February 17, 2017
Is Coding a Blue-Collar Job?
An article was posted in the online version of Wired Magazine recently that generated a lot of buzz. Entitled "The Next Big Blue-Collar Job is Coding", I didn't find the article interesting nor did I feel that it had a cogent point. However, numerous people emailed me to get my reaction on the piece, so I decided to write my thoughts on it.
From the clickbaity headline, one would first think the main point of the article is to label computer programming as a blue-collar job. The term blue-collar has both a literal definition and inherent implications. According to Merriam-Webster, blue-collar is defined as: Of, relating to, or constituting the class of wage earners whose duties call for the wearing of work clothes or protective clothing. I'm pretty certain that this is not what the Wired journalist had in mind by blue-collar (although some developers are known for wearing sweatshirts with the hoods up to protect them from having to be social). The American Hertiage Dictionary defines blue-collar as Of or relating to wage earners whose jobs are performed in work clothes and often involve manual labor. It's quite a stretch to say that coding is manual labor.
The author is clearly aiming at the implications of the term blue-collar, which include ubiquity, salary, and the requirement of only a simple skillset. Let's examine each of these undertones.
Ubiquity. This is the only significant point of the article that I strongly agree with. Because of the rate at which technology is evolving, our world is marching toward being a knowledge economy. That is, technology automation is increasingly taking over tasks that humans used to do. Software and robots can now easily perform manual labor with an efficiency and constancy that obviate the need for people to fulfill the same tasks. Now, we shouldn't be concerned that there will be no jobs left for us homo sapiens, because there will always be a need to program these robots. However, it does mean that our jobs will require more knowledge and intellectual input. Because of this, programming will and should become more commonplace.
Salary. The current average national salary for software developers is approaching six-figures. It's difficult to consider that a "blue-collar" salary by any stretch. Even when more people become software engineers, I don't see salaries dropping. As technology becomes more powerful, the value that programmers create will continue to increase.
Simple Skillset. This is where the author demonstrates a complete lack of direct knowledge about the software industry, and draws the wrong conclusion from the right data. Indeed, there is very encouraging data that shows many people picking up coding skills through non-traditional means. While most people view computer programming as something akin to rocket science and therefore conclude that only brilliant and highly-educated people can learn it, we're finding that even high school students and career switchers attending coding bootcamps can learn it as well. This is an exciting phenomenon that I have personally devoted my life and career to, and I think is the only valuable point to be drawn from this article.
However, the article's interpretation of this phenomenon goes off the rails. The article concludes that if "regular" people can learn to code, it must mean that there are coding jobs that don't require much in the way of real intellectual skill. This argument has no legs to stand on. There isn't a way to learn just enough code to "manage a login page" but be unable to do much more than that. If you can manage a login page, you can do almost anything, including the creation of machine learning algorithms.
So what is the explanation behind the reality that high schoolers and career switchers (even from real blue-collar jobs) are learning to code?
It's because people can achieve much more than everyone thinks if they apply themselves and believe they can do anything. I often refer to the excellent book Mindset by Carol Dweck which demonstrates that anyone can learn a new skill. Sure, some people have certain natural affinities to things, but even brain intensive activities like coding are not beyond the average person.
So, if I were to write an article for Wired, I'd use the headline: People Can Do Any White Collar Job, Including Programming.
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