won’t tech companies use some of their millions/billions and open up learning centers in communities where they don’t have business centers if they are truly altruistic, and not self-serving? Logical thinking can be developed through any scholarly pursuit.

Maybe the Trumpenfuhrer should call the bluffs of the Silicon Valley Hillary-supporters! He can offer to let them bring back, tax-free, some of the overseas $billions (that they were sheltering from Obama’s tax rates) as long as they spend it to train Americans for the jobs currently done by H-1B visa holders. It would be awesome to see the reaction!

[Todd Goglia] Most jobs are for “mediocre coders”. Only a tiny percentage of programming jobs entail a real understanding of advanced computer science concepts such as machine learning. Most jobs consist of getting data from a database and outputting it to a web page or getting user input from a webpage and saving it to a database.

Maybe he read Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing (or its predecessor, Database backed Web Sites) back in the 1990s!

Readers: What do you think? People have been trying since the 1970s to make programming part of K-12. Is this code.org thing going to be the initiative that succeeds?

19 thoughts on “Teaching young Americans to be code monkeys

  1. This old code monkey hasn’t had much trouble finding work in Boston so far (touch wood). I’m pushing seventy pretty hard. When I was looking for work earlier this year I had a couple offers as soon as I shaved off my long white beard. Plan B involved a bottle of Grecian Formula 42. I give thanks to a merciful providence that it didn’t turn out to be necessary.

    H1Bs are like anybody else: a certain percentage of them are not very good, a smaller percentage of them are terrific. Terrific people are generally in short supply. It doesn’t matter to me where they come from. The idea that every kid coming out of high school should know how to “code” is plain silly. Why not teach them to draft legal documents or perform minor surgery instead?

  2. @Viking1: Ironically, I think these policies are pushed by people whose time is to important to do something as mundane as programming.

    Yes, they’re usually journalists, public school administrators, and elected officials – none of whom elected to pursue a career in programming, nor would steer their own children that way.

    Question: How does a US companies conduct a criminal/credit/education/work reference background check on a prospective H-1B tech worker who has never lived in the US. Every programming and non-programming job I’ve held, regardless of whether or not a security clearance was necessary, I had underwent a urinalysis, credit check, and verification of education, references, and work & salary history.

    Heck, as I understand, even McDonald’s won’t hire a convicted felon for fry duty.

  3. paul kramarchyk said similar things in the comments yesterday but I think it is untrue. I don’t know anyone who did not know when WWII took place. Also everyone I know knows where Iraq is. It is easy to say stuff like this but they never provide sources. Also with google being around what is the point of learning these arbitrary things?

  4. @SmartestWoman what kinds of jobs did you take where you needed “urinalysis, credit check, and verification of education, references, and work & salary history”?

    We think of the programming field as more based upon ability. And there are an awful lot of stoner programmers.

  5. For what it’s worth, I’ve never hesitated to hire coders over 40. I’ve also not found advanced age or credentials to be strongly predictive of programming success.

    For example, one of our most disappointing almost-hires was a fellow in his 50s with a physics PhD and 30 years of coding expertise. Despite having written a Java to JS compiler at one point in his career, he was unable during a week long trial to reach the level of productivity in JS we regularly see from 19 year old interns.

    Perhaps if we’d given him more familiar tools and tasks the results would have been different, but 99% of programming in 2017 does not require inventing new data structures or evaluating algorithmic complexity. The high level building blocks are pretty good. You can quickly tape together something that handles a billion requests per day from off the shelf components and move on to the next task without ever understanding the underlying operations.

    If you are for whatever reason unable to adapt to this reality then you are left chasing a dwindling number of relevant jobs, until you become like the guy to whom we gave a chance. A quick look at his linkedin shows he’s had no more luck with anyone else in the year since we spoke.

  6. Would say 99% of what is called programming today is navigating FAANG corporate labyrinths, negotiating what pricing scheme to use, obtaining the right certificates & keys from what cloud service to enable feature x, & tracking down what payment methods for what cloud accounts broke & made your app go down.

    Only 1% is still writing traditional source code.

  7. Hey John,

    > You can quickly tape together something that handles a billion requests per day from off the shelf components and move on to the next task without ever understanding the underlying operations.

    Your users have my best wishes with your taped together solutions. I certainly hope you are priced accordingly.

  8. Difference in 19 year old coders vs physics phds: tape, open floor plans and an eagerness for abusive working conditions.

    You’re probably doing old farts a favor by not hiring them.

  9. But Jerry, wait!
    He is going through a very major discovery: that not all PhDs are created equal.

  10. I’m probably an outlier, but after 20 years in the Air Force I was hired into a startup here in Austin in 1995, working on an early web browser.

    I worked in several startups (all civilian, I’ve never studied war no more) until I retired in December 2015. My last job was Android client programing for an Iot project.

    So there is a way.

  11. The coding fad (and that’s what it is) is just another destined-to-fail attempt to fix an underfunded and obsolescent public education system.

    You’ve been through this before. See Papert, Seymour

  12. >The high level building blocks are pretty good.

    I guess I agree, but emphasis on the “pretty”. It is still “pretty” easy to find serious bugs, design flaws, test resistent intended usage patterns, undocumented dependencies, etc. in these “high level” API, libraries, development environments, etc.

  13. I would like to see schools try “The Little Schemer”. It teaches how to think about the things “code” actually does and how it does it.

  14. Mark Wilson #14:
    Why do you want submerge kids into functional thinking that did not live up to expectations in mathematics? It is better to teach basic algorithms (min, max, sorting), computer architecture, instructions programing and ability to put real live problems (corporate organization, ledgers, business process, device drivers, etc..) into code. It will help them in many positions, not necessary in programming. Closures are distant next.

  15. Netflix were smart enough to recruit among the 40-year olds, with rather good results I’d say. Contrarianism sometimes works.

    However, I get the impression that in the current overheated climate, old people are actually not getting autorejected by choosy recruiters anymore, nor shown the door on their 35th birthday. Let’s see if that lasts through the next downturn.

  16. Ah, so Netflix recruited people too old to benefit from its highly generous *ternity leave policies. Yeah, yeah, IVF/surrogacy, but all that stuff is way less reliable in one’s 40s, and too expensive even with dotcom benefits to repeat enough for likely success.

    It’s smart to set up policies that young employees might use lavishly and then hire oldsters.

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