Is Learning to Code fit for purpose?


Employers looking to hire software developers have noticed something very strange filling up their inboxes recently. Aidan Fitzpatrick, founder of one of London’s genuine technology successes Reincubate, a two times winner of the Queens Award for Enterprise, spotted it a few weeks ago. It was a new kind of job applicant.

“As first blush I was blown away by the positivity and richness of their CVs,” he says. “But it didn’t take long for patterns to emerge.” The patterns were spooky. Each applicant had created a ghostly portfolio website, created a Medium blog, and a Twitter feed, but he walked away from all of them. Their applications rarely included a covering letter. They were the product of a recent development: coding schools.

“These schools are clearly training their adult attendees to exploit pattern-matching techniques in their applications and CVs,” says Fitzpatrick. “We’ve never proceeded with one of their candidates.”

Fitzpatrick is a self-taught programmer who at the age of 18 started at the bottom, back in the boom. “I made lots of cups of tea,” he remembers. Today, he hires graduates and enthusiastic self-starters like himself. His selection process probes for intellectual curiosity – for example, by asking how the internet really works – to weed out what he calls the “9-to-5 technology tourist”. But those tourists still flood his inbox.

The digital bootcamps that are churning out these generic job seekers are a product of the idea that “everyone must code”. A decade ago, this gripped the chattering classes here in the UK. Without computer programming skills, parents feared that their children could no more navigate the new digital world than a blindfolded traveller could find his way around in a new and alien world.

The belief was strongest, I noticed, in leafy north London, amongst affluent yoga mums – the people most likely to argue vaccines cause autism, and the keenest on fad diets. It was certainly greeted more warily by parents who valued solid skills, such as electrical engineering or the trades.

Successive governments have paid lip service to vocational training, however, while becoming besotted with technology fads. Computer programming became the hottest fad of all.

Saul Klein, a well-connected young venture capitalist, had invested in a training company called Codecademy, teaching web page markup to non-techies. VCs like Klein realised there was a much bigger market if only he could sign up governments as customers – but he needed to generate demand. “Programming for all” was born, and No.10 adviser Rohan Silva was on hand to finesse this into policy.

The Government declared 2014 as a “Year of Code”. The “direction and the financing of the Year of Code” came from Klein and Silva, by now an “entrepreneur-in-residence” at Klein’s Index Ventures. The new agency’s chief executive insisted that computer programming could be learned in a day.

The BBC, always keen to move into the education market, seized on the idea, putting itself at the centre of the national effort. Dissenting voices were gas-lit and portrayed as defensive gatekeepers who wanted to thwart young talent. The Corporation’s tech correspondent grumbled about “a murky world of misogyny and coding snobbery”Wired magazine was earnestly reporting that unemployed Appalachian miners were learning computer programming.

But the fad hasn’t aged well. Over the years “learn to code” became an emblem of an indifferent and out-of-touch elite. By 2019, when journalists who had urged the working class to learn computer programming were themselves being made redundant from clickbait sites like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, Twitter trolls greeted them with the sarcastic cry: “learn to code!”.

The promise was that programming would be easy, but coding is a craft that is an elite activity, like flying a plane – employers don’t want those “tech tourists”. You can succeed through self-motivation, like Fitzpatrick, or via the academic route – but each path requires diligence and application. 

At the same time, there was a peculiar inverted snobbery discernible, too. Coding classes replaced lessons on practical skills such as using Microsoft Excel, as the latter was not deemed sufficiently “real”. But for any budding entrepreneur Excel is an invaluable companion.

Now that learning to code has been a core part of the curriculum for some years, it’s long overdue an examination. Remarkably little research has been done here. Has it increased the pool of elite coders we need? Has it increased general technical literacy? I’d love to know, but dispassionate research is scant. 

The Royal Society reported in 2017 how poorly prepared teachers were for ICT and how rapidly they lost interest. Many parents can confirm that their untaxed children see the “ICT hour” as loafing time.

And Saul Klein? Our children may be losers, but every fad has a winner. Now a CBE, he advises the prime minister as a member of the Council for Science and Technology, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s Digital Economy group. 

The Government this year opened “digital bootcamps”, giving crash courses for adults so they can pump out the spooky and useless resumes that Fitzpatrick receives.

This first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.

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