Lots of people don’t — or can’t — distinguish between knowing how to solve simple problems in a…

John Ohno on 2016-12-19

Lots of people don’t — or can’t — distinguish between knowing how to solve simple problems in a specific language & being a programmer.

Nearly all boot camps seem to lose this distinction, as do people who advocate for computer programming education in schools. Some universities also don’t make this distinction. Most beginner programmers don’t make this distinction, or else falsely believe themselves to have graduated to the other side of it.

This goes hand in hand with the idea of programming being a primarily vocational skill. The very shallow version of programming is, of course, of only vocational use — and of generally low value.

Boot camps probably can deliver what they promised, in the sense of producing incompetent, white-belt programmers that will get hired by non-technical HR people (who can’t distinguish between real programmers and white belts) and put into offices full of white-belts, who will crunch away at simple problems until the budget runs out. It’s in line with a lot of the worst practices in the tech industry, insomuch as it involves people who don’t know any better tricking other people who also don’t know any better & pretending everything’s fine until the inevitable collapse.

I value the other skills developed by programming over actually programming, and I think people would benefit in all sorts of fields that don’t involve programming if they’d learn and apply them. Of course, these skills are hard to test for. It’s very easy for pockets of white belts to develop in any organization, and white belts can’t really conceive of that kind of distinction (and nothing is really a good proxy for it — in part because wage inflation in this sector makes people game everything they can, so proxy measures have a half life of weeks before they must be retired).

A bootcamp won’t ever do more than give you a white belt, and a bootcamp won’t teach you that a white belt isn’t enough. Bootcamps and schools attract the insufficiently self-directed, who will never graduate beyond the white belt because they don’t really want to learn for the sake of learning. Some of these people don’t feel the need to become competent, because they came for the high wages; when the wage bubble collapses and white belts start being paid like other semi-skilled entry-level white-collar workers, there will be fewer of them.

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