BraceLand

Catherine Bracy is the Director of Community Organizing at Code for America. Until November 2012, she ran the Obama campaign's technology office in San Francisco where she recruited technology volunteers to build software for the campaign. She also worked on outreach for Tech4Obama, the campaign's technology affinity group. Previously: Knight Foundation, Berkman Center.
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I’m going to say something controversial: I do not want to write code. I’m eager to learn the basic concepts of computer science, if only for my own curiosity and to understand the how and why of software, but I don’t have any burning desire to build software myself. However, over the the last couple years I’ve become increasingly insecure with my lack of coding skills, to the point where I sometimes feel unqualified to work in this space without learning.

A lot of that insecurity is personal, but I think another big part of it is the rising trend of elevating the engineer. Let’s call it the Cult of Engineering (CofE) for shorthand. In the Bay Area at least, we can’t turn a corner without people telling us how important engineers are. There is more and more talk about universal coding literacy. And the rise of the brogrammer and shows like Bravo’s Start-Ups: Silicon Valley can only be a function of the Cult of Engineering.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I feel strongly that we need more people getting into the engineering game (especially women and minorities!). And I love my engineering friends and colleagues and think it’s imperative that we expand engineering thinking into more sectors (hence my work at Code for America). But I worry that the CofE is having unintended consequences, like:

1) Subjugating non-engineers/programmers to second-class status, devaluing skills like relationship-building and communication. Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, human networks are still vastly more important than technical ones. And the most important new technologies are simply platforms to make it easier for humans to do what they do: talk to each other. Communicating, building consensus, and organizing are all non-negotiable elements of any world-changing undertaking including technology endeavors. We should be fostering and elevating these skills as much as we foster and elevate engineering.

2) Making it more intimidating for women and minorities to come into the tech space. If the ability to code—or the deep desire to learn—becomes a de facto prerequisite to being a part of the community, are we making the barrier to entry too high? And are we discouraging groups that are already disproportionately susceptible to self-doubt?

When tossing this around with some friends, I got really great feedback. Here’s what resonated with me:

  • This is a supply and demand issue: If engineers weren’t such a scarce resource we wouldn’t see this phenomenon.
  • It’s likely no coincidence that the positions that get devalued are jobs that are often seen as “women’s” work BUT it’s important to remember that men are also affected by this. There are men who don’t want to code, and there are also male coders who feel unqualified sometimes.
  • Everyone does not need to code, but everyone should have the opportunity to learn.
  • We suffer from a failure of language: Techies and non-techies often don’t know how to talk to each other, and it’s got less to do with a lack of technical skill on one side (or a lack of social skills on the other) as it has to do with a lack of shared reference points. Which leads me to my next point,
  • And, my personal favorite: we don’t all need to know how to code but we should all understand the basic principles. I wasn’t born to be an engineer and that’s ok. But it’s not ok for me to be in conversations with engineers about what they’re working on and have no interest in the basic elements. It seems like there was agreement that you should at least know if what you’re asking an engineer to do is a complex thing or an easy thing.


So, to that end, we started to put together a list of resources for people who don’t necessarily want to learn how to code but want to know enough to have some credibility. Here are a few I’m digging into:

  • Of course, I started with the Wikipedia entry on Computer Science because it’s the best place to start digging into ANYTHING.
  • Lisa Williams has a ridiculously valuable list of resources geared toward journalists, including Comp Sci 101 classes from Khan Academy and Harvard.
  • My search on Coursera shows 61 returns for “computer science” courses. I’m checking out this Comp Sci 101 from Stanford.


Once I feel like I have the landscape down I may start digging into a language. But I’ll never be an engineer. I’ll probably never build any piece of software that anyone else uses. I’m (getting better at being) ok with that.

  1. mikeisaac reblogged this from cbracy
  2. surmitcrab reblogged this from genericlatino and added:
    this is fantastic
  3. genericlatino reblogged this from cbracy
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  5. lifeandcode reblogged this from cbracy and added:
    What if you don’t want to learn to code? Obviously, learning to code is a pretty big thing lately — we might even call...
  6. cbracy posted this