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Should I, an Average Person With No Tech Experience, Learn to Code?

From teaching yourself to five-month intensive boot camps, there are lots of options when it comes to coding, but whether it’s worth it is another question entirely

As a writer, unemployment is often in the back of my mind. Whenever there’s a mass sweep of media layoffs, Twitter trolls will quickly bombard the newly jobless with the phrase “learn to code.” Even labor-intensive industries are being hit with the suggestion — in December 2019, Joe Biden suggested that coal miners seeking work should learn to code, too. 

But is coding really such a viable option for everyone, particularly those of us whose greatest technological achievement is switching from HDMI1 to HDMI2? Is learning to code worth it — legit advice or just a cruel joke?

Let’s see if we can figure it out.

So, uh, what even is coding, exactly? Asking for a dumb friend.

Essentially, all the tech we interact with was developed via code. Computers “speak” in various codes, like languages. Two of the popular languages include Javascript for web development and Python for data science and artificial intelligence — when you learn to code, you learn to “speak” these languages. In doing so, you communicate with the computer to tell it what you want to do, allowing you to build websites, software, apps, what have you. Even the basic HTML you might have used to design your Myspace page in 2009 technically counts as coding. But the more of the language you know and are able to utilize, the more advanced your creations can be. 

Is learning to code worth it? Aren’t there enough people who already know this stuff, though?

Well, maybe, but the internet keeps putting out new shit and it doesn’t look like that’ll change any time soon. Any time a new website goes up, Facebook adds a new feature or an app on your iPhone requires an update, an actual living human (often, multiple humans) is responsible for writing the code that makes these changes a thing. 

There are also a lot of different coding languages and a lot of different jobs that could pertain to each. According to U.S. News & World Report, web developer jobs are expected to grow 13 percent by 2028, with a median salary of just under $70,000. Software developers, meanwhile, are expected to grow 26 percent by 2028 with a median salary of just over $100,000. Both are among U.S. News “25 Best Jobs of 2020,” and both are coding jobs at their core. Some jobs will expect you to know multiple languages, while others specialize in just one

That sounds solid and all, but I have a bachelor’s in English. How the hell am I supposed to get one of those gigs?

The thing with coding jobs is that you often don’t actually need a degree to get them — you just have to be able to do the work. And fortunately, there are a lot of ways a person can learn to code for a helluva lot less than the cost of a degree. To get a taste of whether coding is for you at all, though, there are tons of free places to start. The simplest way is to pick a language that suits your interests and watch a few YouTube videos about it. 

There are hundreds of apps for the iPhone offering a super basic introduction to coding, many of which are actually intended for kids. These apps, along with online programs like Codecademy, can deliver some hands-on experience with what coding is actually like. At the very least, you can determine whether typing symbols into a blank document feels like something you could see yourself doing for at least 40 hours a week.

Jake McGraw, co-founder and chief technology officer of cryptocurrency site The Block and former director of engineering at Refinery29, recommends Learn Python the Hard Way, a book and video lecture/exercise collection that sells for $30 to people interested in Python. For those interested in web development, he recommends, a site that allows you to write code right in your browser and incorporates existing coder programs. It won’t necessarily teach you to code from scratch, but it’s a good place to play around. 

How much effort is this actually going to take?

“Start with low expectations, and be prepared to work on it every weekday for a year before you’d be employable,” says McGraw. “The important thing is that you have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. It takes time and genuine interest.”

Online coding academies say it’s possible to complete their courses and pursue jobs after three to six months of full-time study. One online academy, Thinkful, offers a five-month immersion program for $17,600 under the promise that students don’t have to begin paying for the program until they’re employed with a salary of at least $40,000 a year. In-person boot camps where you learn alongside fellow students have programs of similar cost and length, and can be found in most major cities

Be forewarned, though — one of these coding schools offering no payments till their students were employed, Lambda School, was recently accused of inflating their student outcomes. In other words, don’t expect to complete one of these boot camps and be guaranteed employment. 

Okay, so… should I learn to code, or what?

It’s a fair question — there’s already some concern that coding will end up primarily outsourced to other countries with cheaper labor. It happens already, and will probably continue to do so. That said, it doesn’t seem to be a major concern for people in the industry. Despite the possibility of outsourcing, the Bureau of Labor Statistics still estimates that web and software development jobs will grow much faster than other industries over the next decade. 

Overall, it’s a viable option for people willing to commit themselves to it. Considering that the majority of other jobs listed on the U.S. News’ “25 Best Jobs” list required advanced medical degrees, coding is certainly a more accessible skill to learn for people looking to pivot into a field with a plethora of job opportunities. Because it doesn’t require years of formal education, there’s no reason why you couldn’t hypothetically hop aboard the coding train after losing — to pull careers totally out of a hat — your journalism or coal mining job at 35. You might be surrounded by younger people, but there are allegedly plenty of people over 40 getting into coding for the first time, too. 

Am I ever going to do anything beyond grunt work, realistically?

Well, for a lot of people, it might feel like grunt work — odds are, you’re not going to develop the next Facebook. It can be a creative career, but that’s usually a matter of your own perspective. At some companies, 60-hour workweeks for developers is the norm, and the term “code monkey” exists for a reason. But for many people, working a boring, tedious job still beats being unemployed. 

Hurrm. Any other suggestions for a new career?

If coding doesn’t seem like something you could tolerate, it’s fine. There are other jobs out there, and even if you’re looking to work in tech, coding might not be a necessity. “If you want to get a tech job, there are other avenues: quality assurance, product management, project management,” says McGraw. “The other avenues are typically pursued through tangential jobs, so for quality assurance, start as social media or merchandising at an ecommerce shop, start performing quality assurance on the website as part of job, then formalize it.” Basically, you can start with a non-technical job and pick up the more technical skills as you go. 

And if all of this sounds miserable and you truly can’t fathom working in an office ever again, maybe just go an entirely different route. Coding might be good money, but there are big bucks in deck staining, too.