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An Assembly Line of Coding Students? Tough Questions for the Computer Science Movement

By Jenny Abamu     Dec 5, 2017

What does it really mean to prepare students for a future in coding careers? Clive Thompson, a freelance writer for Wired and The New York Times magazine, thinks the reality is not as rosy as many people think.

In a popular Wired article titled, The Next Big Blue-Collar Job is Coding, Thompson criticizes pop culture and some writers, like himself, for overly romanticizing the notion of the ‘lone genius coder’—the Mark Zuckerbergs and Mr. Robots of the world—saying that’s not what every coder looks like and that's not what many coders will be.

Thompson recently talked with EdSurge about the future of programming work in the United States and the realities students will face in their future job searches. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to a complete version of the interviews below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: Refresh us on why you think coding will be the blue-collar work of the future?

Thompson: It’s partly because it’s growing so widely, rapidly and broadly. If you look at all the different categories of work and you look at the labor-force projections, programming jobs are set to grow pretty well. In fact, the whole thing is set to expand by 12 percent by 2024. That's a lot faster than most other occupations.

The second thing is that the jobs are very diverse and all over the place. When we hear of coding we think of the person that goes to Silicon Valley. He’ll make some app and the app maybe blows up or doesn’t blow up. It’s that idea, ‘I'm going to make a piece of software that everyone’s going to use.’ The truth is that's a very, very small chunk of the coding universe. In fact, only on the order of only but 8 percent of all the programmers in the United States work in Silicon Valley. The rest are everywhere else.

Whatever town you're in, they need coders. Whatever state you're in, they need coders. Those jobs are often about things that are more like maintenance, right? For example, there’s a bank. The bank has what they call a frontend. It has the design that you see when you log in. That's all JavaScript. Every once in awhile, every few months, browsers change and someone has to be there to maintain and make sure all the JavaScript is compliant with the latest form of the browser—to make sure things don’t break and make sure any security bugs are fixed. So that type of work is really steady. It’s going to be necessary for decades and decades. It’s skilled work, and it pays really well.

When you look at any state, particularly outside the coastal states, they have trouble recruiting because when people think of programming they tend to head off to one of those big hubs. There are all these coding jobs. They're necessary. They're well paid. They don’t necessarily require the super hot-shot coder. It could be someone who retrains in the middle of their career because they don’t like what they're doing. They study some coding and they learn it and it becomes a really steady job. This is what I'm actually picking up on when I call it blue collar work.

When we think of blue-collar work we think of people working making houses, building cars and things like that. Those jobs have been going away, right? There are these jobs that are very much like blue-collar jobs, and they're programming jobs.

What else can you tell us about the future economy? Based on your past research, what would be the best-paying computer science work versus other blue-collar things?

I couldn’t necessarily tell you a blow-by-blow comparison with other industries because I specialize mostly in technology. I can tell you, there are different categories of work in technology. The lower-paying ones would be the ones that are like phone-banking work. You're trained in a corporate product and people are calling when they have trouble, and you have to try and help them out. That's often an entry-level job that you can get without a degree or anything like that, but it doesn’t pay very well.

Next up the chain would be things like a web developer. Someone comes to you and says, “Hey, we need these websites built for our company, or We've got a website and we need it fixed.” That's a big jump up in pay. It’s often very independent, too. Those are types of jobs that you can train yourself on by experimenting and learning stuff online. They bill by the hour and they pay pretty well.

The highest level in coding work is when you're like a software developer. That's where someone’s coming to you and saying, ‘There's an entire application that we need made. Maybe we’re a company and let’s say we have people putting in orders for our service. We need an application that takes those orders via the web and sends them out automatically to all of our contractors and drivers via text messaging.’ At that level, you're making extremely good upper-middle-class money. So, those are some of the categories that you get into.

When you stop thinking about this like, ‘make your billions by being Mark Zuckerberg in San Francisco,’ then you start thinking of it like, ‘make your steady middle-class living that lets you actually have a family and an affordable house and a retirement in Ohio,’ then you start to think that the way we educate people needs to change.

If you wanted to formally study computer science, you would go and get a four-year degree in computer science. The upside of that is that those people if you have the money to pay for that, you will get a job. There is a much larger demand than the supply for four-year college degrees.

The problem is those are expensive. Secondarily, it’s a hard thing to retrain at in the middle of your career. Maybe you’ve got a couple of kids, and your company is at shutdown. You are not going to be able to pay to send yourself to get a four-year degree.

The other thing is the types of jobs we’re talking about here, you don’t need that four years of study of computer science. They're going to teach you all these complicated stuff about sorting algorithms and how to make something run unbelievably quickly and efficiently. Those are just not the things you're going to need to know to be able to fix someone’s website or to be able to make someone a website. To be able to make someone a simple database where they can store information and bring it back, you could learn that really well in a two-year part-time degree at a community college.

Or you could learn it in one of these boot camps. They have a mixed record of getting people hired. There could definitely be some appropriate regulation of that industry. I think it has great promise.

Speaking of those academies and coding boot camps, before we go to our next question I want to play a little clip for you. This clip is from a speech at SXSWedu, a large education technology conference. The person speaking in the clip is Christopher Emdin, an associate professor at Columbia University Teachers College.

I'm playing this clip by Dr. Emdin because it hints a little bit at his theory about coding work. It’s similar to what you said, but I think he has a harsher critic.

Emdin: There is a perception amongst young people that the whole world is setting up for a different economy while they're being left in the places that they're in.

This idea of preparing people to move amongst the stars is a reality in the contemporary STEM-focused era—where everybody wants to be so ‘STEM’ nobody’s actually doing science, technology, engineering or mathematics. This phrase that's taken on a meaning that is so different from what its intentions were. It’s completely separated from the idea that you want folks to engage in STEM so they can be part of the STEM economy.

People have coding academies popping up [everywhere]. This is not anti-coding academy. It’s anti- the perverse notion that I can go into a community, frame the charity I am giving them as opening new possibilities for students when in reality I still have low expectations of them. I'm teaching them how to press a button and watch something jump. I can name that a coding academy. But in reality, you're not treating them or teaching them to engage fully in STEM or the world of computer science. You're teaching and treating them as though they are part of a lower totem pole in that new economy. You could ‘coding academy’ your way into creating a new populous that's a worker in the STEM workforce. How is that any different than creating somebody who is just a worker in the existing workforce?

Emdin’s critiques of the emerging workforce is a bit harsher than what you described. He does note some interesting points about teaching coding in the low-income communities and preparing students to be part of what he calls “the lowest totem pole in the new economy.” I understand that's not what you're saying, but it shares a similar thread.

I want to know your thoughts on this drive to push coding into low-income communities. What do you think people are doing right? What do you think could use some improvement?

He’s absolutely right about one thing which is this. Historically whenever any field has just white guys doing it, it pays really well. That's just the way that privilege works out. In fact, what happened with coding was it started off as a thing that just women did in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the highly-paid stuff was making the machines. No one knew how to even physically make a computer. So that was where the heroic work was, the men did that, and they were like, “Well, issuing the instructions, that seems secretarial. Let’s let women do that.”

All the pioneering programmers of the ‘40s and ‘50s were literally all women. Of course what happened is that as programming became more valuable, it became where the glory was, all the white dudes moved in and took over. This is the story of the ’60s, ’70s, ‘80s and up to the ‘90s.

Now what's happening, and I think what the gentleman is speaking to, is that coding is now so broad a discipline. There's so much need for it. That there is like the super-elite stuff where you become a millionaire. Then there's the stuff that doesn’t pay as well that it’s almost like an equivalent of maybe like a pink-collar ghetto. Yes, it’s a white-collar job, you're in an office, but you're just a secretary. So he is correct I think that is emerging.

Already you can see, for example, that a lot of jobs that involve what they call front-end design, doing the JavaScript that displays the way a website’s going to work. Website’s code often needs to be rewritten very frequently because things change, and it’s seen as less heroic and more artistic. So, there's way more women and people from non-traditional backgrounds in that area, but the pay is lower and the prestige is lower.

So I don’t think he’s wrong at all. We've seen this pattern happen so many times in so many industries that it’s not surprising it’s happening in coding. That said, we’re still at a point now where for to the next 10 to 20 years I do think there is going to be a lot of good, pretty well-paying work in this area. Most of it is a lot better than what you get in really cruddy service-sector jobs.

This is a unique field, programming. Once you know a bit of it you can learn a lot more on your own, and you can grow into different areas. One of the big sexy areas for me right now is “machine learning” where you're training AI to be able to recognize things—do things on its own. It sounds like rocket science, but it’s really not. You just need to know enough of the coding to be able to go on and learn more about it. This in many ways is remarkable.

There's not a lot of other forms of engineering where you can self-train. If you want to build jets—aerospace engineering—they don’t let just self-trained amateurs show up at Boeing and start building planes alongside the pros. That happens all the time in software. I think this gentleman is [right to worry about] the low end. But if they have industry and ambition, it’s actually possible, even common, for people to move up. It’s definitely a lot harder for people that are not from Ivy League schools. All the inequities that you see in regular education are completely here, don’t get me wrong. 

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