Do you need to learn how to code?

Programming has reached the mainstream but is unlikely to boost your career prospects

CODING has become so mainstream that even basketball legend Chris Bosh is telling you to do it. Forget footballers, it’s now tech entrepreneurs (like teenager Nick D’Aloisio, who sold his company Summly to Yahoo for a reported £20m last year) that today’s schoolchildren are aspiring to be.

Come September, a change to the national curriculum means the study of computing – and specifically coding – will be mandatory in state schools. And businesses, like American Express, are sending senior executives on courses to learn about data and computational design so that they can better manage employess working in IT. So could it be time to embrace the trend, and learn to code?

A survey by the US National Association of Colleges and Employers last summer found that, despite the buzz around computer software and programming skills, the key qualities employers seek don’t require a hard drive. The ability to work in a team, and decision-making skills ranked far above proficiency with software programmes. And it’s a sentiment shared by recruiters on this side of the Atlantic. Andy Dallas of Robert Half Financial Services thinks knowledge in programming will not offer much additional value for non-IT roles.

He says: “On occasion, there may be some overlap in roles outside of software development – in finance, support, client services and marketing, for example. But unless those roles are working in the technology division, there isn’t a high level of competency required.” Indeed, while experience in coding certainly won’t harm your chances, it may not be the skill which tips the scales in your favour.

And the assumption that startup success demands technical know-how could be flawed. “If you’re an entrepreneur building a disruptive business, there will be little room on your long-term job description for coding. Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t touched a line of company code for years,” LabDoor’s Neil Thanedar recently told Forbes. A further concern is the risk that entrepreneurs try to do everything themselves. “Those skills might be useful in the early stages, but could later drive focus away from company growth,” says Flat Club founder Nitzan Yudan.

A possible solution, as highlighted by Code School’s Gregg Pollack, might be to learn basic code literacy: knowing enough to communicate in a technology-powered environment. Understanding the basics will give you confidence when discussing technical issues with developers.

But Gi Fernando, founder of digital skills training startup Free:Formers, takes it a step further. “Coding skills can be highly valuable,” he says, even for those in unrelated industries. “Businesses want accounts or HR professionals who can save time and money, people who can operate and customise software with shortcuts.” And demand for IT skills is on the rise. This time last year, there were over 110,000 IT vacancies in the UK. By 2015, that figure is forecast to double.

And courses are becoming increasingly accessible, from Makers Academy’s £9,600 12-week computer science programme to Treehouse’s more affordable £30-a-month online coding course. Decoded’s coding workshop, meanwhile, teaches the basics of HTML, CSS and Javascript in one day.

But it could be worth listening to software developer and entrepreneur Dave Winer, who thinks learning to code is only worthwhile if you have fresh ideas that you can implement in code. “Coding is one of the many building blocks of making the web,” he says. So rather than coding, “first learn to run a server. It’s far easier than programming, and can be learnt in a few days or weeks. Further, running a server is a good gateway to becoming a programmer.”

Apps for teaching coding
Codecademy: Hour of Code

Codecademy, a leader in online education for basic computer programming, has launched its first app for those wanting to learn to code on the move. Hour of Code gets beginners started by explaining the basic concepts and structures behind apps and websites. The app also offers users quick exercises on the go.