Friday, November 06, 2009

But I Don’t Want to be a Programmer

One of the things I hear pretty regularly is that not everyone needs (or wants) to be a programmer. Some people want or perhaps even need to do some programming or more generally programming like activities but they don’t want to be full time programmers or computer scientists. These people can be a lot more effective and productive if they at least learn the basics at a fairly good level. Mark Guzdial talks about some of this on a recent post called Talk on Meeting Everyone’s Needs for Computing

The “bigger” problem is the number of people who program and who want to learn more computer science, but who do not want to become CS majors or learn to be software engineers.  A paper out of CMU predicts that we’ll have around 3 million software developers in the US in 2012, and about 13 million end-user programmers.

Another term that comes into use is non-professional programmers. In other words these are people who program but do not do it as their career/full-time profession. Non-professional programmers is actually a super set that includes end-user programmers and people who programmer recreationally or hobbyists. Yes there are people who write code for fun. Lots and lots of them.

Thirty five years ago when I was first learning to program the idea of a software hobbyist was a pretty strange idea. They did exist of course but you had to have some real money (unlike Bill Gates I could not afford to buy an Altair computer to play with) and some serious interest. learning to program was pretty difficult. It was mostly assembly language on computers that hobbyists could get access to. The idea of end-user programmers was even more of a strange concept. Computers were kept in locked rooms with access tightly controlled and limited to highly trained professionals. All that has changed now.

Computer science and programming have now become a life skill. It is something “regular people” can use in their daily jobs, for fun, and as a mental exercise. Computers are inexpensive and most people have access to them. Development software is cheap (often free) and easy to acquire. (See Microsoft Visual Studio Express Editions for example) In daily work life people have access to programming to modify their existing tools (see creating macros for Excel for example) Just last night I talked to a high school student who told me he was habitually creating macros for Excel to solve tasks. I suspect that he will have a huge advantage as a knowledge worker totally apart from any programming type jobs.

I think that schools should be making sure that students have the option to learn and use these sorts of tools. Teaching computer science is not just about turning out computer programmers any more. Today teaching computer science is about supplying students with the tools to succeed in just about any field they go into. And as a plus some of them may find a lifelong hobby. You don’t have to be a fantastic physical specimen to create a great computer game. of course this mean we have to teach the subject well and in ways that interest students – that make them relevant to them. Media computation seems like a great example. game development? Sure. Robots? Sure. And yeah we can do the math thing for the math geeks. :-) But at the very least we need to expose everyone to this field. Let them try it first before they decide it is not something they want to learn and use.

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