Code is…

…something that everyone is supposed to learn, apparently, but I’m not sure why; and you don’t have to if you’re an adult learner, compared to someone in school?

So here are a couple of reasons why I think knowledge of how to use code is useful.

Code is a means for telling computers, rather than computer users, what to do

Writing instructional material for students that require them to use computer application is a real pain. You have to write laborious From the file menu, select…, in the popup wizard, check the… instructions, or use screenshots (which have to look exactly the same as what the learner is likely to see or they can get worried) or screencasts (which have to look exactly the same as what the learner is likely to see or they can get worried).

The problem is, of course, you don’t want the learner to really do any of that. You want them to be apply to apply a series of transformations to some sort of resource, such as a file.

On the other hand, you can write a set of instructions for what you want the computer to do to the resource, and give that to the learner. The learner can use that medium for getting the computer to transform the resource rather more literally…

Code is a tool for building tools

Code lets you build your own tools, or build your own tools on top of your own tools.

One huge class of tools you can build are tools that automate something else, either by doing a repetitive task multiple times over on your behalf, or by abstracting a lengthy set of instructions into a single instruction with some “settings” passed as parameters. And yes, you do know what parameters are: in the oven for thirty minutes at gas mark 5, which is to say, in “psuedo-code”, oven(gas_mark=5, time=30).

Here’s one tool I built recently – some magic that makes it easy to embed maps in Jupyter notebooks.

Code is a tool for extending other tools

If some you have access to the code that describes a tool, you can extend it, tune it, or customise it with your own code.

For example, here’s that  previous magic extended.

Code is something that can be reused in, or by, other bits of code

If you’ve written some code to perform a particular task in order to achieve something in one tool, you don’t need to write that code again if you want to perform the same task in another tool. You can just reuse the code.

Lots of code is “algorithmic boilerplate”, in the sense that it implements a recipe for doing something. Oftentimes, you may want to reuse the “algorithmic boilerplate” that someone else has got working in their application / tool, and reuse it, perhaps with slight remodification (swapping dataframes for datafiles, for example).


In my student days, many nights were spent between the computer room, and the Student Union playing bridge. In the bridge games, the bidding was ad hoc because no-one could ever remember any of  the bidding systems you’re “supposed to use” properly… Obviously, it wasn’t proper bridge, but it passed the time amicably…

So unlike folk who (think code should be taught properly and don’t think to use code themselves for daily tasks), I have more pragmatic approach and ((think my code only has to work enough to make it worthwhile using it) or (because it’s an applied recreational activity like doing a crossword)).

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

3 thoughts on “Code is…”

  1. I think this is entirely reasonable. We just need to start being able to talk about the difference between the sort of use you are talking about, and code that actually affects other people’s lives more significantly, where some more sense of how stuff works and what good looks like (and how to manage risks and ethics) is valuable…

    1. @Laura Agreed. But is the rhetoric around “everyone should learn to code” about equipping everyone to work as a contract developer, or about giving folk the skills to do the code equivalent of making a Christmas decoration using a ping pong ball and a bit of cotton?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: