To Code or Not to Code: There Is No Question

Aspirations girls at White House for #WHChamps

"Programming is a skill -- not a profession," said Carlos Bueno, Facebook engineer and author of Lauren Ipsum, a fairy tale that teaches computer science concepts to children. Carlos was one of the eleven Champions of Change for Tech Inclusion that were honored on Wednesday at the White House. To justify this statement, he pointed toward statistics: Most people in the world aren't "statisticians," but there are lots of people who use statistics as part of their job -- statistics is a tool, just like programming.

From Tuesday, July 30 through Wednesday, July 31, I had the opportunity to represent NCWIT in Washington, D.C. at the Champions of Change for Tech Inclusion event. In addition to the awards ceremony itself, I also attended a reception co-hosted by DC Innovates, Inc. and Google, a reception co-hosted by the Kapor Center for Social Impact and Facebook, and a fantastic dinner sponsored by Bloomberg.

Let me assure you that I could gush for many paragraphs about the sheer awesomeness of my two days in D.C.; however, in favor of brevity, I’d like to return to Carlos’s quote. The sentence of interest came during the second of two Q&A panels comprised of the Champions of Change. Carlos’s deceivingly brief statement immediately grabbed me -- his distinction seemed so obvious, yet I had never heard it framed so frankly and clearly. Quite simply, I love to code, so I am thrilled to code for the sake of coding; however, I realize that not everyone shares my passion. If people -- students, in particular -- could understand that programming is a skill, I believe that the stereotypes that exist about computer science and programming would wither. People might understand that computer science is not an end but a means to an end. In fact, computer science can be a means to an end of your choice. Indeed, said Champion of Change Kathryn Finney, "Find your interests. Then, find a way to make them tech-related." Kathryn is the founder and Managing Director of digitalUNdivided, a non-profit that aims to increase black and Latino female presence in tech.

Can simply recasting programming as a skill steer our nation towards more widespread and eventually universal computer science education in K-12 schools? Probably not. But this from Kathryn might: "Engaging in tech is no longer optional -- it's mandatory." Both Kathryn and Carlos emphasized that learning technologies will always improve your career; indeed, Carlos listed several of his previous careers that technology had made obsolete.

The demand for programming skills and computer science is only growing. According to She++: The Documentary, “By 2020, the U.S. will need 1.4 million computer scientists, but we will only have 30% of those filled by American-trained universities at current graduation rates.” My proverbial jaw dropped when I heard this. Fortunately, this disparity can be fixed by encouraging women and minorities to pursue computer science. I was ecstatic that so many speakers at the events that I attended in D.C. identified diversity in tech as an asset for America, including most notably U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. Furthermore, Mr. Park, whom I was able to hear speak not once but twice, declared STEM education to be necessary for the U.S. to be competitive in all industries. Your takeaway is this: Everyone should learn to code.

Veronica Wharton will be a Fall 2013 freshman at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where she will study New Media Interactive Development, a technical major that combines her interests in computer science and graphic design.  She is currently working with Tumblehome Learning, Inc. as a Game Development Intern. Veronica was a 2013 National Award winner and 2013 Massachusetts Affiliate Award winner of the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing, which honors young women at the high school level for their computing-related achievements and interests.  You can find Veronica on Twitter at @VeronicaWharton and on LinkedIn

Above photo: [L-R: Kirsi Kuutti, Krista Holden, Angelika Modawal, Katie Bartel, and Veronica Wharton in front of the White House]