From his international perspective, Dan Bowen explains why coding is not the new black
Scratch codeProgramming with 'Scratch'Currently there is a boom in the UK and Australia with "coding" being 'the new thing to do' in schools. But there is more to software development than coding.

As someone who has recently moved countries and spent time looking at curricula in different countries around Europe and now Australia, it's clear that for a country to maintain its competitive edge it is not about the code – it is about the application of the code.

Being able to program is one of the major skill sets you may need but to move the economy forward we need to develop digital entrepreneurs and more effective software developers. Countries cannot 'app' or 'program' themselves out of a recession. And I think this might even prove to be a false economy.

'Coding entrepreneurs are needed – a workforce that innovates'

Coding entrepreneurs are needed.  We need an workforce that innovates and has ideas. We need to develop the creative and innovative. not the robotic. For example: when we think of the creation of worldwide products three concepts spring to mind:

  1. The fruit syndrome – innovation driven in the US, for example the Apple iPhone, but mass produced in China and Asia. Programming and hardware can be a cheap commodity in many cases. We will never compete with the millions of coders coming out of the emerging markets so the ideas are where it is at.
  2. The Italian Job – A quick quiz. Pizza and Espresso were invented in Italy, by whom? I bet you don't know. But you would know they are now known and developed by Starbucks and Pizza Hut. We need to be thinking as a developer making the products more scalable and possibly more targeted to customers' needs.
  3. Flappy bird syndrome – A low graphics game was recently removed from the ‘App store’ even though the creator claimed it was making him $50,000 a day on advertising. Quick wins are few and far between. This is the same mentality as telling our kids they will be a football player when they grow up (even though there is more likelihood that they will play for a Premiership team than create a one-off app that will make them millions).

So where does this leave us? Ideas matter, original thinkers matter, everyone coding well doesn't matter – but software development and creativity do matter

What shortage of programmers?

The UK and Australia do not have a shortage of computer programmers. They do have shortage of good software developers. This is something we need to work on in the curriculum. And for development there's much more to it than just programming. It can take years to develop the skills and knowledge needed to build reliable, maintainable, secure and scalable software.

It is not the ability to write clean new software, but the ability of the software developers to adapt existing software which can keep pace with and even lead the competition – that is the key to success in industry. Generating a lot of mediocre programmers will result in the need for more developers to correct legacy code that was written poorly. Finally, in industry, to keep up the pace, most development teams are overstaffed, and we know that a majority of software projects fail to deliver any real value when developed like this.

Bubbles and sound bites, such as the the Year of Code, may flood the market with average or below-average programmers. When the market is flooded with non-competent programmers then it is very difficult and time consuming, as well as risky, to identify really good developers and maintain the advantage.

So how can we develop entrepreneurship and software developers? Here are some ideas:

  • Develop a more detailed curriculum – with support around programming and the software development process:    
  • Teach ALL kids to appreciate code – and not be afraid of it:
  • Teach MOST kids the basics of coding, process and project management. This group includes the students who will have the entrepreneurial ideas and will deliver innovation;   
  • Teach SOME kids to develop code efficiently and in detail so they become effective developers who can code for scalability, re-use and maintenance.

And here are two final thoughts:

  • There have been many mathematicians with far greater mathematical knowledge than Einstein. However, his application of the knowledge allowed him to innovate and see things differently. His elegance in developing solutions and theorems provided a springboard to future generations of mathematicians to develop them further, for example with quantum and string theory.
  • The PISA rankings do not (as yet) measure creativity and innovation and will certainly not help any economies innovate themselves out of a recession.

Dan BowenDan Bowen is a former head of ICT and assistant head of sixth form. He was an education advisor in Surrey and the south east of England after cutting his teeth as a National Strategies adviser. He is an active member of NAACE, Computing At School, CEOP, STEM ambassador and a fellow of Mirandanet, and has moved to Australia to advise and work with educational technology in the sunshine for a few years.

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