Why don’t I code?


Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash

I’ve just read a blog post by Tony Hirst called Programming Privilege .   It’s a short post but the opening lines really caught my attention.

I saw a quote today somewhere that I didn’t save an don’t properly recall along the lines of most people don’t know what it’s like to be in the privileged position of a programmer who is able to code your own custom apps.

Slightly earlier, I’d idly wondered about the rhetoric of “everyone must learn to programme”, and how many people I know found it useful in their work to “do some programming” yesterday, or last week or over the last month.

I also wonder about how many of the folk preaching “everyone should learn to programme”:

a) actually know how to write code (and if they don’t, do they intend to learn? When?);
b) ever use code to do anything (i.e. why should folk learn to code? What’s it useful for?)


Going back to the privilege thing, what I think folk don’t realise is how little you need to do to get things done, if you know what to do – or look for.

Now over the years,  I have had the privilege of working with some fantastic colleagues who as well as having many other talents, are programmers.  Reflecting on it now, the majority of them embody the notion of self directed learners. They were/ are all motivated to do things, to experiment, to push the boundaries. Significantly for me, they were (are) all generous enough to listen to me and my half baked ideas of what could possibly be done if they could just tweak/write the code.

Despite what some people may think, I am not a “techie” in the programming sense. I understand what can be done, the logic of some “stuff”, and I will have a go a low level “stuff” but I am not a programmer.  What I have been able to do over the years is to develop the knowledge, understanding, vocabulary  to able to have meaningful conversations with people who can programme and work with them to meet both the technical and user needs of systems/standards etc.

Over the years, I have tried to do bits of coding/ programming. I can sort of understand HTML, enough to edit a page, spot rogue code. At one point I was almost proficient in understanding XML mark up in standards documents.  I’ve had a play with scripts that Tony and others like Martin Hawskey have created, particularly around data visualization and I have really enjoyed those experiences.

Still, there is a part of me that doesn’t actually completely agree with the “everyone needs to code” mantra.  On reflection that’s probably because of the privileges I’ve been afforded  such as working with generous people who have shared their knowledge with me so I understood what they were doing even if I didn’t actually do it myself. There was/is just never seems enough time to get to grips with things properly and, hey why should I when people I work with can do it faster and better than me . .

I’m also still a bit scared of code and programming. Irrational I know – but I might just actually break the internet 🙂

However, Tony’s post has really made me think.  My irrational fear stems back to my early educational experiences. When I was at school and personal computers were coming of age it was made very clear that programming wasn’t for the likes of me – a girl, not great at maths, not really interested in computers.

Those biased assumptions still lurk in the recesses of my psyche.  That’s why another bigger part of me does really support and believe in the need for continued support for getting young girls in particular into coding early.  It’s really important to know how things work, how as Tony says, easy it is to get things done and not just let others do it for you.  Of increasing importance now is being able to articulate what you think systems should do for you, to challenge how “stuff” (aka data) is stored, collected, used/abused.  Knowing about programming provides another way to have informed discussions about many, many other things.

So maybe I should make the time to learn to code a bit more and not abuse my privilege of letting others do everything for me.




  1. Very interesting Sheila as usual.
    I have seen those ‘everyone should learn to programme’ statements in educational texts and tend to conclude, that ‘was so 1990s’. I learnt HTML and remember supporting Dreamweaver courses and, like you, became intrigued by XML, partly to understand interoperability.
    I am currently supporting the redesign of a Journalism course and was seriously wondering if it really needed a web development module in this day and age.
    Two things occur to me. First, the beneficial outcomes are to do with developing clear, logical thinking and the confidence this can give you. Second, people who are comfortable with numbers, data, quants (which I tend not be!) assume credibility and power more easily than the likes of people who value and use creativity, experience, open-ended discourse and more ‘messy thinking’ to get to the heart of an issue. I have instantly created a ridiculous binary – many people straddle this admirably (resulting in mastery??). To achieve the outcomes I noted, however, does not require programming skills, and can be achieved in any number (proving both perspectives in one go!!!!) of ways.

    • thanks for the comment Andrew. Maybe a digital capabilities lens might help with your journalism course -get students to identify with elements of the Jisc model perhaps and challenge the binary you created😀

  2. I loathe the focus on coding and programming, those are the functional/task level when really the kind of approaches I respect in Tony are not his ability to write compact python functions but his approach to solving problems. This is more in the realm of computational thinking, and one can engage in that through other means than “learning to code”

    Yes it can help to have some fundamental skills in logic, variables, etc but I’m not convinced it’s required to use tech for higher level purposes.

    I left a CIS major because it was all code for the sake of code; I only found a reason for it when I had a purpose to apply it as a geology major.

    • thanks Alan and for persevering with submitting this comment. Agree re higher order skills but just worry a bit that might not have people who can tinker/build code and we leave it all the machines.

  3. Hey Sheila, as someone who knows really well how to code (position of privilege) I can tell you I hate hate hate this discourse (and agree w Alan re thinking vs coding) . First off, teaching girls to code does not prepare girls for the sexist world of tech (and you know I am no pushover) and second, as I argue on “where is the humanity in the computer science curriculum”, we need to stop prioritizing teaching people to code and think of the opportunity cost of doing so on what humans value in the world. Remember that most of us don’t grow our own food, build our own cars, or homeschool our kids, although much of all this is of course possible to an extent. But seriously – I know how to code, including machine learning type of code. That’s miles away philosophically from HTML, and both technically relatively simple while philosophically quite complex. I’d rather spend my time helping programmers learn to listen well to people like you. And leave you to be proud in what you do. I’d rather computer science people spent more time reflecting on their sexism.
    My article is here at DML Central https://dmlcentral.net/humanity-computer-science-curriculum/

    • thanks Maha – agree that human value is much more important. The teach everyone to code meme is often lazy way for politicians and those in power to be seen to be seemingly addresses much wider issues including gender bias.

    • should have added that I do worry about who can code in the future.Yes not all of us grow our own food, and some people – not just kids- don’t understand the relationship between what the eat and how it is produced.

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