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Should You Learn To Code?

The release of a new programming language at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference this week highlighted one of the most marketable skills in the digital world: the ability to code. How necessary is it, really? And is that even the right question?

Once again, the haves and have-nots of the digital world seem neatly defined by the presence or absence of one skill: the ability to code.

Buried at the bottom of a glittering heap of new OS X and iOS designs, at Apple's latest Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), was an announcement about Apple's new programming language called Swift. Apparently it's designed to make it easier than ever to develop iOS apps. It also, according to Jon Gruber, acted as a stark litmus test for WWDC attendees.

It's easier than ever to find coding courses, and it's easy to understand this reader's mounting anxiety about whether or not he should get with the program. So I'm a mid-career 'creative type' (I write, produce multimedia, and have an eye for design), but in order to take my work to the next level I'm feeling a lot of pressure to learn how to code. Is this something I should acquire some skills at, or is it enough just to find the right talent (i.e., a developer) and collaborate? Do I have to have programming skills myself in order to truly do interesting things in the digital realm?

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

There's nothing wrong with learning a valuable and marketable skill out of sheer economic necessity. But the creative question is murkier. Is coding a medium—like film, prose, and music? Or is it a new form of basic literacy—like knowing how to read, write, and operate an iPhone? Is programming a creative preference or an unspoken requirement?

I asked Robin Sloan, an author (of the New York Times best-selling novel Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore) and "media inventor" (of assorted uncategorizable digital experiments such as this) how he would approach this question.

His advice: Forget about what you "should" do. What do you want to do?

"I didn't dip my toes into programming because it seemed useful, or important, or necessary; rather it was because it seemed fascinating and fun," Sloan says. "I'm less a creative-type-turned-mediocre-programmer than I am a would-be programmer who never got serious about the craft—but hey, surprise! Those half-baked skills turned out to be useful for a 'creative type' at this moment in the 21st century."

Steve Jobs, John Sculley and Steve Wozniak present the Apple II computer, 1984.

"When I hear questions like 'should I or shouldn't I learn to code,' I am of two minds," he continues. "One mind says: 'Yes! You should absolutely learn how to code, even if only a little bit. It opens up rich worlds of possibility, of play. It's hugely liberating and empowering."

That said, Sloan sees the question from another angle, too. "The other mind acknowledges: That might only be true if you have the spark of fascination to start with. Lacking that, the process of learning to code might just be slow, frustrating, and ultimately dispiriting. I mean, to be clear, it is very regularly frustrating and dispiriting for me, too. But there's always this bright beacon of intrinsic interest drawing me forward."

Intrinsic interest: That's the key phrase. If you're a "creative type," what would you like to be able to create that requires you to code? Does the homepage of Codeacademy fill you with curiosity or vague dread? Would you be interested in coding if you didn't felt you should be interested?

If the answer is no—"if the motivation to learn is all extrinsic, all this drumbeat of 'You—must—learn—to—code'—then I'd say skip it," Sloan says. "Instead, develop other complementary skills, of which there are plenty."

In other words, you don't have to be Steve Wozniak to be Steve Jobs. (You could also be both, or neither.) But what each of them had in common was this: They knew what they wanted to do. Take that as your starting point. Those 1s and 0s can do powerful and amazing things. But learning to code doesn't have to be a binary choice.