Everyone knows work has changed in the United States. With it have changed the skills we think of as necessary to compete. Today, there’s a cultural premium on the development of technical skills, like coding. That has led to hundreds or even thousands of “innovations” in how, where and why people gain those skills.
The effect on workers of the transition from a manufacturing economy to an information and service economy are well explored. This discussion has become so common, in fact, that a handful of notions about modern avenues into tech careers have become widely held despite being half-true at best, spurious at worst.
This discussion has become so common, in fact, that a handful of notions about modern avenues into tech careers have become widely held despite being half-true at best, spurious at worst.
Some of these misconceptions are merely harmless assumptions that color the way people think about tech careers at an abstract level. But others can have an unfortunate, practical impact on the policies and programs we choose to pursue in workforce development. Below, I identify some of these mistaken ideas and explain why we should be skeptical.
It’s true that the past five years have familiarized us with many new ways for people to learn to code. Free online programs, intensive for-profit bootcamps, online subscription programs, college-based classes, and self-paced options have proliferated, creating the perception that there’s an option for gaining career-ready tech skills around every corner. The assumption that often goes hand in glove with this fact is that, “if so many people are teaching people to code, it must be easy.”
The truth is, while there are an awful lot of different avenues today through which one can learn to code, they vary wildly in quality and in their ostensible goals. Even a high quality program will fail if the user wants training that will help her get a job and the program is not designed to create that outcome.
[bctt tweet="The existence of myriad #code training programs is not evidence that teaching code is easy. On the contrary, it suggests that teaching people to code is actually very hard." username="launch_code"]
But even more importantly, the existence of myriad code training programs is not evidence that teaching code is easy. On the contrary, it suggests that teaching people to code is actually very hard. That people, companies and institutions have spent millions of hours and dollars attempting to create better curricula and models of delivery in a space in which hundreds of options already exist tells us a lot about how “easy” it is to teach people to code.
Even a high quality program will fail if the user wants training that will help her get a job and the program is not designed to create that outcome.
In many of the stories written about industrial decline and the hollowing out of the nation’s middle, we find a hopeful epilogue centered on the idea that thousands of former factory workers will be gainfully redeployed in new tech careers, and that a coding training program will give them the tools they need to make that transition.
But almost always, providing new skills alone to a person without traditional tech credentials is a necessary but insufficient step in getting her into a new tech career.
If tech hiring were strictly a function of straightforward application of specific skills, people who received high-quality, job-focused code training would be able to move quickly into good developer jobs by demonstrating those skills. Sadly, that’s mostly not how tech hiring works. Instead, many employers adhere to rigid, credential-based conventions of hiring by which candidates who lack key résumé markers like a technical degree, a specific certification or demonstrated job experience, are excluded from the pool and never get a real chance to showcase their skills.
In the vast majority of instances, the individual who gets skills through a non-traditional training provider also needs someone to advocate for her with employers, or a mechanism for breaking through a screening process which is not geared to advance candidates like her. Though it shouldn’t be this way, skills alone are often not enough.
It’s easy to conflate “technology” with “new” or “cutting-edge.” And so when we think about teaching people new skills to prepare them quickly for tech careers, there can be a natural inclination to believe we need to train them in the programming languages presently in vogue in Silicon Valley or in the technologies at the frontier of industry change. But this is often not the best course of action.
Sure, the big tech company behemoths are probably using hot new technologies and hiring up people who know those technologies. But for entry level developer roles, they’re also getting first pick of applicants who have graduated from the top universities and computer science programs. That isn’t most people.
But for entry level developer roles, they’re also getting first pick of applicants who have graduated from the top universities and computer science programs. That isn’t most people.
A better bet for the majority of job seekers is to look for a pathway into the role that is most proximate to their current situation. That may mean learning a skill that’s in demand for tech-enabled roles with employers that aren’t “tech companies”, such as financial services companies or insurance and health management firms. By focusing on a skill that’s highly employable yet not among the hot technologies taught by bootcamps or tech schools, job seekers can vastly increase their odds of getting in the door.
Sometimes, this may even mean learning a technology that some regard as archaic. Witness the dozens of people who’ve started careers in Cobol through a partnership between Express Scripts and LaunchCode. Once someone has gotten her start and real-world experience, opportunities abound to learn new technologies and skills — often on her employer’s dime.
Pop culture depictions of tech employment and careers in code frequently show us a world in which everyone wears shorts and flip flops in an environment dominated by glass, chrome and soaring atriums while collecting millions in stock options and engaging in eccentric personal behaviors. The supposition, implicit or explicit, is that tech careers are a place in which the staid, traditional norms historically associated with work and the workplace have dissolved, leaving workers to their own devices in a free-form playing field where their technical skills are all that really matters.
This may be the state of play on HBO and at a tiny minority of unicorn tech firms, but that’s about it.
Even if no one actually has expectations like those described in the scenario above, many do assume that a job in tech will mean some diminution of traditional norms and workplace concerns. But as the portion of tech jobs that reside within traditional non-tech employers grows (and that’s where the growth is, by and large), the less we should expect that tech jobs will free employees from the ordinary practices and norms of traditional employers.
On the contrary, a primary concern for many employers hiring developers today is whether a candidate has the technical skill set that is needed, while also presenting a good fit for the culture of the company and the ability to communicate comfortably with colleagues and clients who lack a tech vocabulary or computational mindset. Sure, tech skills are more prized than ever before, but often those skills are viewed as an addendum to a traditional skill set, not as a replacement for one.
As the growth of tech and STEM jobs have come to dominate many discussions of the future of our workforce, many well-off or forward-thinking communities have begun to push policies requiring code training for school children.
So is teaching kids to code a bad thing? Of course not! Kids are great, and giving them access to learn about unfamiliar things is also great. That’s why we’ve long taught subjects like foreign language, art and music in our schools and should continue doing so.
But what’s easy to miss is that exposure to specific code training at an early age is probably not the key determinant of whether those children will be prepared to step into technical or coding positions as they reach employment age. There’s lots to suggest that the core abilities and intellectual components that are vital to learning to code are mathematics, logic and problem solving, and critical thinking.
There’s lots to suggest that the core abilities and intellectual components that are vital to learning to code are mathematics, logic and problem solving, and critical thinking.
One of the lessons of the code training explosion is that individuals who come to the table with a strong foundation in math and logic can be trained on an accelerated basis to write code well, even without having been steeped in the specifics of coding for years (or a decade). A key takeaway is that, if we want our kids to be ready for the tech jobs of tomorrow, we should be doubly sure they’re getting the foundational skills that are vital but not specific to coding. The opportunity to give kids exposure to coding is great — so long as it’s not at the cost of the time we spend with them on the basics.
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It’s a good thing that we have become more keenly aware of how much tech, tech jobs and tech skilling opportunities will shape the future of American work. But it’s also essential that we not let popular opinions about tech careers calcify when we see that they may not be universally true, or true at all.
But it’s also essential that we not let popular opinions about tech careers calcify when we see that they may not be universally true, or true at all.
The truth may change, but as of now we know that, no matter what many think: people need more than just tech skills to break into tech careers, giving people tech skills is not easy, what tech skills to build is not always clear, tech jobs haven’t obviated the need for non-tech skills, and early tech training is not a panacea.
Let’s keep learning.
By Jeff Mazur
LaunchCode Executive Director