Future will demand more computer coders; schools not keeping up

Future will demand more computer coders; schools not keeping up

March 27, 2016

By JOHN SEILER / Staff columnist OC Register

Computers run the world. And computers run on coding – the algorithms (instruction sets) that make up the programs. For example, modern cars rely on dozens of computers, as was highlighted by the recent scandal over the rigged programming of the computer chips that run VW’s diesel engines.

Yet a recent survey by the Sacramento Bee found computer coding classes are not that common in California public schools. “All told, about 35,000 California public high school students were enrolled in courses dedicated to computer programming or computer science last school year, state figures show,” the paper reported. “Another 22,000 or so were enrolled in engineering or technology courses such as game design, robotic technologies or network engineering that likely involve learning code.”

Those 57,000 students comprise just a fraction of about 2 million public high school students.

I checked with the Irvine Unified School District, one of the best in the state on test scores, in a city blessed with many computer companies. Northwood High School has 116 students in computer programming courses, out of a student body of more than 1,900.

This seems inadequate for the state where the Internet was invented and whose high-tech companies in Silicon Valley have some of the world’s highest market valuations. Orange County is no slacker in this area, boasting Western Digital, Kingston Technology, Broadcom, Conexant and hundreds of other major computer and tech companies, all of them needing coders.

Maybe there’s a perception problem. The popular view seems to be that computer coders are nerds who sit in front of their computers 22 hours a day, typing frenetically, as empty Mountain Dew cans and pizza boxes pile up.

Actually, just about anybody can go into the coding field. Naturally, as with any field, the most gifted typically rise to the top. But, as was pointed out by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, himself one of the top coders of all time, liberal arts majors make some of the best coders.

The reason is that, except at the farthest levels of abstraction, coding is kind of a combination of grammar and algebra. Almost everybody can be competent at those things.

A friend of mine got a degree in anthropology, then took a noncomputing job at an Orange County computing company. Encouraged and coached by colleagues, he took up programming on his own, became one of their top coders and now is a manager, having risen through several companies.

Indeed, despite the paucity of courses in public schools, one can learn programming online for free. CodeAcademy.com offers, “Learn how to code interactively, for free.” And KhanAcademy.com encourages, “Learn how to program drawings, animations, and games using JavaScript & ProcessingJS, or learn how to create Web pages with HTML & CSS. You can share whatever you create, explore what others have created, and learn from each other!”

Numerous other free resources include YouTube instruction videos and Facebook pages for the many programming languages. People always are willing to help.

According to U.S. News, the median annual salary for computer programmers is $75,500. For the top 25 percent of them, it’s $100,400. And if you’re really good, you might start your own company and become a billionaire.

But why not offer more courses to kids while they’re in school? The idea was endorsed by two candidates for District 5 of the Orange County Board of Education our Editorial Board interviewed.

“We do very little coding in general,” Incumbent Jack Bedell told us. “Some districts are looking into it.” As to the schools the Board of Education itself runs, “I’m not aware of any courses,” he said.

Challenger Chris Norby said more coding courses would be a good idea because “we need to constantly re-adapt the curriculum to new needs in the real world.”

As the late Steve Jobs might have said, jobs in coding are insanely great.

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