Coding is not going to save you. It’s not going to employ the tired, sickly masses of cynical, tech-savvy youth.

It’s not saving your industry. In fact, computers are likely destroying the jobs you once thought you would have by now.

Learning to code will not put you ahead of the future. It will get you to the absolute baseline of understanding how the future will work.

Vancouver-based designer and coder Trevor Record has it right. He claims that coding is the new literacy, and those who can understand the language of computers have the same advantage now that the literate once had over the illiterate.

I would take it a step further and claim that if we’re comparing coding and literacy, we’re in the 1930s, not the 1600s. In just a brief historical moment, your inability to code will be an embarrassment, not just a skill you don’t have yet.

To be clear, your industry now runs on computers. No office runs without Microsoft Office, and no car drives without a computer. Your car’s diagnostic system is a complex array of sensors that hook into a central computer. During a check-up, a mechanic will hook up their own computer to read your car’s logs and run live tests.

The joke in auto mechanic circles is that if you’re not smart enough to be in the trades, well, there’s always law school.

There’s a connection between coding and mental models of the world. When you think about what might be wrong with your car, you have a model of the way you think it works in your head. It’s usually incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading, but it allows you to reason about symptoms and causes.

For example, you might have an idea about how brakes work. You know that your wheels are spinning, and you know that friction slows things down, and you’ve probably seen a bike brake, so you might assume that it’s basically the same principle for a car. You have a mental model of the connection between your foot, the pedal, the brake, and the wheel. If the car doesn’t stop when you press the brake, you know somewhere along that line, the connection has been broken. What’s changed in the 21st century is that, no matter the problem, and no matter the industry, at some point during this connection, there’s a computer.

Learning how to code gives you a better mental model of the computer, and you can reason better about why it’s not working the way you expect it to. It stops being a magic thing that just does stuff when you press buttons, and becomes a well-ordered machine that you could probably fix.

Now, you might argue that you don’t need to learn how to make Excel to be able to use it, and you’d be right. I’m not advocating for everyone to run out and get computer science degrees. Not everyone who reads can write novels. But everyone who reads can at least send an email, and both Excel and your PC’s desktop run on the fundamental principles of computer language.

Ever tried to select certain cells in Excel? That’s a prime example of Boolean logic, the basis of all computer functions. How about renaming every file in a folder? That’s basic scripting. Renaming a thousand files takes at least a thousand seconds, unless you can code.

At some point, there’ll be a day when wasting that sixteen minutes will make you a dead weight. It might not be here yet, but it’s coming. Better to be ahead of the curve than at the back of the pack, trying in vain to fix your brakes. 

Image via Google Cultural Institute