Breaking The Code of Silence

The BBC did an interesting feature on the state of computer science in the UK’s National Curriculum.

It states that there is a growing fear that the curriculum that is set for IT Studies is far more clerical and basic than it should be; it is not teaching the next generation of potential programmers and computer whizzes the skills required for a full future in the industry.

The tagline industry experts want to push is “Coding is the new Latin”.

Except, that too misses the point.

Latin, whilst a wonderful subject that I lament not taking (but know a little of) has surprisingly little impact on the state of the world today. It is a Classical Studies topic; it is great for those wanting to further their education in a field of biology, where understanding of latin names and their meanings is essential, but remains a niche, a small topic of interest.

Coding and programming, on the other hand, is a subject that I agree should be taught more.

Back when I began to get into computers in the mid-80s, my grandparents had an Amstrad CPC464, a wonderful little computer that came with its own little RGB Monitor. I, of course, saw it less as a future; more as an entertainment medium.

Not much has changed in the youth of today, I suppose.

But my grandparents had spent a fair chunk of money on this device; and their message was clear; learn to use it or don’t use it at all. In other words, to actually play the games on it, I had to learn the ins and outs of Basic; the language that made the software possible at the time. This meant, at a time when computers were still seen as expensive nerdy luxuries, reading and studying the massive volume of text that lay within that thick, ringbound manual.

And this was necessary for a lot longer than that, as they upgraded to a 286 years later I began to appreciate the finer points of DOS, as Windows was relatively new. But, as time went on, operating a computer became more intuitive and user-friendly; as Windows began to evolve and develop and become the standard bearer, requiring a knowledge of coding became less and less necessary. Today, Windows offers ease of use, with self-repair options, recovery and an ease of usage that seemed impossible twenty-five years ago.

In this, Microsoft – who are championing the return of coding as a subject – must shoulder some of the actual blame for its demise, as it became less and less relevant to the needs of the many.

Programming is a wonderful thing; most will be surprised, despite the many years it has been since I studied Basic, that I remember quite a bit of it and fondly recall the joy of making things. As my interests moved on to literacy and reading novels, I still took the time to enjoy coding – learning HTML, PHP and MySQL for a while, and enjoying it. Again, these skills are less necessary as the general sophistication of software and scripts requires only the most basic of understanding of how things operate.

We have created a world where the effort required to execute things is merely a few clicks, or an enter key, away.

To give a new generation of kids a real taste of coding is to teach it to them as a complicated machine that needs someone to give it life – coding isn’t merely about learning how things work, or how to get things done. It’s also a creative process; the means to make things happen, interesting and wonderful things.

Teaching kids to make rudimentary games, or to animate, or to end up with a web page that looks beautiful and polished on browsers – the goal of coding, whether it be in C#, Java, HTML 2.0 or even just classic old Basic, is to have something to show for your labours at the end.

To make something and see it come to life at the end.

This is a rewarding sensation that is fundamental not only to the industry, but a very basic human need to feel rewarded for our efforts. To see a platform game running, or a basic RPG, or a simple block game. To see a website running and be fully-functional. To see your backend skills running a complicated process for people. The conclusion of the work must be compensatory to the actual experience of learning how to get there.

And it is here that the industry itself needs to pull its socks up. With many studios facing closure and many more already closed, the industry is itself oblivious to the needs of new talent coming in; the industry needs to give a deeper sense of reward to the proceedings, and this may mean more creative freedoms for the individuals working for them, or letting people have their own side-projects without getting jealous or suspicious of their motives which may often be innocent, and it means most certainly a greater sense of job security and stability in a market that has become notorious for discarding studios and their employees en-masse if something doesn’t meet often fantastical figures that are beyond the realms of possibility.

Teaching kids to program, and code, in an attempt to bolster the future market is an absolute necessity, and I agree with it. Teaching this in the right way may lead to many more talented and creative people in the industry and on the internet to generate jobs, income, revenue and taxes.

But the industry itself needs to take a deep, long look at how it operates now and ask itself, very seriously, why even if the education system was changed to encourage new blood; why anyone teenager faced with thinking about their future career and with any common sense would want to work in an industry that is famous for its brutal retributions and punishments if people can’t live up to some ridiculous number dreamt up by men in suits dozens of floors up escapes me completely. It doesn’t shout stable job prospects, or long steady career, and for many there is relatively little chance of promotion and developing their talents into a more sustained and larger role in the company.

It’s time to break the code of silence for the industry. If it has any hope of generating new, talented blood to come in and continue the legacies of the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Peter Molyneux, Richard Garriott and Shigeru Miyamoto, it has to become less about the bottom line and more about the employees, and their needs and security.

Expecting people to come in and just make money for these companies isn’t enough. Growth requires change.

And the industry, as I’ve said many times, needs to change. For its employees, its consumers, its projects… and its very future.

In other words, the capitalist attitude needs to be tempered with more socialist ideals, or it will never achieve the long-term goals it hopes to attain.

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