Programming Is Not A Dying Profession

Oct 24, 2015

While reading the post Coding Academies Are Nonsense I came across the statement that coding academies aren’t worth any investment because it’s a dying profession.

The author goes on to say “I see coding shrinking as a widespread profession. Not because software is going away, but because the way we build software will fundamentally change. Technology for software creation without code is already edging toward mainstream use. Visual content creation tools … will continue to improve until all functionality required to build apps is available to consumers — without having to write a line of code.”

Someday, maybe, but long after I am dust and ashes. I’ve been hearing this type of thinking for all of my 34 years as a programmer. Generation after generation people have been promising that programming will go away and be replaced by filling in forms, dragging around icons or connecting symbols, and so far none of them ever pan out as practical for anything other than pretty demos.

While a lot of the coding academies of today might be terrible or a waste of money, it isn’t because the profession is going away any time soon. The demand for people who can write software is still extremely high and is unlikely to diminish for a long time. What people want keeps getting more complex, more rich, more interesting and on more platforms. The things we use to build software keep changing as well to keep up with the things people want us to build.

None of this is new. I’ve been a professional programmer for more than 50% of the history of actual programming, which sort of started in the 50’s and I started in 1981. The world of my first year is incredibly different from today: no internet, no web, no mobile, no networking, no open source as we know it today, no real market, no bitmapped displays, no mouse, barely any choice in programming languages—it’s like looking back at Neanderthals and comparing them to today’s people. Yet despite the seemingly primitive nature of back then, the constant demand for new things has never ceased, and with it the demand for people to make it happen.

I had an Apple Lisa on my desk in 1983 and I saw the future but of course I had no idea where it would all lead. The pace of change is ever increasing and the pace of people learning to take advantage has to keep up. Imagine how few people in the world were programmers when I started in 1981 and how many there are today (which explains why you don’t see too many people with 34 years experience either) and then imagine where we will be in another 10 or 20 years.

As I told my nephew who is just starting out, someday automated systems that will take some of the work we do today away will happen, but not for a long time. Writing a few lines of code and automating that is one thing—writing a social network, or a 3D FPS, or a complex trading app, is not going to be the first things some automated system or drag-and-drop tool will be used for. The difficulties of translating real world needs and desires into a market ready app isn’t a simple application of connecting a few things together. I’ve seen tons of people write such tools over the years and most of the time they were limited and clunky and produced cookie cutter apps.

I expect some day we will reach a point where an automated system can build most of the software that we need, but it will be as different a world then as it was when I started compared to today. It will not be today or probably during my lifetime.

Until that future day if we survive that long people will be needed to write code, to design UX and UI, to figure out how to process Terabytes of data, to even program Watson. Those people have to come from somewhere. Not all of them have to be geniuses. Not all of them have to be able to create new programming languages or build amazing frameworks. We will need more people to do the kinds of programming that still involves writing lines of code, testing, updating, fixing and doing it again. I agree that not everyone has the mental features to be a good programmer or to even be interested in doing it, but exposing people to it is still a good thing.

I became a programmer with nothing more than a single high school class back in 1974, on a 110 baud teletype, in Basic. It wasn’t even a coding academy but an experimental class. That’s all the education I ever had but the exposure was enough to get me interested, even if it took another 7 years to become a chosen profession. If you looked at what programming was back then it sure seemed like a dead profession with only a limited future yet here we are today with ridiculous mobile devices, crazy wireless connectivity and insane performance. And all of that cool stuff was written by some programmers and virtually none of it by a machine or a business person pushing icons.

So no our profession isn’t dying. And despite my age I welcome all the new additions to the job force. We need you to get excited about writing code and building the future. Maybe someday you can build the ultimate system that puts every programmer out of a job.

I’m not holding my breath until I see that day though.