“Fill in the blank with the biggest thing you feel is true,” I asked Hadi Partovi, reading off my notebook in a small downtown conference room. “ ‘Learning how to code is as important as learning … ’”
Partovi put his head in his hands and thought for a long moment.
“I would say it’s as important as learning the basics of science,” he said. “Anything you learn in sixth grade, learning to code is as important as that.”
Partovi, a Seattle investor and entrepreneur who’s sold companies to Microsoft and MySpace, is easily the strongest, most passionate advocate anywhere for the importance of learning how to code. In eight months his nonprofit, Code.org, has ignited a push from its small Second Avenue office to see coding taught in every American school. In China, students must learn code to graduate.
Here, 90 percent of schools don’t teach it. And in most states, taking a coding class doesn’t even count toward graduation.
But to me the most compelling argument for learning how to code is not about schools or even jobs, mighty as those motivators are, and should be. It’s about these basics. On Earth, atoms make things up, and gravity makes things fall. On digital, instructions code behaviors that build systems that every day run more and more of our lives. How we talk. How we move. How we exchange goods and services and information.
Code isn’t how a world works. It’s how the world works.
So even if you’re not a student, even if you’re not looking for a different job, try this question on for size: If you don’t know how your world is built, how can you hope to thrive in it?
It’s a loaded outlook, if you choose to accept it, and not a widespread one — yet. In Code.org’s latest video (its first has 10 million views), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicts that in 15 years, basic programming will be as important a skill as reading and writing, and that “We’re going to look back and wonder why it took us so long” to realize it.
Is that the exaggeration of a multibillionaire who changed the world with a computer? Maybe. But what if it’s not?
“A lot of people don’t like how fast things are changing, because it puts the burden on them to catch up,” Partovi said. “There’s no two ways about it. Things are changing.”
OK. So let’s say coding really is that important. What does it mean to know how to do it?
Code is language, a way to talk to computers to get them to do things. But it’s unlike any spoken language we use in that it speaks in concepts, not words. Partovi compares working with code to working with Legos. There aren’t many different types of pieces, but you can build anything with them.
Hypertext Markup Language, better known as HTML, is the simplest way to build a Web page. It tells a computer what to do, but since all it does is give steps to lay out a document, it doesn’t really count as code, Partovi said.
Neither does, say, typing a quick formula into a cell on an Excel spreadsheet. But type layers of formulas into Excel, something that manages budgets or oversees data, and you’re onto something. To understand the concepts of code, you don’t need to build whole apps on something fancy like Ruby on Rails or PHP. You just need to teach a computer a behavior.
Partovi told me about a lawyer he knows who realized she was going to have to work on Excel for five weeks to complete a task. In one week, she taught herself enough code to get Excel to do the work itself, saving her four weeks of hassle.
For years I assumed people who code have a natural affinity for math or logic. Then my husband, who loves math as little as I do, taught himself to make a bookmarking app in a couple months.
I saw him struggle through bug after bug, Googling fixes for hours until he found them. That revised my assumption: Coding takes an innate obsession with problem solving. Still, not something I know I have.
Talking to Partovi made me revise that assumption again. It’s not an addiction to problem solving that drives people to code. It’s not something you either have or you don’t. It’s the pull of a creative medium so capable, transparent and responsive, yet so reliant on its creator’s precision, that once you have a picture in your head of what you want that computer to do, you can’t let go until you get it right.
When I read him the column up to here, my husband got his copy of Fred Brooks’ “The Mythical Man-Month,” his favorite book on programming, and read me this: “The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were or could be.”
One taste of that power, and who knows? Even you or I may find ourselves going back to that most powerful language in our world, again and again and again.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.