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Remember when typing was a skill?

Remember when typing was a skill?

I was binge watching “New Girl” on Netflix recently. I saw an episode where Winston was looking for a job. Winston is the classic guy who is naturally good at everything but has a lacking work ethic and focus. Schmidt, who is the successful professional, looked at his resume and gawked. “This is the 2000s, typing is not a skill anymore, Winston.” I cracked up.

Remember when typing was a skill? In defense of Winston, "Typing" was a highlight on any resume at one point; especially your WPM (words per minute)… you could drive employers crazy if you had a high WPM. Applying to be an accountant, HR, or analyst? WPM wasn’t just for secretaries anymore. If you were born before the mid-90s you should remember these days well. I remember playing a typing game in middle school where you had two runners in their own lane. One was you and one was the computer/AI. The computer ran at whatever benchmark you set, say 50 words per minute. You got a line of random words that you had to type and, the faster you typed, the faster your runner would run. If you could stay above 50 WPM, you would outrun the computer. Slower… well you get the idea. It was a blast, and my teacher told us several times how valuable typing skills would be someday. Are they? Extremely.

I took a test just now (twenty-something years since my junior high days) and came out at about 90 WPM with 95% accuracy. Ms. Jewell would be so proud. I argued with my high school guidance counselor for at least an hour about taking Typing 1 & 2. He said, "the people who were really serious about their career would take Typing 3." I disagreed and, no disrespect to Ms. Jewell, but I didn’t get and stay fast because of her junior high class. I stayed fast because I practiced, and no, I didn’t practice in Typing 1 & 2; to the chagrin of my counselor, I took Business Economics instead of Typing, and I played StarCraft every night (before the TeamSpeak/Ventrilo days). One of them made me fast. Email, Twitter, Googling, Facebook, World of Warcraft, etc. kept me fast.

But... you know what? No employer in any field, besides perhaps a manual digital copy job, is going to be impressed by my speed and accuracy. It is very valuable but it is assumed . That doesn't mean everyone assumes you can blaze at 250 WPM, but who cares? You are competent and you can get done what you need to on a keyboard, which is absolutely essential to 95% of white-collar jobs. What was once a highly marketable skill is now assumed.

I believe coding is becoming what typing used to be. It isn't "necessary" in many positions, but it is highly desirable. I think the trajectory is moving us in the direction of "assumed." You might be thinking (if not screaming), "Yeah, but programming is a LOT more complicated than basic computer skills!" Granted. I have been developing for eleven years, and I remember how hard it was in the early days when things weren’t near as complicated. Well, the ability to surf the web, something you probably do every few hours with incredible, second-hand ease would be considered very complex to someone in the 80s on a typewriter. Now, four year olds can do it. In the mid-80s, I remember one of my Dad’s collegues wasn't able to get a 3.25” disc out of the drive. That person still exists, but their problems have evolved into something more complicated. No, I don't mean that everyone will have high-end development skills in the same way that not everyone has high-end typing skills. Some level of competency is, and will be, required.

You are still screaming, “I don’t want to be a developer! Why should I bother learn to code?” OK, let’s take a step back. This, as a senior developer, sounds a lot like week four in my freshman algebra class during high school. “When am I ever going to use this in the real world!?”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone if you think that. Not at all. Most people don’t ever get back to using the quadratic formula after they graduate from high school. Here are some reasons you might have heard:

Reason: Earn a great living as a software architect/developer/engineer.

  • The good: True. As I write this, the average salary for a sr. developer in Atlanta is 6-figures. Recruiters WILL come after you if you can prove ability.
  • The bad: You may not want to become a software developer… simply because you already enjoy what you do, don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day, or don't like the culture to name a few.

Reason: So you can build your own website.

  • The good: Absolutely true. The monetary cost is zero if you use free internet learning tools.
  • The bad: The cost/benefit of learning to code merely so you can build a website is atrocious. There are many, many alternatives such as pre-built themes, pre-made sites via your host, or agency work. There are probably better ways to spend your time growing your business, if this is your only reason for learning.

Reason: You have a great idea for an app, and it will surely sell for a zillion smackers if you could just make it!

  • The good: As of July 2015, on the iPhone alone, Game of War grosses over $1.5 million/day. Per day. Annualized that is half a billion dollars. Unless you are starting an NPO, this counts as good.
  • The bad: I’m sure you’re idea is great, but between Google’s Play Store and Apple’s iTunes store, there are already about 3,000,000 apps. Chances of making the next Angry Birds or Clash of Clans (both of which have an army of developers) is extremely low.

So... am I just trying to puncture your ambition and dreams? Not at all. You shouldn’t want to learn to code for any of these reasons alone unless you are very motivated. You should want to learn because it will be relevant and very valuable in most jobs very soon.

I've been a developer for 11 years and, the reasons above aside, I count the experience as extremely valuable to the rest of my life. It is a skill that is hugely helpful to any profession. Software is everywhere. You cannot escape it. The more prevalent technology becomes in American and World economies, the more valuable it is to know how things work. Typing was that way when things started to go to print. If you can't type, you are borderline unemployable in most jobs. Things have moved from print to digital. So, typing is assumed, and coding is becoming more important. Another step in the chain, Microsoft Office used to be a skill, but is no longer. If you don't know the basics of how to use Word and Excel, you might not last long in an office position. Many financial analysts are expected to know Microsoft Excel, and they are expected to know how to write macros in VB in Excel. That is a very serious step from 10 or even 5 years ago. Visual Basic isn't Python but it is a programing language and requires syntax and logic understanding. Financial analysts aren't full-time programmers, but the ability to write macros makes them effective and valuable. Teachers are faced with an increasing level of software literacy requirements to interact with their students. Knowing how to make a blog post isn't going to be enough as the software gets more complicated and students can run circles around you. Let's do some bullet point scenarios in case you aren't convinced, but without asking for an hour of time.

  • STEM professionals (science, technology, engineering, math) need it because the ability to manipulate and process massive amounts of data quickly with zero error is critical. Human error is becoming less and less acceptable.
  • Financial analysts per the above example. I have many, many friends who are in some kind of financial or real estate profession that say their department is dominated by the guy who can use VB. That doesn't make him a coder, that makes him a financial analyst who knows how to code.
  • The actuary who is buidling models. I have a good friend who is an actuary, and he had to learn a significant amount of C# to build his models.
  • The marketing professional who has to follow website metrics via Google Analytics. Google does their best to keep it manageable, but you are going to be staring at a lot of code. A friend had to put dashboards together and after spending 40-60 hours a month copying and pasting, she asked me to show her how to interact with the API. It takes a few hours a month now.
  • The marketing professional who has to make content changes to a website. If you use WordPress, Drupal, Nuke, etc. you have a WYSIWYG, but the design needs are complicated and great enough that errors are absolutely inevitable from an editor. That means disabling it and doing it yourself, or waiting on the developer. If you don’t have a CMS, you are doing it the old fashion way… copy and paste the HTML. You can just “hope it don’t break” or become the employee who knows how to edit the page content without any help.

    The startup with social media needs. You can post to Facebook and Twitter easily enough, but everyone does that. If you want to go to the next level and be different than the next startup, you need to be able to aggregate and integrate. There is no way to do this without going to a developer or learning some API work yourself.

  • The lawyer who has thousands of pages of material to look through and search for word matches prior to a case. You can go blind reading text for days, or you can learn to write a regular expression and smoke through gigs of data in seconds.
  • The HR professional who is frustrated that her employee management website doesn't do quite what she wants it to. If you can understand the basics of code, you just might be able to find your way to a few shortcodes that can get you what you want.
  • The help desk professional who needs a way to monitor outgoing and ingoing equipment with a better means than Excel. I can think of scores of way to automate this process that range from HTML to a fullblows software suite.
  • The publishing editor who wants to use source control to manage her manuscript changes with practical granularity (that Word's tracking system cannot scratch).
  • The video game maniac who needs to better organize his time by patching into feeds and APIs.
  • The secratary who gets a PDF from her boss that needs to be put into Word format. Trust me... it's not a copy and paste situation most of the time.
  • The man who just bought a new m5 BMW and has to figure out how to program the dozens of computers in the vehicle. (Not a skill? It sure was back in the 80s, when 12:00 flashed on everyone's VCR and about 1% of the population knew how to fix it). More importantly, any and all aftermarket upgrades will require advanced programming skill.

Why can't people just continue to hire people to code? No question, it's possible. However, people once hired high-end typists to copy their documents. I don't know any typists anymore. Things worked the same way in the middle ages. Need something written down? Just hire a scribe or a monk to do it because writing wasn't an important skill day to day. I don't think scribe is a common profession in the modern world. The easiest way to identify this trend is to note how many children can do some coding as well as young entrepreneurs. Imagine you are a CEO of a small company and you need a developer to get your company going. Do you want to hire the 55 year old whos been paid since the COBAL days or the 19 year old who made an app with 40,000 downloads in his spare time? If children are getting better at something then the previous generation at their age, it will become a more and more assumed skill because it's built into assumed efficiency. Examples are also evident with the advent of high-level programming languages (HTML, for instance, is a language that looks very human compared to assembly language) and CMS's. If coding were bound to stay with the nerds who don't want to be cool, languages would remain esoteric; instead, they are moving towards human (see web assembly announced a few weeks ago for example) and making machines find ways to make up for it. Likewise, you can use Wordpress, Drupal, or Joomla to do a lot of what used to be impossible. Don't look now... but if you are using Wordpress, you are in the tidal wave that will probably get you working in template code in no time. In this industry I constantly hear people saying they can 'hack' soemthing to get it to work, but they don't know how to 'code.' Again... don't look now, but you already are getting caught in the current or you wouldn't be trying.

As an added bonus, programming (like mathmatics) is one better than typing in another sense. It isn’t just a skill, it teaches you how to think. Your high school algebra teacher probably tried to sell you on not giving up with this answer. Didn’t believe her? Should you believe Steve Jobs?. He says that almost verbatim. The logic, systematic approach, and basic required architecture forces your mind to stretch. You don't just need to learn it for your resume's sake, you need to learn it so you can think in a better way. If you can’t get all the way though the video, he says at the beginning that human’s are tool builders. The computer is perhaps the ultimate realized tool. That was in 1990, 25 years ago. What about now? There is no corner of the global market that isn’t being gobbled up by software. Whether it’s automating a business process, making planes safer, or another cell phone distraction, you cannot escape it. Get it on your resume before it becomes the next ‘typing’ and doesn’t matter anymore.

Rob Bunch Rob Bunch Immersive Web Instructor, Atlanta LinkedIn