Your Code Is Worthless

There has been some noise on the web in regards to learning to code. Jeff Atwood declared: “Please Don’t Learn To Code” in response to the New York City Mayor‘s tweet that he was joining in Codecademy’s Code Year. My favourite web-based programming mentor, Zed Shaw, retorted with “Please Don’t Become Anything, Especially Not A Programmer” saying:

… learn to code for your own reasons, then you’ll be just fine and get out of it what you put into it. If you attach your identity to being a programmer, then changes like “everyone can code” will lead to resentment because you are no longer unique

Even my favourite data journalist, Dan Nguyen, joined in the fray with “Fashionistas (and bureaucrats and journalists): Please learn to code“.

I am learning to code, but not just how to write a for loop, or scrape a site, or set up a database. I have said from the very beginning “I don’t want to be a developer”. I am learning to code to burrow into data not to build web-based tools, so my journey will be very different to that of a web developer. I have a clear goal in mind even if the course material is unknown to me. I can see where both parties are coming from. This is because code is worthless.

This is exactly what a developer of two decades told me recently. And he’s right. Software companies made the mistake of thinking their code was their product and they kept it under lock and key. Then the web made a new playing field and open source projects burgeoned into new innovative territories where the code was the medium and knowledge the product. The code for Facebook is worthless. The code for Twitter is useless. The understanding of users’ wants, needs and evolving doxa is the true treasure.

Similarly, news organisations made the mistake of thinking their content was their product. Now that everyone can generate their own content it is the organisation who understands the power of fostering awareness, engagement and community that will survive the digital cull of what was formerly known as ‘news’. The words which make up a story are worthless.

Every piece of code I write and which you all will see is worthless. Just as building a resume or website with Codecademy will be worthless to Mayor Bloomberg. It’s what you learn doing it that has value. The knowledge you gain whilst trying something new is the only thing worthwhile.

Knowing what to look for when deciding whether or not to scrape a site is valuable to a data journalist. Finding the story by querying the data is valuable to a data journalist. Pitching the headline to an editor is valuable to a data journalist. Knowing how best to tell the story is valuable to a data journalist. You cannot get any of these from the scraper code, so it is worthless.

And this is the crux of the open source and open news movement. The words, the code have no worth to its creator. It’s the experience and knowledge gained by weaving these fibres into something that can tell you more of what you need to know that is worthwhile.

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