Take a free weekly coding lesson for your New Years resolution.
If you are looking for a New Years resolution, let me suggest an idea that you may not have considered: you should learn computer programming. Specifically, you need to register for Code Year, a new project which aims to teach neophytes the basics of programming during the year 2012. Code Year was created by Codecademy, * a startup that designs intelligent and interactive online tutorials. Codecademy founders Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski argue that everyone should know how to program, that learning to code becomes as important as knowing how to read and write. I am okay. So if you can’t program, why not give it a go this week? Come on, it will be nice!
Code Year’s minimum commitment is one new lesson each week. The company says it will take a person with average technical skills about five hours to complete a lesson, so you’re planning around an hour of training each day of the week. This is not so bad, considering that the courses are free and the payoff could be huge: if you are looking to make yourself more employable (or more sheltered from dismissal), if you want to become more creative. at work and in the rest of your life, and if you can’t resist a good intellectual challenge, there is little effort that will pay off as much as learning to code.
But it’s not just about you. Let’s talk about how all of us, our entire society, could benefit from a renewed interest in coding. Over the past 20 years, and especially the past five, computers have invaded every corner of our lives. Most of us accepted our ascendancy with reluctant tolerance; even though they are painful to use and never perform as well as they should, these machines often make our jobs easier and our lives more enjoyable. One of the reasons we have all benefited from computers is that we don’t have to think about how they work. In their early days, the only way to use a computer was to program it. Now, computers don’t require any technical wizardry—babies and even members of Congress can use the iPad. This is obviously a healthy trend. I’ve long argued that computers, like cars, shouldn’t require technical skills to run, and the easier they are to use, the more valuable they will be to all of us.
However, the fact that any moron can use a computer has lulled us into complacency with the digital revolution. You can see it in the debates over SOPA, the disastrous Internet piracy bill that was passed by politicians because so many of them just don’t understand its technical implications. Or, like Thomas Friedman emphasizes, consider the absence of any substantive topic relating to technology in the Republican presidential debates.
I noticed something similar over the summer when I published my series on Robots About to Steal Jobs from Highly Skilled Workers. I was surprised, during my research, to find that many people vulnerable to replacement with machines had no idea how quickly they could become useless. Many people I spoke to insisted that their jobs required too much study or relied on several “fundamentally human” skills and would likely remain dominated by humans forever. (This is also what travel agents thought.) There is happiness in this kind of ignorance, but it is dangerous. You don’t need to know how a computer works to use it, but if you learn how computers work, you might one day avoid working for them.
There is no better way to learn how computers work than to start programming. “Learning to Code demystifies technology in a way that empowers and enlightens,” wrote Gina Trapani, app developer and former editor of Lifehacker, when I emailed her asking how coding had changed his life. “When you start coding, you realize that every digital tool you used involved the same lines of code that you write, and that if you want to improve an existing application, you can do it with the same. for every and if so statements that each encoder has already used.
Programming can be useful even if you are working in a non-technical field. Say you were a travel agent in the 90s: if you didn’t know how to code, you wouldn’t have been able to see your profession coming to an end. But if you had tried programming, not only would you have had the skills to understand how the internet could hurt your profession, but you might also have been able to play a part in the online travel bonanza, either by creating your own. travel site. or go to work as an expert for one of the new web travel agencies.
Sims, the co-founder of Codecademy, says there are endless opportunities like this in the workplace, places where a little bit of code can make you so much better at your job. “When we were raising funds, we met an investor who created a scenario for List of angels”—An online directory of money-seeking startups. “When a company reached a certain number of Angels List subscribers, its script would automatically send an email to the company looking for a meeting. It’s an example of how knowing a tiny bit of coding helped him get better deals without hiring an associate, ”says Sims.
But knowing how to code will improve your life even if you never program anything useful. I learned basic programming language as a kid, then honed my programming skills in high school and college. I am by no means an expert programmer and rarely start coding in my job, but I have learned enough to change the way I approach problems. And that’s the most interesting thing about programming: it teaches you to think algorithmically. Faced with a new challenge, whether at work or at home, I find myself breaking the problem down into smaller, unobtrusive tasks that can be accomplished through simple, repeatable processes.
Want to teach your baby to sleep? Try this algorithm, which my wife and I found in a book called The Sleepeasy solution when our one year old drove us crazy every night. At bedtime, put your baby in the crib. Let him cry for five minutes, then go and comfort him for 30 seconds. Then let him cry for 10 minutes before comforting him, then go comfort him every 15 minutes. Do this until he is asleep, which should happen in an hour.
After a few days of this, our baby was sleeping through the night for the first time in his life. I can’t say for sure that this method worked as it was a well-defined algorithm, but I suspect it did. Babies, like computers, seem to like predictable and rigid routines. Maybe we were all born with an ability to think in code and maybe it’s time you took advantage of this awesome power.
Correction, January 4, 2012: This piece originally and incorrectly referred to Codecademy as Code Academy. (Return to the corrected sentence.)