It’s Not the Code

I saw an article recently from Code Like a Girl with a headline “Don’t Teach Your Kids to Be Coders.” It’s an excellent piece, and like most people smarter than me Dr. Johnson managed to put words to a feeling that had bothered me in all my classes at CSCC–the code is a tool, not a result.

I pick up skills very well. I’ve been praised (as an adult even) as a quick study. If I can identify a benefit to knowing how to do a thing, especially an immediate benefit, I will learn to do the thing. Most importantly, do it well enough to count. The jobs I’ve excelled at have had simply-defined goals–that type of goals allows me to determine the tasks necessary, and then start practicing the skills.

Three Jobs, Three Skillsets, No Overlap

When my first real boss, Stephanie, said “Your job is to take the money and give them their change as fast as possible” (that’s right, this is before Wendy’s accepted credit cards, back when they needed a second pickup window to handle THAT step) I got very good at calculating change to the nearest dollar, at listening to the total when it was given over the headset, not closing my drawer unless I was walking away, and knowing why that guy gave me $20.08 for a $9.92 order.

None of those skills mattered when a later boss, Melissa, said “We need to re-price every bottle and slap hazmat labels on every box we ship out and we’ve never done this before.” I learned to walk through the steps in a process, and order them logically–and then present them in a way people who don’t care about the big picture would understand. I became excellent at delegation–talking to subordinates about their talents and interests, and letting them own appropriate tasks without interference. I learned to manage supplies, even when it meant pestering the safety supervisor to actually order the labels he promised last month.

None of those applied when my goal was to make as many deliveries in an hour as possible, I learned the skill of knowing which alleys connected to which streets. I learned to watch traffic patterns so I wouldn’t get caught with commuter jams with a cooling plate of General Tso’s shrimp. I mastered the art of illegally parking (not one ticket or tow in 2.5 years!), largely by learning to know where it was “just illegal” and where it was “actually creating a problem” to park. I also learned when to call a customer to warn them I’m coming (so they wouldn’t leave me waiting at a doorstep for ten minutes) and when to double check a restaurant’s pack job.

The Little Extra Something-Something

Every new challenge in my life has led to new skills by necessity. In some cases those skills are clearly spelled out or strongly implied, like being able to quickly make change or having strong delegation skills or being able to drive quickly from Point A to Point B. But what Dr. Johnson points out in her article, curiosity is the real value-added element. I firmly believe anyone can learn any skill if there is desire and resources for learning–not everyone can select relevant skills themselves. That takes being curious.

When I started food delivery as a contractor, no one was even suggesting “Call ahead to the students in the dorm so they can start making their way downstairs–that 5 minutes matters.” It was an experiment I tried because I was tired of standing outside dorm buildings in the freezing cold while someone else got the next big-tip delivery. But knowing WHEN to call ahead is where the skill comes in–call too soon, and the customer is grumpy and waiting. Call too late, and what’s the point? I created a skill I had to get better at–by identifying a problem and being curious about solutions.

This combination, the ability to identify an ideal state, understand the current situation, and figure out ways to close the gap is what has always led me to my most fulfilling moments in any job. I’ve always felt my best in roles where I was allowed to practice this approach, rather than confine myself to perfecting predetermined skills.

The Tie-In with Coding

I really enjoy programming. It’s a set of skills that allow me to do really cool things, and express myself in ways that just aren’t available otherwise. I like to think I’m getting pretty solid on most of the skills that make a good software developer. But if my job was nothing but tweaking some JavaScript application to a new client’s corporate logo and colors and custom validation rules I’d be just as miserable as any other job where I went in and just executed the same skills in the same way every day.

Automation is, hopefully, going to make those soul-destroying repetitive jobs a thing of the past. Code can now write routine code–I’ve written code that will write code statements for me based on the values in a database. There is no reason for a creative, talented human being to spend their time as a copy/paste machine.

What we haven’t figured out is automating curiosity, and experimentation. I venture to say we won’t–not even Star Trek computers offer solutions to Captain Picard when the weird space ghosts show up. It takes a curious, confident human being to ask “Why?” and “What happens if…?” It takes a compassionate, self-aware human being to listen to others ask those questions and engage in discussion rather than stifle or hijack.

It’s just my two cents, but I feel those are the two skills we need to push. People who are confident, curious, and compassionate will know when they need to learn to code–or any other skill we haven’t discovered yet.

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