As I have mentioned before, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to start learning how to code. Before the start of the year I had a vague idea of why coding was valuable, but I always assumed that I could always count on someone else, who’s brain didn’t bleed upon clicking ‘view source’, could handle it. A whirlwind of reading on the topic since then has made me realise how wrong I was - coding is essential.
Computers are pervasive in our everyday society. It is becoming virtually impossible to work in a job or exist in the world without coming into contact with a computer of some kind. Computers wake me up, remind me of appointments and store my memories. They help me manage my to-do list, let me keep in contact with everyone who matters and entertain me when I am bored. I found my job, which depends on computers, through using a computer - and the list of jobs that could only exist in a world dominated by computers is rising, fast. When I see someone failing to understand a basic computer-based task I give them the same look my father (a mechanic) gives me when I turn a screwdriver the wrong way or struggle to change a tire. Ironically the majority of problems he grew up fixing on cars can now only be fixed with the aid of a computer. With computers so prevalent, the ability to manipulate software is invaluable. People who can code can actually change the way the world works around them. Being able to code today is like knowing how to build a house was in the days of the Wild Wild West – vast acres of cheap land have opened up, brimming with opportunity, and all it takes is someone to take a risk and apply their skills to make a fortune.
Most of us are perhaps unlikely to consider a career change to programmer, but when you hear that Facebook pays new hires (straight from a computer science degree) a signing bonus of $50k, a salary of $100k per year, $5k to relocate to California (as if anyone needed to be paid to relocate there!?) and over $120k in stock… you surely freak out a little bit. Those astronomical wages aren’t being paid because Facebook is overly generous – they are in the middle of a hiring war with the other tech titans of Silicon Valley (and the world) because the ability to program is severely in demand. Google, LinkedIn and Twitter are offering similar wage packages. In January 2011 Google offered all employees a 10% raise across the board, coupled with a tax-free $1000 dollar bonus, in part because as many as 20% of Facebook’s employees have been recruited from Google. I like to think that even if I become a fraction as good at coding as that computer science grad in my spare time, I could learn to automate a few recurring tasks in my current job and maybe earn myself a healthy bonus.
If you want to start your own business, the returns are even greater. The majority of startups are now tech startups. Even Groupon, with a simple non-technical business model, is hiring a large tech team to help it automate processes and sift through buying data to optimise its products. Sure it is possible to be a non-technical founder of a startup, but I would argue that you can only manage what you know – would you volunteer to coach a football team if you had never kicked a ball? If you don’t speak the same language as a programmer, or understand how they think, then how will you manage them? Would they even respect you enough to work hard for your cause? Wouldn’t they rather work for a manager at another tech startup that isn’t just a ‘suit’, that actually understands the technical challenges they are facing?
At this point you would be right to ask whether all of this is a temporary blip in the market – an imbalance caused by too little Math / IT emphasis in schools that will eventually be ironed out as people see the value and move towards those roles. Although I do believe that addressing this imbalance will be attempted, I doubt that the market will correct itself anytime soon. All of the evidence is pointing to us being on a cusp of a new industrial revolution.
Three hundred years ago the wealthiest people owned the land. Agriculture and shelter were the source of all wealth and those who had the most land by default had the most power and wealth. Wars were fought and atrocities committed to expand territories. Then suddenly 120 years ago the industrial revolution turned everything on its head. Machines started automating jobs normally done by people and whole new industries were born. Agriculture now only makes up 2% of the economy in the UK but in those days before the industrial revolution it was the leading employer by miles. With the upheaval came social struggles but ultimately the revolution generated unprecedented sums of wealth. Titans of industry such as Dale Carnegie and Henry Ford and their contemporaries became wealthier than land-barons, kings and even many countries. The factories and processes that made this possible became worth more than the land they were built on. Since the 1990’s the same shift is occurring – the information economy is destroying manufacturing jobs and further automating tasks. Computer programs are making machines more efficient whilst making old style machines obsolete. Now the computer programs are worth more than the machines they run on, moving manual workers with no ability to code even further down the pecking order. With the advent of 3D printing, nano-technology and advances in Artificial Intelligence, the list of jobs that can only be done by a human is shrinking.
The World’s biggest companies are now tech companies – Apple is worth $600 billion: this makes it the most valuable company in the world with only 60,000 employees. To put that in perspective, Foxconn, manufacturer of Apple products, largest exporter from China and employer of 1.2 million employees, is worth less than 1% of Apple. Apple is worth more than the entire economies of Greece, Portugal and Spain in part because the clever programming in their products helps automate and make inexpensive, tasks that were costly or time-consuming previously. I know people will laugh when they hear me equate Apple and inexpensive, but just owning an iPhone gives you a GPS, communication device, a virtual secretary and more access to information than Bill Clinton had when he was president. Apple isn’t the only pioneer of the information age - Google’s entire mission is to “organise the World’s information” and has built a $200 billion business on using that information to serve Ads. Facebook is set to be worth $100 billion on its knowledge of consumer behaviour.
Rather than my starting point, convincing myself it would be nice to know how to code, my reading around the subject has made me feel like it is a biological imperative for survival. It is possible to squeeze in a career around the cracks created by these titans of tech and there will always be manual work in some areas, but anyone who is ambitious should seriously be considering some heavy study time. Luckily, learning is easier than ever (and free!). Resources like OpenCourseWare give you access to world-class lectures on the subject and I have really enjoyed letting Codecademy hold my hand through the baby steps I have taken so far, but there are thousands of other sites like this available. Hell, if 12-year-old kids are building apps by now then surely a grown adult can manage. In fact, it means that I had less time than I thought – what am I doing still writing this blog post?