Programming is the new High School Diploma

It used to be there were four tiers of work in the United States. The first tier was for the truly uneducated: the illiterate. The second tier was for people who could be counted on to read and write and perform basic math: the high school graduates. Then there were folks who could be counted on to learn a lot more and take up positions of greater complexity: the college graduates. Finally there was a spot in the job market every so often for an expert.

Newsflash: the second and third tier are going away. In it’s place is a single tier: people who are literate and are able to control computers. And we’re nowhere near ready for the changes coming.

Programming is the new High School Diploma.

Sure, it might be another decade or so until the rest of the world catches on, but we programmers, especially those of us over 40, already see it today. Forty years ago computers were specialty devices found only in the most obscure places, now they are everywhere. Until strong AI is discovered, we know there are severe limitations of canned programming. When I was a kid, nobody had computers. Now my dentist’s office has at least a dozen. Hell the dentist himself has 3 or 4 he walks around with.

As as consumer of pop-media, there might be an app for everything, but the way an economy works is people putting together disparate things into something new. There’s never going to be an app for your job. Because if there was an app for your job, your job would be on your way to being replaced by robots or outsourced.

The new “middle tier” of the workforce looks something like this: literate, able to use math and write well, able to read a manual and instruct computers to take various actions depending on various conditions. Note that I’m talking about entry-level work. This job segment will take over “old” jobs from both the illiterate sector, and the college-educated sector. Eventually, as robotics comes to fruition, it will consume every job niche but the true experts.

I think a fair criticism of this essay is “there’s nothing new here,” and in a general sense, that’s true. After all, we all saw this coming. As technologists, the more technology we deploy, the less mundane jobs there are in the world. That’s a given. But the flip side of that — the more advanced jobs there are — hasn’t really sank in for most of us. After all, we’re already programmers. In a way, as programmers we’re stove-piped; we see just the system that we’re writing and (hopefully) the repercussions of that. We don’t sit on the other end of the table and see a dozen jobs working a dozen manual processes replaced by three jobs working two dozen computer programs. While we see the good that we do for one task, we have absolutely no insight into all those thousands of new multiple-application jobs (and the real-world implications for people) scattered all over the economy.

This really sank in for me when I read that although the United States leads the world in manufacturing, it does so with an ever-decreasing number of jobs. Nobody wants people to stand on an assembly line; they want people to tell the robots what to do. The robots work on the assembly line. When I thought of robots, for some reason I just thought about manufacturing cars, but that change happened in like, 1990. What has happened with computers in my lifetime is now happening with robots. In the next couple of decades, just like the last, seeing robots will go from a rare curiosity to an everyday occurrence. The only jobs left will be those that deal with computers. Dealing with computers; programming, scripting, reading manuals, and connecting interfaces and data; it’s the new reading and writing.

Progress is good, and I can’t wait until we get a world where the truly dehumanizing jobs are all gone, but while these jobs are coming online now, the education system is nowhere near understanding this new reality.

The political implications of this for older industrialized societies are vast. If there ever was a “red alert” we could put on a problem, this should be it, for what is about to happen is truly going to be unprecedented. We are going to end up with societies that have developed complex automated support and production systems that they themselves cannot manage. There’s simply too much work and too little competence. Instead, outsourced programmers will be used to supervise and control much of this modernization over the net.

This will bring on even more commoditization of business practices than we already have. While your dentist could use a nurse who is able to do data mining and various programming tasks to help him optimize his business practices (and gain an edge on his competition), he won’t be able to find one. Instead, he’ll pitch in with dozens of other dentists to buy a pre-canned support system overseas, with real, live, English-speaking operators. They’ll be able to do the same tasks, sure, but they won’t be part of his team, programming and working the business problem intimately in an effort to innovate. Instead they’ll just be a fancy vending machine. As services stratify, the opportunity to take many different technologies and merge them together, inherent in programming, will be lost to hundreds of thousands of businesses of all kinds.

The critical question that needs answering right now is: how do we make people of all education and age levels into somewhat competent programmers?

ADD: I hope I’ve described “programming” broadly enough for you to get the gist. I have a strong feeling we all could end up in a deep and long discussion about just what I mean by “programmer” That’s probably a post for another day. LISP experience not required. The key here is learning and using all sorts of already programmed systems in scripted ways that are all edge cases. Also, as much as I love computers, this is also not an advocacy essay. I am not advocating one thing or another nor asking for your approval. Things are changing. We must adapt.

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14 thoughts on “Programming is the new High School Diploma

  1. HarryB

    Forty years ago (1972), computers existed only in the most obscure places, including universities, businesses, government… IBM 360/370 and other mainframes were chugging away in corporate data centers. IBM 3270 terminals and other terminals were appearing on office desks supporting some newfangled thing called time-sharing.
    And a newcomer called the minicomputer was starting to appear in branch office nooks and crannies. ;-)

    Reply
  2. Tim

    Awesome post. It definitely addresses the core issues of the “problems” with the downward trend of current job availability and the economy. I think you hit it spot on.
    I’d like to mention that I’ve kind of been on the receiving end of some angst towards generally tech-savvy people, and I have a feeling I’m not the only one. I’m a computer engineer, and I’ve noticed that when the topic of what I do for a living comes up and the person I’m talking to isn’t good with computers or isn’t an expert in another field, their general attitude towards me changes for the worse. I feel like those outside of the tech industry really resent us programmers, as they likely (and rightly) see us as one of the main causes of present job loss in some industries; but I wish there was a good way to help them see the bigger picture, where technology has always been shifting job availability from industry to industry, and that it really only improves overall quality of life in the long term.
    For instance, just last Thanksgiving my aunt and I were talking about how much things have changed in the past few decades, and she said something along the lines of “people used to work with their hands, not program computers all day.” She said it very negatively; and in the context of the conversation, it was very clear she’s actually against the trend of ever-increasing use of computers. There wasn’t much I could think of to say at the time that didn’t seem rude or disrespectful. But now when I’m on the receiving end of angst towards programmers, I point out that the shifting of jobs throughout industries has always occurred as technology progresses and try to provide examples throughout history. Although it can sometimes be difficult to do this without seeming pompous.

    Reply
  3. Hoover

    I feel no angst towards techies. Instead I’m currently learning to code, because for a few months I’ve been thinking along the lines of this essay and I’m concerned it might be basically right.
    But your aunt isn’t wrong either. Working with technology has the potential to alienate one from other people and from reality.
    Working with one’s hands keeps you in touch with reality. Sketching, making things, cooking, chopping down trees, building walls. Coding is satisfying, but so is creating in the real world.
    Sennett’s The Craftsman is worth a scan:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/06/books/review/Hyde-t.html?pagewanted=all

    Reply
  4. Phi

    I completely agree here. Coding is becoming popular. Be assured that there aren’t just two tiers; there’s three – the coders, and the hackers.
    Hacking is the way to make people instantly think you’re a genius of coding. But being a good programmer doesn’t make them think you’re a mediocre hacker. Notice the perception on the tiers there; if you’re in a tier, you can do all the tiers below easily.
    Note that most hackers aren’t the destroying stereotype people think they are. A common way to differentiate between hackers that want to wreck the system and hackers that want to test the system is to call the former “crackers” and keep the latter as “hackers”. You can be a locksmith, without people thinking you want to break into houses.
    I also agree that working with your hands is a must. I myself am a programmer (and done my fair share of hacking) and before coding I dabbled in origami (still do it now). I cook for the family (10 other people) at least once a week, and I won’t say no to working in the sun.
    As an advanced programmer, I can rewrite most of the virtual world, but I recognise its importance in staying virtual. Machines were created for men, not men for machines.

    Reply
  5. Fadi El-Eter

    For some reasons while reading your post I remembered the movie iRobot. I wonder what will happen to people when most of the jobs are taken by robots, who will probably work for free (well, they will still need electricity and some maintenance from time to time).
    By the way, in my opinion, LISP is the best programming language around, it’s a shame that the world is still not ready for it.

    Reply
  6. Randy A MacDonald

    “the more technology we deploy, the less mundane jobs there are in the world.”
    Contrast this with: “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
    I believe there are only going to be more mundane jobs, just that the mundaneness will just be an intermediate stage before a robot takes over.

    Reply
  7. Peter Hanley

    “The critical question that needs answering right now is: how do we make people of all education and age levels into somewhat competent programmers?”
    I don’t believe this is the right question – our society has an increasing antipathy towards the standard liberal arts or humanities education system, even though this is the system that shows provable results when applied equally and fairly, but most students don’t seem to understand that the entire system has one universal tangible value, and that is to produce adults who are able to understand the world, solve problems creatively and reason for themselves.
    In my experience (as a tech & programmer) without those basic skills more specific skills like programming or welding or baking are more about following how-tos and re-carving the wheel rather then doing anything of real value.

    Reply
  8. Ray Gardener

    Programming unfortunately requires the ability to think abstractly. This is a tiered ability (think about numbers, think about symbols, think about pointers, think about pointers to pointers, etc.). A lot of people have great difficulty grasping the concept of pointers or references, for example, and using them productively.
    This is a left-hemisphere issue. The right hemisphere of the brain sees things literally, while the left can abstract and deal with symbols. But not all left hemispheres are created equal.

    Reply
  9. Sony Mathew

    These are computer operators you speak of? They are still doing mundane repetitive tasks operating a set of specific tasks on the computer. But I do agree that programming is fast becoming the new threshold for entry level jobs.

    Reply
  10. Leslie Satenstein

    55 years ago I had an electric calculator and an electric typewriter.
    The calculator was a motorized mechanical monster.
    Does that count as being computerized.
    I am still in IT at age 71.

    Reply
  11. Jamie Nelson

    Great piece, Daniel. I agree with you about the replacement of the blue collar jobs by machines. Robotics are moving ahead faster than we can really grasp. Look at all the drones in the military or the Google car (why didn’t they go for flying cars? I’m still waiting for flying cars!). Anyway, you might enjoy this piece: 100 Years Ago, This is What an American Civil Engineer Predicted Technology Would Be Like Today – Techvibes.com http://bit.ly/zrVh5l

    Reply
  12. Digital Natives

    Spot on Daniel. The great challenge will be, as Ray mentioned, developing programmers who can “think outside the code.” Literacy in programming is a skill that can only be fully leveraged if that individual can also think of the creative and abstract applications of that code.

    Reply

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