The World Needs More Coders Than Newspaper Columnists

We need people capable of extracting and interpreting information from mounds of data to make smart decisions.

08/16/2017 14:03 EDT | Updated 08/16/2017 14:36 EDT

Had they tried, even the Luddites could not have more enthusiastically opposed teaching coding and programming to the Canadian youth than Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

Ms. Wente argued that computer code "is irrelevant for most of us" and that "[c]oding is a valuable skill — for maybe two per cent of the labour force," and hence no need to teach computer programming to school-going children in Canada, which is a priority of the federal Liberals.

Across the globe, schools teach mathematics and literature to students not because students are expected to become Fields Medal-winning mathematicians or Booker Prize-winning authors. We teach math and literature to children because we recognize numeracy and good writing as life skills.

In the not-so-distant future, coding and programming will also be life skills and hence the need to teach the same to Canadian children to maintain the competitive advantage of the Canadian economy.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with grade 7 student Isabel Clement, 12, of D.A. Aubrey Intermediate as they take part in an Hour of Code event at Shopify in Ottawa, Ont. on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

In the past 10 years or so, our lives have become quite data centric. Individuals, corporations, governments, and even the ordinary daily-use machines are all generating data at an unprecedented pace.

The shortage, therefore, is not of data storage devices or algorithms to mine huge amounts of data. Instead, the current and future shortages are and will be of workers and managers capable of extracting and interpreting information from mounds of data to make smart decisions. This will inevitably require some coding expertise.

In my book, Getting Started with Data Science: Making Sense of Data with Analytics, I explain how the nature of work is changing where data and coding-literate workers and managers will become the driving force for generating value. I offer several examples of studies and opinions of hiring managers at big businesses, such as Google and Walmart, who point out the acute shortage of numerate workers and business leaders.

Canada's big data talent gap

In a widely cited report, the McKinsey Global Institute alerted businesses and governments globally to the impending shortfall in the talent necessary for knowledge-based economies to take advantage of efficiencies made possible by big data analytics, which relies on coding and programming. The report highlighted that by 2018, the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 professionals with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.

The situation in Canada is not much different. Recently, Statistics Canada revealed that just three per cent of the total post-secondary enrollment (university and college) in 2016 were in mathematics, computer, and information sciences.

Furthermore, a white paper released by Canada's Big Data Consortium titled "Canada's Big Data Talent Gap," highlighted the shortage of professionals with data science and analytical skills. The cause of this shortage was identified as a lack of sufficient training opportunities related to big data, analytics, and ultimately coding.

Alex Usher, Ms. Wente's go-to consultant on higher education, is rather confused about what coding and programming mean. Mr. Usher, quoted in the Globe, believes that digital literacy and proficiency does not involve writing software, but "it is the ability to apply and use software productively."

With the rapidly changing world of computer programming, sometimes a 10-line code written in R, Python or Julia could save hundreds of hours in productivity and millions of dollars in costs.

Here lies the problem. Ms. Wente and Mr. Usher believe that someone in Canada or China will always be there to write the code for their analytics needs. Their approach will increase Canada's dependency on foreign talent, given the insufficient enrollment in STEM disciplines in Canada.

They also fail to understand that coding and programming do not imply creating comprehensive software applications. With the rapidly changing world of computer programming, sometimes a 10-line code written in R, Python or Julia could save hundreds of hours in productivity and millions of dollars in costs.

Fortunately for Canada, school boards and big corporations like IBM are not listening to Ms. Wente, who seldom misses an opportunity to question the utility of higher education or the work ethics of teachers.

At the St. Luke Catholic Elementary School in Mississauga, Ont., for instance, children as young as four are already being introduced to data and analytics. The kindergarten students created the pictogram (histogram in statistics speak) below to visualize the mode of transport used by students to access their school. Their future education must include coding and programming.


Consider a Canadian initiative, the STEM Fellowship, which teaches middle and high school students computing and programming for data analytics. While working with IBM Canada and others, the STEM Fellowship provides extracurricular training opportunities to prepare students in Canada for the world where coding and programming will be as essential as knowing basic maths.

While working with IBM's Cognitive Class initiative, I (along with many others) am developing free training in data science and analytics (coding for Ms. Wente) to prepare today's and tomorrow's workers to be productive and competitive. I am certain that the world will need more coders than university professors or newspapers columnists in the future.

The federal Liberals have the foresight to invest in the skills demanded by current and future workplaces. CanCode is a $50-million initiative to provide "educational opportunities for coding and digital skills development to Canadian youth from kindergarten to grade 12." I believe $50 million is, in fact, not enough given the future demand for such skills.

We should be asking the government to invest more in preparing the Canadian youth for the future labour force rather than being Luddites and opposing new technology that has the potential to create prosperity and a better future for all.

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