Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why Absolutely Everyone Needs To Be Software Literate


My opinion piece published in Forbes this morning...

The average American teenager spends six hours a day texting, 90 minutes a day on Facebook, and more than three hours a day watching TV on the computer – and every interface they experience and every interaction they have is being run by a software application developed by software programmers.

Teens aren’t the only ones being influenced by the vision of the geeks. On average, adults spend more than 10 hours a day intentionally interfacing with software applications and even more time interacting with less obvious apps such as those in cars, at stores and even at the movies. Today, as Marc Andreessen notes in “Software Is Eating the World,” the business of the world’s most influential companies is software.

This exponential software proliferation has set the stage for one of the most influential leadership positions in America today: the role of the software developer. Our software-driven digital world is at the beginning of a revolution that is as profound as the invention of the printing press. Are we – and more importantly, our students – aware of the impact this revolution is going to have on their ability to influence the world in the next 50 years?

For thousands of years, influence and knowledge were closely held by the intellectual elite. From Socrates’ writings on philosophy to Julius Caesar sending propaganda about his battles back to Rome to the Church using its literacy to control Europe, knowledge and influence were the privileges of the educated few. But all that changed in 1440 with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. That single – yet monumental – event democratized knowledge. Within 50 years, there were 35,000 book titles and more than 20 million books in print, and it became possible for anyone who could write to share their ideas and influence their world.

The book was the new technology that made rapid social change possible. Unless you could read and write though, you could not participate in the revolution.

We are now experiencing a revolution that is just as profound, a revolution that began 60 years ago with the computer and has been propelled forward with the microprocessor, the personal computer, software, the Internet and the great global leveler – the mobile smartphone. Software has changed the way we communicate, the way we shop, the way we listen to music, the way we create images, the way we find dates, the way we read books and watch movies, the way we work, the way our every action is stored and analyzed and the way we educate our kids. The democratizing effect of software in the Digital Age is becoming our shared experience as a species.

Software applications are changing the economic and political landscape, too. Just think about the role of mobile phones in microbusinesses in the Third World or, just last year, the role social networking software played in the uprisings of the Arab Spring. The teams who wrote the real-time social apps used to enable the Arab Spring helped change the world, and software accelerated that transformation.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to become an expert in C++, JavaScript or Ruby on Rails, but the ability to create algorithms and apply structured logic, whether by writing the code oneself or by learning how to use applications that translate structured logic into code, can make us all active participants in the Digital Age and the software revolution.

Unfortunately, in the United States, we are seeing a dramatic drop in technology interest. Over the last 20 years, the percentage of top-tier high school students who choose to major in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) has dropped from 29 percent to 14 percent. Equally disheartening is that the number of girls majoring in computer science has dropped since the 1970s, and girls now make up only 20 percent of computer science graduates. We’re losing a significant portion of our potential technical talent based on gender bias alone.

The truth is that anybody can learn structured logic and how to code, just as anybody can learn to read and write. And not surprisingly, the field is hot. CNNMoney just published a list of the top fast-growth jobs in America, and software developer came in at number one. It’s a high-paying gig and represents one of the fastest growing jobs around, with an estimated 32-percent growth rate over the next 10 years.

Technology, especially software, is where new U.S. jobs are being created. Students who graduate with STEM degrees will earn 26 percent more than those who don’t. By 2018 though, companies in the U.S. will be able to fill only 29 percent of the computing jobs available with students who hold bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. Companies from Wal-Mart to Disney to Apple are increasingly hungry for graduates who understand software and can think in a logical and structured way – we simply need more of them.

There is no denying that software is influencing every aspect of our lives and the information with which we are presented. So the choice for every student today is do you want to be a driver and influencer of the world around you, or do you want someone else to be in control? When I was a student, I chose math and software, and this decision has enabled me to become a tech CEO more than once. To lead a technology company, I don’t have to write code anymore, but I do have to understand it. I have to be literate in the language of the software revolution.

Technology’s impact is accelerating. It’s time to encourage every child, every student and every worker to take an interest, to understand the basics of software and computing and to be an active participant in the creation of our new software-driven world.

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