So far, we’ve focused on making the skills of a full-blown developer as accessible as possible. But is that level of skill really necessary for every job?

If we want to increase the odds of truly democratizing emerging tech, in every field of emerging tech we need to ask two questions:

  • Is it possible to create a continuum of skill in this field – e.g., from beginners to power users to blue-collar coders to highly skilled developers?
  • Can we use coding UX to reduce the work required to “level up” along this continuum?

From Power Users to Blue-Collar Coders

Power Users

In most organizations, IT staff and their consultants spend a lot of time building systems that let users produce powerful analyses with a click of a button. And yet it’s not uncommon to find plenty of users in these organizations who do most of their analysis with Microsoft Excel.

One-click solutions are great so long as users stick to the well-marked trails the solution supports. But what if your needs take you off that trail? For example, what if you need to make changes to the report’s format that the solution doesn’t support? You’re hopelessly stuck without the help of a developer.

But with Excel, if you’re a little adventurous it’s remarkable what you can do as a “power user.” You can start by learning a few tricks, then gradually add more tools to your toolbox as you need them. The results aren’t always pretty; sometimes it feels like Excel is duct tape for data. But like duct tape, you don’t need to be highly skilled to use it to solve a wide range of problems.

If we’re going to create an economy where lots of people in communities from Harlem to Harlan County can make a living from emerging tech, we need to start designing emerging tech tools so they can do what Excel does so well: support a culture of power users. Power users don’t need a computer science college degree – or for that matter any college degree – to possess valuable skills that pay well. In short, by designing tools that support power users, the tech industry can create a wider range of opportunities for paid tech work.

Blue-Collar Coders

On the other end of the spectrum, Anil Dash and others argue that not all programming jobs should require a full-blown background in computer science. Instead, we need to foster the development of “blue-collar coders.”

Vocational-technical schools (vo-tech) provide trained workers in important fields such as healthcare, construction trades, and core business functions like accounting. For a significant number of my high school peers, vo-tech was the best path to a professional job that would pay well over the duration of an entire career. Now it’s time that vo-tech programs broadly add internet and web technologies to the mix. We need web dev vo-tech…

Put another way, our industry can grow in a very meaningful way by giving lots of young people at a high school level the knowledge they need to learn [web development frameworks] straight out of high school, or teaching maintenance on a MySQL database at a trade school without having to get a graduate degree in computer science.

Exactly what blue-collar coding will look like will differ from field to field. But the more we can create jobs that fall along a continuum of skill, the more opportunities we have to open up emerging tech development to communities our society has left behind.

Smooth the Learning Curve along the Continuum

Recently, several tech companies have been exploring the space along the continuum of skills. They’ve created “low code” or “no code” tools aimed at what some have called “citizen developers.”

These tools are often quite powerful. But most of them suffer from the same problem: if your needs outstrip what the tool was designed to do, the learning curve to level up your skills is too steep.

If we aren’t careful, there’s a real danger that these well-meaning efforts to empower people will lead to the creation of a new class of dead-end jobs. That’s why any effort to create a continuum of skill needs to prioritize smoothing the learning curve along that continuum.

Create a Continuum for Artists and Designers As Well As Coders

Emerging tech won’t just require coders. The tech industry will also need designers and artists for AR/VR, robots, 3D printing/digital fabrication, and other forms of emerging tech. It’s worth exploring if we can also create a continuum of skill for this work – especially since, as is already the case with web design, some of this work may require the ability to do a little coding.

Opportunities to make a living from designer and artist work could play a particularly important role in marginalized communities. In the past, these communities have often been founts of new forms of art and culture. Both they and our society overall will greatly benefit if they are able to fully participate in shaping the world of emerging tech.

With Automation, a Continuum of Skill Is Even More Critical

When people talk about the threat of robots/AI, they often sound like they assume automation is a one-time event. It won’t be. We can expect wave after wave of automation that either eliminates or deskills jobs.

And we can’t assume that the pace of automation will slow down. If anything, it’s at least as likely that over time the pace of automation will speed up.

In the past, there was often a significant gap between rounds of mechanization because the tech needed to mechanize one skill didn’t easily translate to another. Wheat harvesting, for example, was mechanized in the 1930s and 40s, but it took almost two decades before the mechanization of tomato harvesting became commonplace.

In contrast, it took just a few years for the machine learning libraries used to categorize pictures of cats on the Internet to begin to be used in a wide range of fields, from drones to medical systems that can analyze some types of x-rays better than most doctors. Thanks to the Internet and Open Source, we can expect even more cross-pollination in the future.

As AI/robotics allow people to do more and more with less skill, we can also expect it will lead to the rise of new, highly demanding developer skills. That’s why creating a software tool development process that iteratively creates and re-creates a continuum of work is so critical.

To do so, we will need to continually ask two questions:

  • As automation allows us to do more and more with less skill, how do we create more opportunities for power users?
  • As developers continue to build ever more powerful new languages, frameworks, APIs, etc., how can they be designed so gaining more skill and more sophistication in using them is easier to do?

In short, as automation continues to transform the skill landscape, we will need continual rounds of user experience design to smooth the learning curve so “leveling up” is as easy and engaging as possible.

Hip-Hop Wasn't Created By Turntable Engineers

Some advocates for power users or blue-collar coders sound as if as if they think these types of workers won’t be capable of the kind of creative work that will drive emerging tech forward. While it’s certainly true that some cutting-edge emerging tech work will require a PhD, the history of hip-hop suggests you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to power innovation.

Hip Hop came out of neighborhoods that had lost hundreds of thousands of jobs to outsourcing and had been devastated by urban renewal. And yet the people who lived in these neighborhoods built some of the most amazing artistic creations the world has ever seen, transforming both music and culture around the globe.

A key part of Hip Hop’s rise was a brilliant technical innovation: morphing turntables from tools for playing music into tools for making music. This innovation didn’t come from the engineers who created turntables, it came from people like Grandmaster Flash. Grandmaster Flash, one of the “holy Trinity” who created hip-hop, had the most technical training of the three, and he’d only attended a vocational high school. But while Grandmaster Flash wasn’t a PhD scientist, he was a mad scientist – a genius with an obsessive drive to experiment and create something new.

As important as it is to spread the most advanced technical skills to every community, what the birth of hip-hop shows us is that we must also empower people with a wide range of technical skills if we want to unlock the full creative and economic potential of emerging tech.

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