Software developer revives debate about whether journalists should learn to code

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This week's debate in the software development community about whether everyone should learn to code shows that journalists aren't the only ones who have religious wars. Developer Jeff Atwood started this one with his screed, "Please don't learn to code," spurred in part by "Code Year," Codecademy's yearlong effort to get people to learn programming.

To those who argue programming is an essential skill we should be teaching our children, right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic: can you explain to me how Michael Bloomberg would be better at his day to day job of leading the largest city in the USA if he woke up one morning as a crack Java coder? It is obvious to me how being a skilled reader, a skilled writer, and at least high school level math are fundamental to performing the job of a politician. Or at any job, for that matter. But understanding variables and functions, pointers and recursion? I can't see it.

His post is worth a read not just to see his reasoning, but because you can see how he turns tweets like this one from venture capitalist Fred Wilson:

"A young man asked me for advice 'for those who aren't technical.' I said he should try to get technical."


"A young man asked me for advice 'for those who aren't plumbers.' I said he should try to become a plumber."

No one has written a single line of code since Atwood posted this; everyone has been too busy tweeting, blogging, and snarking in response.

The debate reminded me of "bloggers vs. journalists"; I was chagrined to see that Lisa Williams beat me to the analogy.

A version of this debate has been ongoing for some time in the journalism world, with some people arguing that more journalists should learn to code. A small, small part of the discussion about Atwood's post:

One of the responses to Atwood's post squarely addresses the issue within journalism:

Even if someone who learned how to "code" never ends up as a "coder" professionally, they will be much better for having learned to think algorithmically and in the abstract. However, I bet that knowing how to write a quick script here and there will make them much more valuable in whatever profession they choose.

Speaking of algorithms, just a couple of days ago I heard an NPR story called "Algorithms: The Ever-Growing, All-Knowing Way Of The Future." It was a fascinating story about all the ways companies are using complex calculations to sift through data so they can recommend movies and predict insurgencies.

Reporter Laura Sydell needed to boil down some pretty complex stuff for a general audience, so she structured everything around a single word, "algorithm." But by reducing it to a single word, she ended up oversimplifying the subject and leading listeners to believe that algorithms are an amazing new thing. They're not. The story is really about how companies sift through mountains of data and make sense of it all.

Some journalists should learn how to code; others should learn enough to communicate with the smart people in the office tasked with building news apps; more should take a data-centered approach to their work, and pretty much everyone should understand how computers and the Internet work so they can properly explain things to their audiences.

Regardless of whether they ever write a line of code, it's becoming more important to understand these things. I'll leave it Sacha Greif, a designer and coder in Paris, to make the point:

“Learning to code” doesn’t always mean becoming the next Linus Torvalds, just like “learning to cook” doesn’t mean opening a 3-stars restaurant.

It simply means having a basic grasp of how computers work instead of blindly following whatever a talking paperclip tells you (and maybe eventually being able to program your own talking paperclips).

Related: Federal judge learns to code during trial (O'Reilly Radar)

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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