Learn to Code?

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I went to school to learn art and illustration. In those long ago days, folks in my art and illustration classes would sometimes get into a discussion about what, precisely, to do with an art degree. My answer was, ultimately, to turn it into a career building slides and illustrations in the field of network engineering. 😊 And I’m only half joking.

The discussion around the illustration board in those days was whether it was better to become an art teacher, or to focus just on the art and illustration itself. The two sides went at it hammer and tongs over weeks at a time. My only contribution to the discussion was this: even if you want to be the ultimate in the art world, a fine artist, you must still have a subject. While much of modern art might seem to be about nothing much at all, it has always seemed, to me, that art must be about something.

This week I was poking around one of the various places I tend to poke on the ‘net and ran across this collage. Click to see the full image.

Get the point? If you are a coal miner out of work, just learn to code. This struck me as the same sort of argument we used to have in our art and illustration seminars. But what really concerns me is the number of people who are considering leaving network engineering behind because they really believe there is no future in doing this work. They are replacing “learn network engineering” with “learn to code.”

Not to be too snarky, but sure—you do that. Let me know how it goes when you are out there coding… what, precisely? The entire point of coding is to code something useful, not to just run off and build trivial projects you can find in Git and code training classes.

It seems, to me, that if you are an artist, having some in-depth knowledge of something in the real world would make your art have more impact. If you know, for instance, farming, then you can go beyond just getting the light right. If you know farming, then you can paint (or photograph) a farm with much more understanding of what is going on in the images, and hence to capture more than just the light or the mood. You can capture the movement, the flow of work, even the meaning.

In the same way, it seems, to me, that if you are coder, having some in-depth knowledge of something you might build code for would mean your code will have more impact. It might be good to have a useful subject, like maybe… building networks? Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, building a large-scale network is still not a simple thing to do. So long as there are any kind of resource constraints in the design, deployment, and operation of networks, I do not see how it can ever really be an “easy thing to do.”

So yes—learn to code. I will continue to encourage people to learn to code. But I will also continue to encourage folks to learn how to design, build, and operate big networks. All of us cannot sit around and code full time, after all. There are still engineering problems to be solved in other areas, challenges to be tackled, and things to be built.

Coding is a good skill, but understanding how networks really work, how to design them, how to build them, and how to operate them, are also all good skills. Learning to code can multiply your skills as a network engineer. But if you do not have network engineering skills to start with, multiplying them by learning to code is not going to be the most useful exercise.


  1. Jaymason Gallien on 12 February 2019 at 11:50 am

    I completely agree. Many people have been hiding behind fear rather than learning to code; not understanding that coding is just another tool to make the job simpler. To piggyback off of your farmer analogy, I’d say learning to code as a network engineer is the same as learning to use a combine rather than cutting down your fields manually with a scythe… but again, I’m sure there were some surly farmers that didn’t want to learn how to use a combine.

  2. Joel King on 12 February 2019 at 11:12 pm

    For most, if you haven’t devoted the time, and have the interest and aptitude, to code by the age of 25, it is unlikely you will become proficient later in life.

    It is less a matter of learning to code, rather, are you a network engineer who thinks like a computer scientist?

    I was given a spreadsheet recently which served as a makeshift network device inventory. My first comment was, “the person who created this doesn’t think like a computer scientist”. I propose the person who writes exceptional code also has a stable network.