Rethinking Programmer Education for Today’s Coders

The proliferation of low-code and no-code applications are changing the landscape for software. In the past decade, growth in these areas has empowered employees to generate solutions at the speed of a digital world, regardless of their technical background.

This raises several questions: What kind of programmers do businesses really need? Should they still rely on programmers formally trained at four-year universities—what you might call “white-collar” programmers? Or, instead, are blue-collar programmers with self-taught skills or those who learned from a bootcamp more valuable? What will get organizations the right mix of programming skills?

The short answer is that all programmers can be of great value. In general, blue-collar programmers, after all, connect things within the computing environment, while white-collar programmers create the things that are connected. The essence of low-code is that it allows more people to connect things and use their creativity to become more productive. But it doesn’t eliminate the need for professional programming and tools at its foundation.

At their core, low-code and no-code are about democratization. They allow people without technical skills to work creatively in ways that essentially make everyone a programmer. A parallel from an earlier computing generation is the Excel spreadsheet, which lets people with no programming background perform computational tasks and eventually work their way up from simple formatting to full-fledged programming. But at some point, polished programming skills are still necessary, no matter how easy no-code or low-code can make some of those elements.

In the breakneck pace of cloud-based computing environments with new services constantly being developed and deployed to the edge, it’s worth considering the distinctions between the white- and blue-collar programmers and what kinds of education are appropriate for each.

Four-Year Colleges Vs. Boot Camps

A career as a programmer can seem intimidating for onlookers. This is particularly true when these jobs involve complex languages such as C++ and Java, which are often used in large projects that can take years to develop and involve millions of lines of code. Some of that is still true, but the evolution of programming over the years toward languages that require less code, such as Python, and to domain-specific languages (DSLs), has also started to lower the barriers to entry for programming.

It’s true that you’ve never needed a four-year computer science degree to be a programmer. In fact, many that have dropped out of college—or never attended at all—have made significant contributions to the industry. However, universities do provide a foundation in theory and algorithms that have always served programmers well and enable them to branch out into new areas, such as artificial intelligence or other disciplines, such as bioinformatics. Coding bootcamps, for their part, can provide intensive training on DSLs or frameworks like Rails or React.js that can benefit companies’ plans, giving blue-collar programmers the practical skills that white-collar programmers may not have. They also attract career-changing attendees with four-year degrees in other subjects, including the humanities and the sciences, which brings badly needed new ways of thinking into the profession.

While each method is valid, both four-year institutions and bootcamps also have their shortcomings. Universities delve deep into software development theory but often don’t emphasize critical aspects of doing the job, such as teamwork, testing and agile processes. Nor do they focus much on core areas of businesses today, like cloud computing. Boot camps, by targeting specific areas and emerging technologies and languages, can help people get internships or entry-level jobs, but don’t provide a broader theoretical knowledge of programming. And they can be hit-or-miss, with some of them using sketchy practices for payments and job placement.

The inherent weaknesses in both white- and blue-collar training can be addressed through apprenticeships and internships, but only to a point. The question remains: Who will train low-code programmers on modern development and coding practices? A lot of companies throw around terms like Agile and CI/CD, but they’re often just new labels on old, inefficient practices. Companies will need white-collar programmers to bring blue-collar programmers up to speed.

Programming for the Masses

No-code software is a great enabler, allowing people with no formal education or experience to become proficient in a programming environment. On the other hand, for people who do have formal training—whether a formal education or boot camp experience—low-code simplifies their work, leaving time to focus on more complex projects. But programmer or not, users of no-code and low-code solutions need to understand more than just deployment and testing if they want their software to be reliable and useful.

Professional developers can make a difference by creating and maintaining the pipelines used to build, test, archive and deploy low-code software; they will need to build new tools to accommodate low-code frameworks. And while familiarizing themselves with current development techniques, they could become the teachers of essential computing practices that don’t involve coding.

A cooperative, productive relationship between white-collar and blue-collar programmers is essential to moving forward with software development, as it will allow both to continue acquiring new skills and experience outside of low-code, which is only a product of programming, no matter how ubiquitous it may be.

Making the Connection

Today, we’re entering a business world where practically everyone will need to code, making low-code and no-code frameworks necessary, especially for users without formal training. However, the importance of professional programmers will remain, too.

We’re likely to see a proliferation of DSLs created to solve specific problems, which will eventually evolve toward general-purpose programming languages. Programmers will need to build web frameworks, cloud capabilities and more, including everything from web widgets to the high-level tools that let users work. That may be the only way we can begin to meet the demand for more people who can program as more devices come online, more connections are made and the world becomes increasingly reliant on automation.

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