Workers in all industries are being asked to do more and learn more. Soon, we may all have to wear multiple hats—one of which is coding.
How will the primacy of technology change the future of work? That’s a question that has been asked since the Industrial Revolution, when machinery first began to automate what had only been done by humans before. In 1811, bands of English textile workers called Luddites began raiding factories and destroy the weaving machinery they believed threatened their jobs, lowered wages, and disrupted their communities.
They were right about the effects technology would have, to an extent. Jobs didn’t disappear, but they changed—and changed society—drastically.
History books say the Industrial Revolution ended in between 1820 and 1840, but others say it’s never really stopped. If anything, the pace of innovation is gaining speed.
Harvard Economics and Public Policy professor Kenneth Rogoff said it best:
Since the dawn of the industrial age, a recurrent fear has been that technological change will spawn mass unemployment. Neoclassical economists predicted that this would not happen, because people would find other jobs, albeit possibly after a long period of painful adjustment. By and large, that prediction has proven to be correct.
The caveat he presents, taken from a much earlier article by economist Wassily Leontief, is that technology is now moving so fast “that many workers, unable to adjust, will simply become obsolete, like horses after the rise of the automobile.”
I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Humans are not horses. Last I checked, the modern horse took 55 million years to evolve, and didn’t invent the automobile. Humans are driving these innovations, which indicates that we can evolve along with them—with just a little bit of lag.
The New Blue Collar—and White Collar—Workers
In 2010, CNN produced a story on “The new blue collar workers,” which looked at the recent past of blue collar jobs dwindling, especially in manufacturing cities in the South, and the future of manufacturing jobs in which:
Employees spend as much time in the office as in the plant. They get their hands dirty, but their brains are stimulated. They don’t just operate the machine, they program the machine, telling it where to drill. Then they head to the factory floor and make it happen. ... Each worker is a computer programmer, machinist and quality control engineer. What typically was three different jobs is wrapped up in one.
Workers across all sectors and industries are being asked to do more, to learn more. Soon, we may all have to wear multiple hats—one of which is coding.
Coding: Not Just for Engineers Anymore
The ability to program—to create, change, improve and repair—the technology that is becoming an increasingly integral part of our lives and jobs is a skill that’s increasingly sought after in almost every job. Soon, it will be required.
Should everyone learn to code? Probably. Couldn’t hurt. But for some professions in particular, learning to code now can have a profound effect on job prospects, job retention, and earning potential.
Let’s look at how adding the ability to code affects marketers, designers and entrepreneurs.
As a writer and marketer with no future dreams of becoming an engineer, I never really thought learning to code would be relevant for my job.
Freelance writer and marketer Aja Frost has seen first-hand how programming knowledge can accelerate the careers of non-engineers. For one, learning a few DIY coding skills eliminates the wait time to have engineers help with quick fixes and changes. For another, the ability to create functional prototypes of landing pages can help marketers gain buy-in from C-level decision makers.
One of the skillsets coding helps digital marketers with most is data analysis.
There are robust tools out there that marketers use to analyze user behavior, but often these tools require manual data crunching and some technical knowledge to effectively use.
Hotjar, for example, is an all-in-one website analytics and feedback tool that is incredibly powerful, but not exactly simple to use. From a recent post, they admit that clients with a UX (user experience) background tend to be able to glean the most useful insights.
The customers who do best with Hotjar are those who are professional marketers and designers who specialize in the user experience—they already know how to parse through quantitative and qualitative data to pull actionable insights.
Digital marketers have already had to expand their skill sets drastically in the past decade, learning SEO, basic website design, social media, and staying on top of the latest marketing channels. As more and more sales and advertising happens online, coding will become an increasingly essential skill for marketers to know.
John Maeda “is to design what Warren Buffet is to finance,” according to Elizabeth Stinson’s March 2017 Wired article quoted above. He’s also one of the most vocal proponents of designers crossing over into tech and is the head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic (WordPress.com’s parent company). Design touches every man-made thing we see, especially online, from the fonts we use to communicate to the websites we read them on. But Maeda is looking at an even larger picture: how design can uniquely spur innovation in tech companies: “When you can do both, you can do things that no one else can do.”
More and more tech companies are bringing their product design and product development teams together in an attempt to put the strategy, and the ability to put the strategy into action, into the same room. But that seems like the first baby-step into a brave new world where the designers are the developers.
At least a basic understanding of HTML and CSS, the two popular core technologies for displaying web pages, is key to so many basic things on the Internet. It may seem silly, but I’ve found a familiarity with them can just make so many things easier and better understood. - Derek Flanzraich, CEO and Founder, Greatist
Entrepreneurs tend to start out with little capital and a lot of engineering and design needs. Even managing a basic WordPress site requires some knowledge of HTML. As businesses grow, founders may have employees who can manage their websites and dev teams to bring their ideas into being—but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to know how everything works.
As co-founder and marketing strategist at BusinessBrew.io Evelyn Wolf put it in a recent HubSpot article, “if you don’t know what’s involved in a process, you’re not getting the most out of your budget. I’m far from saying that all suppliers will try and add a few hours to projects, but wouldn’t it be great to have the confidence to know when something is quoted right?”
Understanding what ’s involved in building a website, an app or a product—or being able to update what you have—empowers you in negotiations over costs and timeframes. And, you’ll be able to explain your vision in a way that engineers can readily understand and accurately execute.
You’ll also know if what you’re asking for is easy to do, difficult, or just about impossible.
The Jobs We Can’t Predict: Creative Destruction
Technology also ushers in new jobs we can’t predict, a phenomenon called “creative destruction.” Creative Destruction describes how emerging technology “destroys” jobs by rendering them obsolete, but simultaneously “creates” new jobs. For example, the personal computer enabled the creation of 15.8 million net new jobs since 1980, accounting for 10 percent of employment, but is also responsible for fewer secretarial jobs.
We don’t know exactly what the future of work looks like, exactly. But we can place a few wise bets.
Human workers will have to adapt to work with technology in a much closer way—not only through sophisticated and intuitive user interfaces, but with the foundational bones of code.
And, as technology becomes capable of doing more menial tasks, we’re going to have to double down on what we, as humans, do best.
In the December 2017 McKinsey Global Institute: Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation report, the authors touch on this form of workforce adaptation:
Even if there is enough work to ensure full employment by 2030, major transitions lie ahead that could match or even exceed the scale of historical shifts out of agriculture and manufacturing. Our scenarios suggest that by 2030, 75 million to 375 million workers (3 to 14 percent of the global workforce) will need to switch occupational categories.
Moreover, all workers will need to adapt, as their occupations evolve alongside increasingly capable machines. Some of that adaptation will require higher educational attainment, or spending more time on activities that require social and emotional skills, creativity, high-level cognitive capabilities and other skills relatively hard to automate. [emphasis added]
Learning to code is becoming a vital skill, but so too are the “soft skills” that are too often downplayed in the rush to get everyone into STEM careers.
But combining the two? I believe that is the real future of our work.