Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Learn to Code?

 

“Learn to code.”

Familiar with the phrase? It’s a rather insensitive shorthand way of suggesting that someone enhance his commercial opportunities by acquiring new skills. That can be sincere advice; Walter Brooke encouraging a young Dustin Hoffman to pursue a future in “plastics.” It can be a practical career choice, as demonstrated by a handful of out-of-work Kentucky coal miners who successfully made the transition from working bituminous mines to agile coding techniques.

Most recently — as in last week — “learn to code” is a snarky rebuke to displaced print and internet journalists, and in particular to people recently let go by Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and the Gannett media giant. In part, the comment is intended to be karmic, alluding to an attitude that prevailed during President Obama’s tenure when his administration bragged of shutting down entire industries (coal mining, for example) and some in the media glibly suggested the displaced workers upgrade their skills and go get good jobs — in short, “learn to code.”

I code. I’m good at it. I’ve been doing it for a long time, far longer than the average Buzzfeed journalist has been alive, I suspect. I know a thing or two about writing software, and so I want to offer some advice to the young journalists recently of Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post who might be considering a foray into the verdant pastures of my industry.

Software isn’t what you’re used to. Software is the real world.

We all have a pretty good idea, or, at least, a strong suspicion, about what goes on in the modern newsroom. We understand that most everyone thinks pretty much the same way, supports pretty much the same causes, tilts the news in pretty much the same direction. (That’s to the left, in case anyone isn’t clear on that.)

We know that standards are pretty low, particularly at Buzzfeed but pretty much everywhere else as well. (See Covington for a glaring recent instance, but examples abound.) We know that there’s a tendency to pick the news that fits the preferred narrative, and to studiously ignore inconvenient truths. Some of it — most of it, probably — is innocent, the simple consequence of living inside a bubble and breathing the same righteous atmosphere as everyone around you. It’s understandable and even forgivable. But it isn’t real.

Software is real. Computers are remarkably unforgiving things, completely disinterested in your view of the world, your sense of what should be. Computers don’t care about your groupthink, your consensus, your so-called settled science. They simply do as they’re told — exactly as they’re told. They do it quickly, reliably, relentlessly, inflexibly, and mercilessly.

You can’t sweep software details under the carpet. You can’t ignore exceptions that don’t conform to your hopes and beliefs. You can’t make computational reality real by wishing it so, by telling others it’s so, and by agreeing with all of your peers that it’s so.

By all means, learn to code. It’s a wonderful business, a rewarding and often lucrative activity, and a lot of fun. But it’s going to require something new from you: a commitment to reality, to comprehensive analysis, to an open-minded consideration of the various sides and aspects of a problem. Approach it that way and you may be successful.

But business as usual? No, you’re going to have to up your game if you want to succeed in the real world.

There are 59 comments.

  1. Bob Thompson Member

    Henry Racette:

    By all means, learn to code. It’s a wonderful business, a rewarding and often lucrative activity, and a lot of fun. But it’s going to require something new from you: a commitment to reality, to comprehensive analysis, to an open-minded consideration of the various sides and aspects of a problem. Approach it that way and you may be successful.

    But business as usual? No, you’re going to have to up your game if you want to succeed in the real world.

    You’re good with words too, Henry. The words above express very well why ‘learn to code’ has become a go to expression.

    I learned to code in 1964 and never had a day without productive work until retirement.

    • #1
    • January 29, 2019, at 7:30 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  2. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Henry Racette:

    You can’t sweep software details under the carpet. You can’t ignore exceptions that don’t conform to your hopes and beliefs. You can’t make computational reality real by wishing it so, by telling others it’s so, and by agreeing with all of your peers that it’s so.

    By all means, learn to code. It’s a wonderful business, a rewarding and often lucrative activity, and a lot of fun. But it’s going to require something new from you: a commitment to reality, to comprehensive analysis, to an open-minded consideration of the various sides and aspects of a problem. Approach it that way and you may be successful.

    But business as usual? No, you’re going to have to up your game if you want to succeed in the real world.

    Henry,

    Yep, a generation bred on pseudo-knowledge. Sure Brendon Eich wrote the code for a browser that could compete with the titan Microsoft, but he wasn’t woke enough to insist that Gay Marriage was the politically correct thing that everyone must believe. He had no right to quietly express an opinion that didn’t conform to the progressive orthodoxy.

    Yep, code or starve, I don’t really care which.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #2
    • January 29, 2019, at 7:45 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  3. wilber forge Member
    wilber forge Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Enlighten an old skeptical IT guy on the transition process. The way this phrase is cast about it would seem to be the Prize in the CrackerJack Box.

    Belies human behaviors and adaptability goooood for Politics while ignoring the realities of humans.

     

    • #3
    • January 29, 2019, at 8:28 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  4. lowtech redneck Coolidge

    Meanwhile, Twitter is suspending people for using that phrase.

    Still waiting for them to suspend all those ‘journalists’ who trashed the Covington kids.

    • #4
    • January 29, 2019, at 8:47 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  5. MarciN Member

    I read a great piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday: “The New Branding Strategy: Churning Out ‘Content,'” by Jacob Gallagher. This jumped out at me as a good turn of events for writers, especially journalists:

    “Even if you used to technically make and market shoes now you also need to make and market entertaining films and filmed entertainment,” explained Matthew Gardner, the cofounder of Highfield, a New York advertising agency. The concept of “content” rose alongside social media, beginning with the launch of Facebook in 2004. Social media attracted chatty individuals first, but brands soon followed, meeting customers in the forums that consumed more and more of our time. In hope of boosting revenue, brands created blogs and storytelling websites and orchestrated online videos. Today, a fashion-conscious person is as likely to learn that puffy down jackets are trending via Mr. Porter’s Instagram page (or its editorial “Journal”) as from Esquire magazine.

    All this is happening at a time when traditional magazines and newspapers and upstart digital media sites are facing harrowing cutbacks. Just this past week Huffington Post’s parent company Verizon Media Group cut about 800 jobs while Buzzfeed laid off 43 Buzzfeed News staffers. Layoffs are expected to continue into this week, with an expected 200 people losing their jobs. Further, Gannett laid off staff at local newspapers around the nation including the Indianapolis Star, the Record in New Jersey and the Arizona Republic. . . . 

    As traditional content—a.k.a. journalism—is faltering, “content” is thriving. Brands from Harry’s Razors to Ralph Lauren to SoulCycle are regularly enticing writers and editors away from traditional media to generate content for splashy Instagram accounts and robust editorial platforms. Over the past couple years at the Journal, I’ve watched two of my colleagues, including my former editor, leave journalism to work for Bottega Veneta and Apple, respectively.

    Writers should not give up. There is work out there for them. :-) 

     

     

    • #5
    • January 29, 2019, at 8:54 PM PST
    • Like
  6. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Most programmers I have known work in game design. The industry has a lot of turnover, though less than it used to. Are programming jobs in your field often reliable? 

    • #6
    • January 30, 2019, at 2:07 AM PST
    • Like
  7. Thejokewasonme Inactive

    Reality: many-ah program aborts due to the lack of an “else.”

    • #7
    • January 30, 2019, at 2:46 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  8. Franco Member
    Franco Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Great advice!

    Also, stay away from the performing arts, professional sports, most of the military, and anything that is inherently unsafe where you or others could lose life or limb.

    My advice: Journalists there are some international troll farms who are always looking for people who can influence elections. You guys are pre-qualified. 

    • #8
    • January 30, 2019, at 3:19 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. Guruforhire Member

    Heck I have a good job and I am learning new skills in this direction.

    I am working on version 2 of my application.

    • #9
    • January 30, 2019, at 5:25 AM PST
    • Like
  10. John H. Member
    John H. Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Coding could appeal to (ex-)journalists, because almost every line of a computer program is a command! I think journalists nowadays are tyrants at heart; they want to be bossy. Although ordering a machine around isn’t as satisfying as ordering people around. In one sense, programming is like legislation, or perhaps I should say debugging is like adjudication: it’s a lot of coping with unintended consequences. But even therewith, dissatisfaction lurks: a judge can act like a commissar, but a programmer still has to wheedle a program into working properly.

    Of course “learn to code” is snark, nothing more, and I do not seriously believe journalists will retrain for anything, especially not for something that’s hard. (Fun tho’ useless mental exercise: picture a journalist’s mind melting as he tries to fix, or even grasp the concept of, a “race condition.”) Buzzfeed may be downsizing but NYT and WaPo aren’t, and however scarce jobs at those outfits are, they are the sunlit pinnacle of American journalistic ambition: to comfort billionaires by speaking power to truth. ‘Course billionaires didn’t get where they are by setting fire to their money, and I am a little surprised they haven’t encouraged politicians to relieve them of their payroll burden by simply making reporters government employees. Reporters would love that. They’d think they were owed that.

    • #10
    • January 30, 2019, at 5:58 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  11. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Writing code is like riding an 18 speed bike down the street in first gear: lots of pedaling for little gain.

    I remember spending a week just on code behind a button. It was lines and lines of code, but when it was done I thought “No one is going to care that it took so much effort to make that work. They are only going to bit….complain when it doesn’t.” I didn’t make it long in the software development world.

    • #11
    • January 30, 2019, at 6:09 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. The Reticulator Member

    lowtech redneck (View Comment):
    Meanwhile, Twitter is suspending people for using that phrase.

    ?

    • #12
    • January 30, 2019, at 6:40 AM PST
    • Like
  13. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    lowtech redneck (View Comment):

    Meanwhile, Twitter is suspending people for using that phrase.

    Still waiting for them to suspend all those ‘journalists’ who trashed the Covington kids.

    What is Twitter?

    • #13
    • January 30, 2019, at 6:41 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  14. FredGoodhue Coolidge

    As a computer programmer for many years, I’ve often observed the stereotype where good programmers are not good writers, and good writers are not good programmers. Few people have the aptitude for both.

    As you point out, with software, if it does not work, it does not work. Most of programming is doing it wrong and getting instant feedback that you’re wrong. Eventually you will get it right, but not after lots of failure. Many political authors are used to writing ambiguous, or outright false things and getting away with it. That does not work with coding.

    • #14
    • January 30, 2019, at 7:46 AM PST
    • 1 like
  15. RufusRJones Member

    John H. (View Comment):
    I think journalists nowadays are tyrants at heart; they want to be bossy.

    I completely agree with this. They believe in government force, central planning, experts, and big political personalities. That is because they are bad at math and this stuff is easy to write about, as compared to the normal trade and production that leads to peace, harmony, and prosperity. If we go Full Stalinist, they want to be in position to be one of the mandarins. 

    P.S. I just heard that nominal libertarian Joe Scarborough makes $5 million, I don’t know if that’s his contract or per year. Chris Matthews makes $5 million per year. I imagine that affects their behavior and value system.

    • #15
    • January 30, 2019, at 7:48 AM PST
    • Like
  16. OldDanRhody, 7152 Maple Dr. Member

    John H. (View Comment):
    (Fun tho’ useless mental exercise: picture a journalist’s mind melting as he tries to fix, or even grasp the concept of, a “race condition.”)

    Hahahaha! (Wipes coffee off of monitor).

    • #16
    • January 30, 2019, at 8:07 AM PST
    • Like
  17. Guruforhire Member

    OldDanRhody (View Comment):

    John H. (View Comment):
    (Fun tho’ useless mental exercise: picture a journalist’s mind melting as he tries to fix, or even grasp the concept of, a “race condition.”)

    Hahahaha! (Wipes coffee off of monitor).

    They may be good at run time polymorphism though.

    • #17
    • January 30, 2019, at 8:22 AM PST
    • Like
  18. PHenry Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    Are programming jobs in your field often reliable? 

    I have been working on the same software since 1997. ( the company has been merged and sold multiple times, but the software and I persist. ) Of course, I am the exception in this industry. 

    At to journalists, I would prefer they do not learn to code. I work with enough people who have excessive training yet can’t write basic decent code. I often say, a degree in computer science does not make one a good programmer any more than a degree in English makes one a good novelist. Besides, with the competition from offshore these days, I think the market is filled. 

     

    I do find it interesting, however, that programming is today’s example of a skill that will be a dependable career. When I was in high school, Programmer was scoffed at as a poor career choice, as all the code that would ever be needed would be written by 1990! 

    I was a geek who didn’t care about my ‘marketability’, I just liked to code and had a knack. It worked out for me!

    • #18
    • January 30, 2019, at 8:28 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  19. FredGoodhue Coolidge

    I do find it interesting, however, that programming is today’s example of a skill that will be a dependable career. When I was in high school, Programmer was scoffed at as a poor career choice, as all the code that would ever be needed would be written by 1990!

    I was a geek who didn’t care about my ‘marketability’, I just liked to code and had a knack. It worked out for me!

    When I was in school in the early 1980, programming was considered as secure career choice.

    • #19
    • January 30, 2019, at 8:39 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  20. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    FredGoodhue (View Comment):
    Most of programming is doing it wrong and getting instant feedback that you’re wrong.

    Instant feedback…what a Noob! 8-)

    I was writing code back when if you were lucky you got two clean compiles per day. key your changes, submit you compile, wait an hour so for it to get into the processing queue, then another 20-30 minutes for the compile and link cycle. Only then did you got to test.

    • #20
    • January 30, 2019, at 8:45 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  21. FredGoodhue Coolidge

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    FredGoodhue (View Comment):
    Most of programming is doing it wrong and getting instant feedback that you’re wrong.

    Instant feedback…what a Noob! 8-)

    I was writing code back when if you were lucky you got two clean compiles per day. key your changes, submit you compile, wait an hour so for it to get into the processing queue, then another 20-30 minutes for the compile and link cycle. Only then did you got to test.

    I did a little punch card work in school, but once I was out in the world, they were history. I do remember 45 minute compiles. It was able to keep up with the trade journals back then.

    • #21
    • January 30, 2019, at 8:50 AM PST
    • 1 like
  22. PHenry Member

    FredGoodhue (View Comment):
    When I was in school in the early 1980, programming was considered as secure career choice.

    I was in high school in the 70’s. It changed very rapidly once the PC became accepted.

    Another anecdote, I took typing and was the only male in the class. It was considered ‘pre secretarial’ training. 

    • #22
    • January 30, 2019, at 8:50 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  23. PHenry Member

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Instant feedback…what a Noob! 8-)

    I was writing code back when if you were lucky you got two clean compiles per day. key your changes, submit you compile, wait an hour so for it to get into the processing queue, then another 20-30 minutes for the compile and link cycle. Only then did you got to test.

    ;) in college, you submitted your latest code and came back tomorrow to see if it even compiled. I got good at writing very clean code, otherwise you could spend weeks cleaning out the syntax errors! 

    • #23
    • January 30, 2019, at 8:52 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  24. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    PHenry (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Instant feedback…what a Noob! 8-)

    I was writing code back when if you were lucky you got two clean compiles per day. key your changes, submit you compile, wait an hour so for it to get into the processing queue, then another 20-30 minutes for the compile and link cycle. Only then did you got to test.

    ;) in college, you submitted your latest code and came back tomorrow to see if it even compiled. I got good at writing very clean code, otherwise you could spend weeks cleaning out the syntax errors!

    I made my career in 1989 by getting a system live that was about 2 years behind schedule. They put me on it and I had it up and running in production in 6 months.

    My secret? I’d take a clean compile printout of the main batch processing program home with me at the end of the day, mark up my changes over dinner, drive back into the office (no dial up back then), key my changes and submit the next compile so I’d have the printout waiting on my desk the next morning. Five extra turns per week.

     

    • #24
    • January 30, 2019, at 8:57 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  25. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette

    My own niche is one of the more inflexible ones: I write machine control software, both the operator console part (the human-machine interface, or HMI) and the embedded portion (the software that runs inside the machine).

    The machines my customers sell are, for the most part, related to the print and publishing businesses: they make books. In particular, they make small numbers — often just one or two — of a particular book, and they do it in an automated way that doesn’t require mechanical setup or the material waste normally associated with book manufacture. But it doesn’t matter too much what the machines do. What matters is that they’re machines, with lots of moving parts, and the software that controls them has to be pretty correct and pretty reliable, or production stops, material gets wasted, and, potentially, people get hurt.

    I do most of my HMI work in C++, C#, and VB.NET. The embedded stuff is done in a variety of languages, depending on the controllers (specialized computers that control motors and valves and such) that a particular machine uses. When I’m lucky, embedded code is done in C, but there are a variety of proprietary languages used by different controller manufacturers, each with various oddities. When you’ve been programming long enough, languages tend to become interchangeable (within reason): C++ and Java and Python and VB all feel the same. (There’s a class of languages, the so-called functional languages, Haskell and Caml, for example, that I’ve just never gotten my mind wrapped around. I learn new tricks pretty well for an old dog, but I’m still an old dog, and the old tricks keep me pretty busy.)

    Someone mentioned control, the feeling of being in control of something. That’s what hooked me on programming, way back in the dark days when C++ was just a glimmer in Bjarne Stroustrup’s eye and memory still came in Ks. The computer, with its operating system, creates a well-defined and bounded world, complete with its own virtual environment and strictly-enforced laws. I liked the fact that I could control that environment — that, to the extent that I complied with the natural laws of that world, I could do anything I wanted with it. There’s nothing sloppy or ambiguous about it, and that resonated — still resonates — with me.

     

     

    • #25
    • January 30, 2019, at 9:25 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  26. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    I write machine control software, both the operator console part (the human-machine interface, or HMI) and the embedded portion (the software that runs inside the machine).

    Do you do any threat modelling as part of your code design / quality process?

    • #26
    • January 30, 2019, at 9:51 AM PST
    • Like
  27. Old Bathos Moderator

    Why learn to code? Here are some alternative job description elements in the software industry:

    • Specialize in identifying software and related content that is insensitive, patriarchal, homophobic, racist or otherwise triggering.
    • Write blog posts and other filler content about how Java/Javascript, C++, Python etc are all rigid, impersonal, unforgiving and don’t get simple English expressions about feelings. i.e., “Coding is a form or rape” is like so ready to go viral like now.
    • Provide witty, uplifting, inclusive dialogue for game avatars to say while killing other game figures and notify activist groups if your suggested language is not used.
    • Write guidelines for cubicle décor, proper clothing, acceptable foods to be stored in the office fridge and permissible conversation. (Do coders like ever talk and stuff or do they just type stuff. Who knows, right?)
    • Preparing forms for complaints about cubicle décor, clothing, acceptable foods to be stored in the office fridge and unwanted conversation content.

    A majority of Google employees are probably now doing the above sorts of things most of the time so why learn to code?

    Key advice: Be sure to apply for coding jobs for which you are entirely unqualified to rack up rejections. That way you can be eligible to join any class action suit that says that coding skills cannot be part of any job description because said qualification always has an illegal disparate impact.

    • #27
    • January 30, 2019, at 10:34 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  28. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Why learn to code? Here are some alternative job description elements in the software industry:

    • Specialize in identifying software and related content that is insensitive, patriarchal, homophobic, racist or otherwise triggering.
    • Write blog posts and other filler content about how Java/Javascript, C++, Python etc are all rigid, impersonal, unforgiving and don’t get simple English expressions about feelings. i.e., “Coding is a form or rape” is like so ready to go viral like now.
    • Provide witty, uplifting, inclusive dialogue for game avatars to say while killing other game figures and notify activist groups if your suggested language is not used.
    • Write guidelines for cubicle décor, proper clothing, acceptable foods to be stored in the office fridge and permissible conversation. (Do coders like ever talk and stuff or do they just type stuff. Who knows, right?)
    • Preparing forms for complaints about cubicle décor, clothing, acceptable foods to be stored in the office fridge and unwanted conversation content.

    A majority of Google employees are probably now doing the above sorts of things most of the time so why learn to code?

    Key advice: Be sure to apply for coding jobs for which you are entirely unqualified to rack up rejections. That way you can be eligible to join any class action suit that says that coding skills cannot be part of any job description because said qualification always has an illegal disparate impact.

    OldB,

    The major complaint by Google employees, “Where’s my email, it disappeared!” After having access to a computer for their entire life they still don’t know what a window is or what a tab inside a window is. This is weird knowledge that only nerds have that’s not for the very woke. If you try to explain it to them you realize that their attention span is less than 7 seconds after which they ignore anything you say.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #28
    • January 30, 2019, at 10:50 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  29. Guruforhire Member

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Why learn to code? Here are some alternative job description elements in the software industry:

    • Specialize in identifying software and related content that is insensitive, patriarchal, homophobic, racist or otherwise triggering.
    • Write blog posts and other filler content about how Java/Javascript, C++, Python etc are all rigid, impersonal, unforgiving and don’t get simple English expressions about feelings. i.e., “Coding is a form or rape” is like so ready to go viral like now.
    • Provide witty, uplifting, inclusive dialogue for game avatars to say while killing other game figures and notify activist groups if your suggested language is not used.
    • Write guidelines for cubicle décor, proper clothing, acceptable foods to be stored in the office fridge and permissible conversation. (Do coders like ever talk and stuff or do they just type stuff. Who knows, right?)
    • Preparing forms for complaints about cubicle décor, clothing, acceptable foods to be stored in the office fridge and unwanted conversation content.

    A majority of Google employees are probably now doing the above sorts of things most of the time so why learn to code?

    Key advice: Be sure to apply for coding jobs for which you are entirely unqualified to rack up rejections. That way you can be eligible to join any class action suit that says that coding skills cannot be part of any job description because said qualification always has an illegal disparate impact.

    So…. You get github then.

    • #29
    • January 30, 2019, at 10:58 AM PST
    • 1 like
  30. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Henry Racette: But it’s going to require something new from you: a commitment to reality, to comprehensive analysis, to an open-minded consideration of the various sides and aspects of a problem. Approach it that way and you may be successful.

    Many were able to have journalist careers without learning to write, but your saying incoherent left leaning code won’t work the same way?

    • #30
    • January 30, 2019, at 11:29 AM PST
    • 2 likes