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The ‘learn to code’ fallacy

A persistent theme that recurs every now and then in the online tech world is that ‘everyone should learn to code’. There are a slew of blog posts claiming that to be a great SEO you need to know how to code, and a recent Venturebeat article once again proclaimed programming the most vital skill for successful entrepreneurship.

This is, of course, utter bollocks.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a great deal of respect for coders. I work with some highly talented web developers and not a day goes by where I don’t marvel at their skills.

But their skills are not essential for being a great SEO, and they’re not essential for being a great entrepreneur.

First of all, I think a lot of this ‘learn to code’ hype stems from the perception that many of today’s most admired entrepreneurs started out as basement coders. From Mark Zuckerberg to Larry & Sergey, today’s biggest tech companies are the creations of coders. Therefore, the reasoning goes, you need to be a great coder to be a successful entrepreneur.

And that is, of course, blatantly wrong. Such seemingly logical reasoning is premised on a thorough misunderstanding of what makes a successful tech company.

The primary reason these companies are successful – in addition to exorbitant amounts of luck – is not because they were built by coders, but that they solved a problem.

Google solved the online search problem more elegantly than anyone had up to then, and that made them the most popular search engine in the world.

Facebook solved the mess that was social media and turned it in to a smooth, nearly friction-less experience. And that made them the biggest social network on the planet.

The fact that Page, Brin and Zuckerberg are coders is secondary to their most important trait, the aspect of their personalities that is directly responsible for their success: they’re problem-solvers.

Problem-solvers come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are coders, but many aren’t. It’s true that problem-solvers tend to be drawn to writing code, as that allows them to create technical solutions to problems, but the ability to code is a symptom – not the cause – of their problem-solving ability. And not all coders are great problem-solvers.

I would argue that the ability to analyse a problem – and I define ‘problem’ loosely here, encompassing everything from shoddy user interfaces to unintuitive online interactions – and devise an elegant solution is the real hallmark of successful entrepreneurship.

For every Zuckerberg you can easily find several highly successful entrepreneurs who couldn’t code a simple ‘hello world’ script if their life depended on it.

But I can pretty much guarantee you that all great tech entrepreneurs have one thing in common: they’re very good at analysing and solving problems.

The next time someone claims that the ability to write code is the key to success in our modern world, call them out on their bullshit. Because that idea is based on a deep misunderstanding of what makes technology successful.

———- Be sure to also read this post from Richard Shove on the matter.

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