How anyone can learn to code

Editor’s Note: On Making Sen$e Thursday, Paul Solman spoke with Avi Flombaum, co-founder and dean of the Flatiron School, a 12-week coding academy for students with no previous coding experience. As a kid, Flombaum taught himself how to code (see “The kid who was coding before it was cool”), but as he recounts, it was an isolating experience.

As Flombaum explains to Paul in the transcript of their extended conversation below, he believes anyone can learn to code in the same way that anyone can learn to read and write. It’s simply a matter of good teaching, he says, and embracing your insecurities.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

PS: Do some of the people coming out of coding programs, including yours, have a problem getting a job, or is this just a complete bonanza for anybody who knows how to code?

AF: If you program today you’re a man that can see in a blind man’s world. There is just such a demand for these kinds of skills that if you are competent, and you are passionate about this, and you’re a self-driven person, there are more opportunities than we can possibly fill. And I think that any prediction [about] the amount of jobs that [is] going to happen in the future [is] low.

PS: So you don’t think that this is a bubble that’s going to burst, or there’ll be equilibrium at some point…

AF: The most consistent thing about the last 3,000 years of history is that technology replaces jobs. Technology becomes more complex, more integrated into the daily human experience. We might say that there are 10 million programming jobs in the next 10 years – I think it’s probably closer to 50 million.

PS: So all the predictions about robots taking over jobs from humans are simply wrong?

AF: Someone has to program those robots.

PS: Well, but now there are software routines that write software.

AF: Sure. Someone wrote that software. Ultimately, the one consistent thing about computing and programming is that computers cannot think and whenever they seem to think, there’s a programmer behind that that created that illusion. That’s what more and more jobs are going to look like. Everything that can be automated will be automated. That doesn’t mean there won’t be jobs. It just means that the jobs will be creating those automations, which is what coding’s really about. It’s procedure — infallible steps of exactly how to do something that accounts for environmental and variable changes. That’s what the world is going to become.

PS: But you could imagine a world in which there are “the knows” and “the don’t-knows,” in the sense of “haves” and “have-nots,” and there would be even more stratifying over the years.

AF: Right. We’ve previously lived in a world divided by skills. We lived in a world where literacy created different classes. People who could read and write made laws and ruled the world. I think that coding and programming technology is that sort of literacy and it will divide people, but schools like Flatiron School and other programs are trying to balance that field, teach these skills to people who never thought they’d be able to learn them.

PS: Can anybody learn the skills?

AF: I absolutely believe that anybody can learn how to program in the same way that we know anyone can learn how to read and write. It’s just a question of teaching people.

PS: It’s just like learning a language.

AF: That’s right. There’s a rule to the syntax, just like there’s a rule to grammar. There are different characters; there are different ways to phrase a thought and express an idea in code in the same way there is in language.

PS: But don’t you have to be savvy about math?

AF: I don’t think programming has anything to do with math. I think it shares more with art and writing than it does with science. One of the fathers of computer science is a programmer named Edsger Dijkstra and he says that calling programming “computer science” is like calling surgery “knife science.” It’s more concerned with the tool than the art. Coding is just about procedure. It’s about expressing exactly how to do something in a repeatable fashion which isn’t necessarily always mathematical.

PS: Are there people from other coding boot camps who don’t get jobs?

AF: I’m sure there are people from other coding boot camps that have failed to acquire employment. I think it’s very much about how you teach it and prepare them for the job processes and set expectations. We do our best to inspire our students with a love of this craft that will never end. They have to actually love it. Our first goal of Flatiron School is to make sure that they fall profoundly and deeply in love with code, because once you love it you will never ever stop wanting to be great at it.

PS: How could you teach me to fall in love with code?

AF: People have confused programming for the mechanics and gestures of it. Aren’t you fascinated by practicing the craft that has explained how life has progressed and evolved?

PS: Well, if it isn’t too frustrating and I feel that I can master it, and if I can stick to it with the right amount of effort.

AF: It’s not simple, but why should the great things we do in life be simple? It’s just a challenge. Struggle is the nature of learning. The reason why people are bad at programming in the beginning is because they are beginners. That is the definition of being a beginner – to not be good at it yet.

PS: Yeah. I don’t like that. I’d rather that I already knew.

AF: Sure. I’d rather that I already knew how to dance. But I realize that I am a beginner and that I can only get better. And I will never be as bad of a dancer as I am today. We tell our students to embrace the struggle of learning; that learning is a process of going from not knowing to knowing, and up until the moment that you know something, you feel stupid and that’s OK. So much in our education has taught us to impede our knowledge with our own insecurities of who we are, what we’re capable of; those insecurities of not knowing something should be embraced. Those are the insecurities that define the learning process.

PS: Yeah. I have not embraced my insecurities.

AF: You seem to be doing pretty well, so I’m sure you’ve learned something at some points.

PS: Yeah, the stuff I was good at I mastered.

AF: We’re taught to follow what we’re naturally good at when that will not make us stronger. That will not make us grow. We should embrace the things that are challenging to us because those are the moments when you are learning and when you are growing, not when you’re great at something – that’s when you’re doing what you already know how to do. So with all the beginners that come through Flatiron School, we very much talk about what the process of learning something difficult feels like and not to give up; to just continue struggling through it because one day you will understand it, as long as you never, ever give up. And it works. We’ve had 350 graduates, and we’ve had three people not complete the program.

PS: Well, but you’re hand picking the people who are in the program.

AF: Sure. So do colleges with a 51 percent dropout rate. They hand pick their students also.

PS: How representative of New York City as a whole is your clientele?

AF: In one of our Brooklyn fellowships, I would describe the class as 82 percent not white male.

PS: What about African Americans?

AF: They’re an underrepresented group in technology and we are interested in levelling the playing field as much as possible.

PS: Do you have a way of doing that?

I believe that the best way to teach anyone is to believe that they can and will learn, to infuse your curriculum with as much love and inspiration as possible, and to allow them to struggle through it; to not have grades; to not have assessments; to not create bars that if you don’t pass this bar, you cannot go. People learn at their own pace, so as long as you create an environment where they’re safe and capable to fail, as long as they’re always allowed to try again and succeed, I think everyone can learn this. And I think that our numbers and results have proven that.

PS: But you are, of course, attracting people who are already more motivated than the norm.

AF: Sure. Motivation is absolutely crucial to do something well in life.

PS: And so that might be the divide of the future — that is, between the motivated and the not-motivated, some of which may just be congenital. And there’s nothing you can do about that?

AF: You can address the reasons why they have previously been unmotivated or unambitious. It has a lot to do with insecurities and self-consciousness, with the fact that they might have grown up in environments where people projected their expectations of them onto them, so that they expect of themselves what they’ve been taught other people expect of them, which now is terrible.

PS: There’s nothing, in your view, with regard to actual ability that means that some people can’t do this?

AF: I’ve seen such a diverse set of people succeed in learning these skills and I just believe that we’re all so chemically and genetically similar to each other that to believe that intelligence is defined as this innate quality that you either have or you don’t — I just can’t see that any more. I think intelligence is a measurement of grit; of how willing you are to struggle through something and not give up.

PS: And anybody can manifest that; it can be drawn out of anybody.

AF: Absolutely. Having people not quit and not give up on themselves is what the job of a teacher and an instructor has to be, forcing a student to see better in themselves every day, to maintain a perspective of improvement and to encourage them to just never, ever give up.

PS: But now, you were a private school kid in New York, so I’m almost positive that you grew up thinking there were the people who were smart and then people who were not so smart.

AF: Yeah. I was actually told that I was one of the not smart people at my private school, that my ambitions for college should be scaled back and I should give up the dream of Harvard and Yale because I would never have the grades to succeed at that. My school told me: Now you can go to BU and GW and the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas at Austin, but Ivy Leagues are not for you. My [high school] principal told me I was the exact opposite of what colleges want to see.

PS: And why was that?

AF: Because I just did worse and worse in school. I didn’t like taking tests; I didn’t like the way they taught there and for a long time, I really thought that I was lazy or stupid. But I just found that the way I learn is different. I’m curious and passionate about what I want to learn. I take it seriously and I want to be great at it.

But school’s not designed for that; school’s designed to create students that excel well academically and my whole life growing up people were selling me this dream: If you work hard and you get good grades, you’ll go to a good college and have a good job and you’ll be happy. And I just immediately felt that happiness is way more nuanced, way more subtle than such a platitude, and that I didn’t want to buy into that. I wanted to be happy in the way that I felt inside would make me happy, and that didn’t have to do with grades, and that didn’t have to do with doing what everyone around told me. I wanted the freedom to explore my own path and if you’re 16 and growing up in New York City in a private school, that is not a comfortable situation to be in.

PS: So your teachers thought you were ornery, your parents thought you were ornery.

AF: My parents thought I was lazy; my teachers thought I was difficult and stupid.

PS: Do you go back and say: Hey!

AF: I have not been back to my high school, but it would be really nice to do a programming class there – as in, “Hey, guys, how’s it going? Remember when you told me that if I don’t like school here so much, I should start my own? I did.”