What Coding and Great Wine Have in Common


Not every coder job involves working in a blue chip tech company or Silicon Valley startups.

As British technologist, Conrad Wolfram said in a TED talk on teaching math with computers: “In the real world math isn’t necessarily done by mathematicians. It’s done by geologists, engineers, biologists, all sorts of different people.”

The same applies for computer science. Just ask Alex Tran, Fellowship Program Manager at Code for America, a nonprofit “civic startup accelerator” that sees coding as a new form of public service. Each year, he works with over twenty startups and fellows who build a variety of apps and online programs to improve how citizens engage and interact with their communities. So far, they’ve built tools for services like community disaster management, food stamps, virtual townhalls, student data interoperability, and even snazzy icons.

“Coding literacy is a huge part of our future as a country, and it will be integrated into every aspect of our government and every other sector that people will work in,” says Tran. “In the future, there’ll only be more opportunities for young people to go into careers where technical and public sectors intersect.”

Computer science is transforming industries--and igniting a renaissance in the creating of things. Just as in the 1950s, when writing and communications skills became the essence of the paradigmatic "white collar" job, increasingly every artisan, manufacturer and entrepreneur who makes something will need to code.

Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, calls coding “an extension of writing.” Mashable describes it a “21st century literacy.” Just as we write words to map and make sense of ideas, we code to organize and present data in meaningful ways. We write to tell our stories through essays and articles; so, too, do websites and apps offer their own narratives about the world. Like writing, coding can help channel our creativity and solve problems. (And both “good” writing and coding ought to be elegant, clear, and concise.)

At a deeper level, the push to introduce coding to younger students reflects a larger, back-to-the-future movement to return creativity, tinkering, and exploration to the learning process. There’s been a revival of Makerspaces and other garage workshops that use hands-on activities to turn abstract principles into tangible objects. After all, one can read about trigonometry in a textbook--or go create a cell phone case from a 3-D printer.

It’s the message championed by the MAKE and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement, which urges everyone to be creators--not merely consumers--of technology. (Or, as author Douglas Rushkoff ominously put it, “Program or Be Programmed.”

Increasingly, industries across the board are seeking coders--and there are now talent agencies specifically for coders (similar to how Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes are represented by agents). Here’s just a small sampling:

  • Napa Valley vineyards use increasingly sophisticated technologies to monitor natural conditions like temperature, soil moisture, dew points, and other factors that affect the quality of grapes. On a similar vein, savvy brewers have used the $25 Raspberry Pi micro-PC to create the BrewPi, an Arduino that monitors temperature and other fermentation-related factors.

  • Fashion has been going high tech for online retail catalogues and recommending outfits. Algorithms for visual searches and predictive analytics may soon forecast next season’s hottest styles at the local GAP. New designers on the scene, like Jana Hanzel and Mandy Coon, studied computer science in school. And with Google glasses at the forefront of a new wave of wearable technologies, there’ll be ample opportunities where the computer science and fashion industries converge.

  • Musicians have been doing “live coding,” improv performances where artists code to  manipulate music on the fly. Here’s a classical-sounding etude composed entirely in Scratch from a University of Massachusetts music professor. Or, for the more experimental, there are laptop bands, such as this group from Germany, churning out some seriously psychedelic tunes.

Efforts to demystify computer science education and bring into the mainstream are picking up. Startups like Codecademy, CodeHS, and LearnStreet (just to name a few) have launched online platforms each offering to teach the world to code. Programs like ID Tech Camps, KidsCodeCamp, and CoderDojo offer classes around the clock (and world) with coaches mentoring kids through coding projects.

Schools like Beaver Country Day School in Brookline, MA, are making computer science a mandatory requirement for high school graduation. Beginning in fall 2013, the school will integrate computer science education into its geometry class, followed by arts and music. “For any school struggling with student engagement with math, this is a no-brainer,” says math department chair, Rob MacDonald. On the other coast, Aspire Public Schools, a charter network based in California, recently announced the “Code Aspire” program to introduce coding to elementary-grade students.

Making coding a curriculum or graduation requirement is only the beginning. As a language, coding crosses disciplines, industries and cultures. As a tool, coding creates the opportunity to take an idea, scale it, and make an impact that reaches across the globe.

It really gives a new meaning to that classic first lesson in programming class: print “Hello World”. 

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