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Personal Growth

You Don’t Need To Learn To Code + Other Truths About the Future of Careers

The future belongs to those who work with, not against, the rising tide of technology.


There’s a reason most “conventional” career advice sucks: the world is changing at a rapid clip. When well-meaning mentors give advice based on their experiences decades ago, it’s kind of like teaching someone how to drive using a horse and buggy.

In his latest book, Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen argues that we need to reshape the way we think about jobs, and in turn, our careers, in the wake of this rapid technological change.

As most industrialized nations outsource and automate jobs, labor becomes more abundant and employment harder to come by. In a world of Amazon drones, who needs postal workers? When the Google self-driving car hits the mass market, will we no longer need taxi drivers? 

Yet the challenge for creators is more subtle: rather than being replaced by robots, we have to worry about competition on a global scale. (As online education becomes ubiquitous how can the art school graduate in Brooklyn ask for the same fee as the Photoshop master in India?) 

So how can we best prepare ourselves for this new career dynamic, where we must stave off outsourcing at every turn? We asked Cowen to break down the bulletproof “soft skills” needed for next era of careers:

1. Own your life choices, and don’t let comparison make you envious.

One side effect of the rise of automation is that everything we do can and will become measureable. We are already able to see the bloggers with the most views, the creative with the most Twitter followers. But soon, even service jobs will be subject to what Cowen calls “hyper meritocracy,” where everything is measured, tracked, and ranked. As a result, comparison to our peers, and the subsequent anxiety that comes with that, is inevitable. We’ll always know where we stack up, and employers will be able to compensate us accordingly.

The upshot of this is that survival in the new career landscape offers an interesting choice: Will you “live to work,” and do everything it takes to max out these measurements to impress your employers? Or do you prefer to “work to live,” to maximize your leisure and family time? Cowen explains:

For those at the top end, you require responsibilities and a network of commitments, you have traded favors with people on the way up. It’s very hard to just back out of that and say I’m going to sit around the pool today. You’re always on call, there’s always email coming at you. You work the whole time and that has its rewards but it’s also a pain. 

True meritocracy is quite psychologically oppressive. Our failures and shortcomings hurt and depress us more than learning about our virtues. I think this is one of the troubling aspects of this new world where everything gets measured. People don’t really like that. They want to think that they’re better than they are. That they are more productive than they are. That they have maybe have a brighter future than they do.

That’s what I mean by “Average is over.” The world is forcing us to make choices and they’re not that easy. 

2. Don’t learn to code, learn how to work with technology.

A common refrain from those in the tech industry is that everyone should learn to code. There are a multitude of organizations (e.g. Code Academy, Treehouse, and Udacity among many others) set up to help mid-career professionals pick up this new skill as well as a growing demand that we include programming in our primary school curriculum

If becoming a programmer is appealing to you, great. But seeking employment based on any one “hard skill” is an outdated way of thinking. The rapid evolution of technology forces us to constantly reconsider which hard skills are in demand. (And we should). Staying on top of the hard skills needed is a necessity in the short term, but one of the best ways to position yourself for success in the long term is to focus on the soft skills needed no matter what technology you are working with. 

“There is often this naive reaction a lot of people have,” says Cowen. “They say, ‘Now I need to take X number of years off, learn all the skills of computer programming and become a programmer.’ Very often that’s a bad way to go. It’s people who integrate technical skills with knowledge of a concrete area and who understand marketing, presentation, and persuasion.” 

In other words, if your job gets better with technology you’re in good shape. Think of the doctor that can use complicated computer-aided readouts to produce an accurate diagnosis, or the sales person that can sift through client data to work more efficiently. 

“Take Mark Zuckerberg who, of course, has been a great programmer,” says Cowen. “There is much more to Facebook than that. It’s appealing, it gets people to come back, and he was a psychology major. It’s that integration that’s important.” 

The smartest workers will be able to leverage technology to their advantage and be able to recognize the big-picture ways to utilize it. The technology will change. The means of accessing will change. But strategically implementing it will remain in constant demand for tomorrow’s workforce. 

The smartest workers will be able to leverage technology to their advantage and be able to recognize the big-picture ways to utilize it.

3. Become a first-rate leader and collaborator.

It’s impossible to outsource great leadership. As jobs and companies become more specialized and competition more fierce, top companies will increasingly fight for workers that show leadership chops.

“Computers are very far from being able to manage human beings and motivate them and set expectations and inspire,” says Cowen. “So that’s a big sector of managing — making people feel good about themselves, getting other people to cooperate. That’s really a growth sector if you cannot do the technical things.”

Cowen points out that executives, managers, supervisors, and financial professionals captured 70 percent of all salary gains from 1979 to 2005. In other words, it’s the leaders and big-picture thinkers that are thriving the most. 

“Very often the people ‘in the field’ do not think conceptually about their own operations,” says Cowen. It’s increasingly difficult to think of the big picture while in the tunnel vision of a specific role.

Because of this hyper-specialization, creative teams will need workers who they enjoy collaborating with. As we all become more specialized, the problems we are solving will become increasingly complex. This means that collaboration across different areas of expertise will become even more important. One person alone cannot design the self-driving car.

“There won’t be much room for a ‘rebel without a cause’ or, for that matter, a rebel with a cause,” writes Cowen. 

4. Learn to market your work.

Even if you have the skills and connections, success still means getting your work noticed. No matter what field you are in, marketing your work will only get harder in the decades to come. To paraphrase Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian: On the Internet, a funny cat video is always a click away. Those who can authentically and effectively do battle with Buzzfeed listicles and Instagram photos will always be in demand. Cowen says:

Marketing is the sort of skill that is hard to outsource because you need to know a lot of local knowledge of time and place usually. To figure out what your readers are like or what some market segment is like [takes time], and the idea that you just hire some smart genius in India to solve it is not going to work.

“Marketing” in this context is different than taking a class at your local college. It’s about having a deep, entrenched understanding of your subject matter and target audience. The kind of high-level analytical thinking required to do this work can never be automated and will always be in demand.  

***

This Wild West landscape painted by Cowen and others can be a bit frightening, but with uncertainty comes opportunity. Top performers in every field are getting paid better than ever. We’ve seen the rise of digital nomads and solo entrepreneurs for those who like to go their own way. And, most importantly, an increased emphasis on job-agnostic “soft skills” means that we can quickly switch careers to match our interests and beliefs. It’s easier than ever to tailor-make a career and lifestyle that aligns with what makes us happy.

The creatives that succeed will be the ones that embrace these changes and use them to generate more opportunity and more chances to truly impact our world. To quote William Gibson: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

How about you?

What “soft skills” do you think are most in demand?

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (116)
  • http://www.urbangirl.com/ Hannah Diamond

    I am a social media marketing administrator for an online retailer. My degree is in English, and I have never taken any computer classes. While my job doesn’t involve coding (well, unless you count basic HTML for blog posts and emails I create), it is one of those jobs that didn’t even exist when I was in college. The important skill to have is adaptability. There was no specific training I could have received in college for this career. However, I did learn how to write and communicate effectively, and I have learned to adapt this skill for my current career. Creative thinking and the ability to write well are what have made me successful. I agree with the earlier comment that said writing is the type of coding that will never go away.

  • Hugh Rick

    Great post Sean, thank you for sharing!

  • l.Wilson

    I definitely agree with this article’s advise of learning how to market. Marie Forleo stated that marketing is the greatest skill on the universe and that we must all learn how to do it. I assume that Seth Godin would agree.

  • Sarcastic

    Jesus Christ, your picture…so…beautiful.

  • sunfell

    I’m a technical generalist, with a background in electronics and a specialty in computer support. I have to not only know how to troubleshoot and fix computers, I also have to know how to help the users- which is a skill that a lot of IT people do not have, it seems. The stereotype of the stilted, uber-geek is strong- and wrong. Understanding both the technology and the people who use it is a vital skill that is vastly underrated. Yet, I regularly am called a ‘wizard’, magician, guru, genius, etc- for simply changing peoples’ approach to using their machines.

    I may not be able to code (which irks me to no end at times), but I can dig into motivation and function, and keep things running relatively smoothly. I am a jack of many trades- I have to understand everything from the latest fads, newest tech and operating systems, internet trends and user patterns, etc. I am regularly questioned about new technology- and often about things outside my computer support ‘box’. I am constantly educating myself- which helps.

  • SeanPR11

    Is that 70% figure (scewed?) by Gates, Zuckerberg, and other .com millionaires? They are not the “rank and file” workers this article is addressing. Just wondering, I honestly don’t know.

  • Billy Bones

    You can either learn marketing and spend a lot of unpaid time marketing yourself and hope…or you can learn to code and have marketers chasing you

  • Billy Bones

    Soft skills are a given. Doctors, engineers and marketing folks, all should have them. It’s like being nice. It’s a must but its not a qualification that in itself is enough to build a career on

  • muscle_artist

    Can you tell me how to get out of retail and customer service?

  • Nicolas D.

    “Will you “live to work,” and do everything it takes to max out these measurements to impress your employers? Or do you prefer to “work to live,” to maximize your leisure and family time?” This is the question I asked to myself 4 years ago.
    And I’m happy to say in my short life. I experienced too much leisure, and also experienced too much work, and both sucks. Leisure really suck at one point, family and friend ? they probably have better stuff to do that spending all their time with you.
    Balancing ? You will finish by being lame at both.
    Taking the third road worked for me : working on stuff that I find fun. Every day is a gift ! 🙂

  • repharim

    Going to have to completely disagree with this post. Until we can get computers that can intelligently, efficiently, write better code than humans – there will be a need for coders.
    Sure software like dreamweaver and other alternatives are going to only make it easier and easier to make code. But when you want something that’s not from pre-coded stock you’re going to need someone who can code. And those kind of people if anything are going to be in very high demand. Perhaps not directly in the web field but all future technology is created by coders.
    So until you have an ai that works like a human brain, don’t tell people that coding has no future. We’re not likely to see any ai that works and thinks like a human brain in our lifetime so with enough coding skills – anyone will be in high demand.
    If you don’t get a job cuz you didn’t know enough coding it just shows how important it is. No one wants to hire a person that will learn the job on the job. Coders have a very safe future.

    • http://nwcs.com/~jvc/ Viqsi

      It’s not that coding has no future; nothing could be further from the truth. What the point is is that focusing on “I can program X (or learn to do so)” is the wrong approach – you end up with a “I have the solution: more code! What was your problem again?” scenario. It’s like the difference between knowing how to drive versus being able to navigate around the city you live in efficiently. Become familiar with the goal, and use coding as the means to that goal.

      (Also, bonus irony: I was hired for my current job on the basis of my ability to learn the job on the job quickly and efficiently. 🙂 )

    • Isaac Lam

      The thing is, coding programs are constantly being updated and remade, trying to learn a single language will give you a job for about 2 years. To be a coder, you have to be able to register changes and similarities between the languages.

      Coding is not just about learning code, it has other elements as well.

  • http://nwcs.com/~jvc/ Viqsi

    Well, yeah; presumably that’s why that point is one part of a four-part article. 😉 Yes, they use more than one paragraph, but a lot of it is supporting evidence for those folks who won’t take it at face value. Seems reasonable to me.

    I figure they’re just warning against folks assuming a “if you know how to program, then that’s all you need” approach. Dunno if that audience is actually being reached, but, well, that’s a different discussion. 😀

    (And yes, my job situation is… decidedly unusual. I knew three of my coworkers before I ever applied, and another such friend-of-these-friends has since been hired. We’re taking over! 😉 )

  • just wondering

    I think the argument is hinged on a misunderstanding of why all future workers may be required to understand how to code or at the very least understand it when they have a look under the hood. It’s not so much that we will all have to become coders, or that coding will be in such high demand that having such a credential acts as permanent protection from unemployment.
    Coding may become a universal job requirement because of two reasons.
    1. The cost of buying software to solve your firms every problem. In such a case, having a code literate staff allows them to develop software (or tweak existing programs) to solve very particular problems.
    2. Security threats created by software coming from sources that may not be reputable. I could imagine that if you have a code literate staff at your disposal, having them take a look under the hood for certain redflags in any new software could be a good front line protection.

    • thinker

      Don’t really agree with both points and just to briefly explain why, I would comment as follows:
      re: 1. there is a lot of issues with writing your own in-house code. I am not saying it is always not viable but before deciding to do so, a throughout analysis would be required as cost of having in-house development may in some cases be simply prohibitive (even in larger organizations).
      re: 2. Why would you be getting yourself into problem in the first place and decide to be buying software from dodgy sources? If code is closed, internal staff would not be able to look under the hood anyway and if opensource, it is likely that most critical bugs had already been exposed (if popular project). Computer security is a very complex matter, and again, something that could cost a lot to evaluate in-house, still with little advantages.

    • bsaunders

      “Everyone” is never going to be able to code well enough to develop or tweak software for business use. We all learn to write. Most managers and many independent contributors write for their jobs. Still companies hire specific people to generate their Web content, others to write their technical manuals, and still other’s to write the executive’s speeches and op-eds.

      Most of those managers and writers and whatever else will be mediocre coders. Meanwhile, someone has still got to do the other jobs, and it is a waste to have those people divert their attention to a struggle to learn to code.

      There is no “permanent protection from unemployment.” I’d wager people felt pretty secure as steelworkers in 1952. How’d that work out?

  • awakeinwa

    It is far too easy to code for its own sake, to maintain the status quo or to improve on the status quo on the margin.

    When most people learn a specialized skill, they tend to think in the weeds, to do something safe like what everybody else is doing, ending up with kitchen sink of features and outcomes nobody cares about. Take Silicon Valley all doing social at the moment. Or Windows 8. In tech, herd mentality takes over.

    Economically speaking, when that herd mentality takes over, such homogenous outcomes engender commoditization. Cloud, smart phone, web 2.0/HTML5, PCs, you name it.

    Most people who sign up for coding academies think it’s the safe thing to do; that a career awaits them. That is furthest from the truth. A career awaits the very best, but fact of matter is salaries for coders are flat since the 90s. Low inflation and stock euphoria mask that fact.

    People want and demand solutions. PCs got commoditized because all you could ever do really with them was browse the web. Successive iterations never changed that. Windows 8 tried to shim a tablet media consumptive experience on as the de facto one, which most people are rejecting that for mobile.

    That I speak from experience having worked at Microsoft for 11 years, half of which was in Windows division.

    In any event, people seek quality of life, are concerned about their retirement and frankly are clueless about it, are getting older and worry about their health, ntm want to have fun without breaking the bank.

    Despite the plethora of coders, there really isn’t great solutions out there, although you see remnants. There is a long runway still for such solutions, waiting for the smart connect the dots big picture visionary and doer.

    • awakeinwa

      As postscript I’ll add one of the more depressing things I saw at Microsoft was the ‘me-too’-ism running rampant. The feature specs and demo apps were always the same usual suspects. A video or social app of some sort, or whatever the flavor of the year was. For ex., that Windows 8’s UI framework was a native code rebuild of the managed code version of the same XAML engine and so forth.

      Microsoft is legendary for releasing new iterations of the same technology, too often leaving existing developers in the dust. In fact, I submit Microsoft is a good example of coding for its own sake, a tech co that does not think through big picture implications with a sale head that only knew how to copy after the fact, and a big reason why computing is so commoditized today.

      So yes, I wholly agree with the thesis of Cowen’s piece. While he is my Facebook friend and I appreciate his economic insights, but frankly my decades experience more than leads me to support this thesis.

      It’s really self-evident if one decides to delve beneath the surface.

  • ec

    I think this article is meant for people who wanna change their career to something programming-related because it is what is on high demand now. I have a degree in design but when I look at freelance job websites most jobs are for programmers, and it does make me wanna learn coding so I can get more opportunities. This article totally made sense to me.

  • Stephen Marck

    Really interesting post and comments here, from both sides of the fence. from my own point of view, there is some truth in all the arguments put forward. however, i spent four years at a design university to learn how to design,not write what I consider math or algebra. If I am working on corporate branding and needed web or other device to show the creative on line, then i would collaborate with a developer who spent years learning how to code. Why should getting a creative job depend on how good your math is?

  • tkbrdly

    I think the learn how to code argument, especially at an early age, is more about learning how to problem solve within parameters than actually being able to code.
    When you’re young it’s easier to learn another language and learning a code language will also help with the basics of math. Our main tool is computers, understanding how they work will help you in any profession.

  • Steve Menard

    Where would designers be today if we needed to learn how to code in order to work with Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign/Quark XPress? With these apps, all of the coding is in the background, making the software function in a way that is better suited to how the designer thinks and works – visually. I think that one should be familiar with the capabilities of various coding languages, in order to collaborate more effectively with those who are specialized in programming. It’s an age of specialization and collaboration – develop your strengths to your utmost ability and also have a basic understanding of the various technologies being used on the production side.

    I’m a pretty decent illustrator, but have suppressed that side of my creative self due to all of the time I’ve devoted to learning HTML, CSS, PHP, et al. over the past 5 years or so. I can say in all honesty that it hasn’t really paid off for me. If you like coding, go for it. I however, have squandered too many years trying to master what I “think” I need to learn rather than what I would enjoy spending my time on and then learning to monetize it – as an individual content creator and ‘media company’.

    I’ve been a graphic designer for many years and like all of us, I am always learning. This is as it should be. Changes in the industry are so rapid, we rightly feel that we need to keep up to date. What I’ve noticed however is perhaps only the top 5% of clients are similarly aware of the capabilities of the new rich-media technologies, and the possibilities for growth that this plays into their marketing strategy. The other 95%, unfortunately, don’t have much of clue as to what these newer technologies can offer. Designers are in the vanguard when it comes to educating their clients on the opportunities these technologies present. Let the work begin!

    • Christine

      Thanks for your insight, as a graphic designer starting out I came to this page wondering if I should invest the time in learning to code to work more with websites. I think I’ll spend more time drawing instead 🙂

  • Lola Sparks

    The medium is the message. Coding all day will make you an idiot, void of imagination, creativity, spiritual being and common sense. Narrow minded. It’s like wanting to be a factory worker just because the work requires a trade skill and produces technology.

  • Jason Stevenson

    As a 20 year professional programmer without a college degree, I can tell you that my ability to detect a problem and find and implement a solution has been my secret to success. I learned that skill early on, when I was 9 years old reading Family Computing magazine, and typing lines of code into my Commodore 64.

    Learning to program is in fact one the primary skills everyone should be investing their time in. I’m not saying “Learn the syntax” or “Learn C# or Java”. But learn how to construct a process that can achieve the desired result.

    Learning to program in any language and then building something with that knowledge is going to jump start your career. Whether you want to make an app for the latest Android or iOS phone. Or setup a website for your Aunt Zelda to sell handmade wigs.

    Along the way you will have opportunities to pickup skills in maintaining PCs, Servers, Web Hosting, Maintaining an IIS or Apache server, interacting with users, gathering requirements, learning time management, etc.

    All of these things will at the very least give you a greater amount of choices on where you want to live and work in the world.

    • Joshua Joseph Hewitt

      I’ve been thinking about learning code for a while. My background is in Biology (BS Biology 2012) and I work in the medical field but I am thinking of getting into medical IT or really IT and programing itself. Any advice?

  • Tom Dotz

    Steve Jobs is reputed to have never written a single line of code. (It was Wozniak, the other Steve, who was the coder). Instead, he appreciated what it could do, and how to motivate people to do what he wanted them to do. This included the music industry (99 cent tunes made the ipod) and Corning Glass (gorilla glass=iphone), among others.
    And could he market? Oh boy.
    The point of the article is that you do NOT have to learn to code to create a product or a company, even in the internet sphere. See donorschoose.org for an example. Certainly you can, if you like creating software and want to do it as a living, wonderful. But if you have a hot product idea taking X years to learn to code is a pretty backwards approach. Sure there are good problem solving skills learned in the process of learning to code. Guess what? That’s not the only place. Saying so is like the doctor who says everyone needs to get a medical degree, or the carpenter who believes everyone should build their own house.

    • Sean

      the industry is riddled with wannabe Steve Jobses, mistakenly thinking they can rely on their charisma to get a nerd to do all the work for them.
      Its shameful.

  • alex brooks

    This article conveys great insight to what type of mindset is needed to succeed in today’s market.

  • Kathleen

    This mindset leads to disasters like the one I recently experienced where two individuals with no detailed knowledge of the “hard” skills involved set up a training program where people with absolutely no background in programming were expected to learn JavaScript in three weeks. The organizers thought because the people were smart and motivated it was going to be a “piece-of-cake”. WRONG!

    • Tosin Otitoju

      But there are excellent online courses for that 🙂

  • mon

    clearly who wrote this article is young and inexperienced, or haven’t got so far from his desk and don’t know much about business and technology and where it’s heading .. becuase inforcing the idea of being a consumer rather than a creator/ contributor is better !!!

  • rachel

    There really is no way to get around the fact that technology has and will continue to grow and expand so the best thing one can do is to try to keep up. It is scary however to think that the day may come when we are all taken over by computers. If everything is computerized those who don’t keep up will be left in the dark.

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