Computer Science Is More Than Just Coding

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Last month the White House celebrated the progress of President Obama’s ambitious Computer Science for All initiative. Since the launch of the program in January, a dozen states have taken action to expand access to computer science courses. Rhode Island, for instance, launched a series of partnerships aimed at providing coding classes in every public school by 2017.

Computer science has only recently registered as more than a blip on our national education radar. Today policymakers and pundits are infatuated with a discipline they believe will drive economic growth and address the shifting demands of our largest employers.

But it would be a mistake to think of Computer Science for All as simply the latest response to employer demand for a better qualified workforce, or worse, a faddish investment to address fleeting economic demands in a cycle of “alarm, boom and bust.”

Computer Science for All reflects the Obama administration’s concerns that an economy based mostly on high-tech industries will exacerbate wage and income inequality unless a more diverse talent pipeline can be created. Here are the reasons why the initiative is about more than simply teaching more people how to code:

Tech’s Diversity Problem

A combination of factors contribute to hiring practices that benefit candidates most like the interviewer—which, in a white- and male-dominated field like technology, have further marginalized qualified minority or female candidates. Lyn Muldrow, a single mom who had to make tough choices about her career when returning to the workforce, told me that she “almost didn't pursue tech because, as a black woman, my opinions might not be validated." Though she ultimately became a web developer, she had good reason to feel that way.

Computer Science for All is about growing the top of the funnel in a market where men with a science and engineering degree are twice as likely to be employed in a STEM job as women. Four percent of computer science graduates in 2013 were black, and 7.7 percent were Hispanic, and yet most tech firms hire far fewer minority candidates. Bloomberg Business recently highlighted some of the challenges minority candidates face when applying to powerhouse Silicon Valley firms.

Computer Science Isn’t a Trade

Not every child who learns to code will become a computer programmer or even work in a high-tech field or company. President Obama is fond of explaining that “Today’s auto mechanics aren’t just sliding under cars to change the oil; they’re working on machines that run on as many as 100 million lines of code.” Less than 10 percent of app developers work for software firms. As of April 2015, Goldman Sachs employed more programmers and engineers than Facebook.

Computer Science Is About Much More Than STEM

Computer science is fundamentally about logic, reasoning and problem solving. It teaches us how to harness technology to address complex, multidimensional challenges, to think through systems and adapt. It has the potential to help foster a generation who can think logically, parse complicated algorithms and solve problems. Exposure to and education in computer science makes us better thinkers and doers, regardless of the fields we pursue—and helps to develop more adaptive, resilient graduates—regardless of their career path.

The Beginning and End of Hybrid Jobs

Titles like “digital marketer” or “digital experience expert” describe the mash-up of skills required for many of today’s most sought-after jobs. So-called “hybrid jobs” combine programming skills and offline skills such as analysis, design or marketing, and are increasingly important functions in our digital economy. Hybrid jobs are among the fastest-growing and best careers in today’s job market—more than 250,000 positions were open in the last year alone, and the average starting salary for them is upwards of $100,000.

But the rise of hybrid jobs is likely to be short-lived. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll just call them jobs. Soon, a baseline understanding of computer science will be required for every job. Those without it will be left behind.

Prioritizing computer science education will solve immediate workforce limitations, but more importantly it will give us a generation of problem-solvers who can wrestle with the complex challenges that vex our communities. We know firsthand that by empowering people with the right skills, we can prepare those who experience barriers to succeed for the most in-demand jobs in tech. But early exposure, encouragement and inspiration can prevent the formation of those barriers in the first place.

Tom Ogletree (@tom_ogletree) is director of social impact at General Assembly.

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