KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
These days, it seems like Democrats and Republicans have very different visions of the future. But it turns out they can agree on one thing.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Computers are going to be a big part of your future.
REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: Becoming literate in code is as essential to being literate in language and math. It is the only way for you to prepare for the future.
MCEVERS: That was President Obama and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Soon, they say, everything will be run by machines. And Cantor has a message for how to function in that new world.
CANTOR: Coding is the necessary tool of this century.
MCEVERS: It's an interesting idea, but how true is it? That's our cover story for today: Is coding really for everyone?
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MCEVERS: It's a warm Saturday night in downtown Santa Monica, California, just a couple of blocks from the beach. Streets are packed with tourists and shoppers. Look through a window on 2nd Street, though, you'll see 40 or so young people crowded around little square tables. They've got laptops, cords and notebooks splayed out everywhere. Their plan is to spend the night coding.
SCOTT MOTTE: Instead of go and party for the weekend, stay up for 24 hours and build something cool.
MCEVERS: This is Scott Motte. He works for a tech company that builds email servers, and he teaches people to code.
MOTTE: I'm actually a developer evangelist as my official role.
MCEVERS: The event is called CodeDay. A group called StudentRND throws these all over the country, 24-hour code-a-thons for programmers of all backgrounds and skill levels. The deal is you show up at noon on Saturday, pitch ideas, form teams, code through the night and finish by noon on Sunday.
At this CodeDay, there are about a dozen teams. Most projects like Rachel Feng's are pretty straightforward.
RACHEL FENG: A site that you can, like, upload videos and then watch them simultaneously with friends over the Internet.
MCEVERS: Across the room, Edward Foux and Jack Wong are working on something a little more unusual. It's an app you use at night.
EDWARD FOUX: It's called Snore App. We want to make sure that everybody who snores and talks at night never misses that again.
JACK WONG: So you turn it on when you go to sleep, and then it listen. And then when it hears people making noise, like, it record that. So then in the morning, you can wake up and listen to your snoring or, like, any sleep-talking that you do.
MCEVERS: Edward Foux and Jack Wong have five screens set up between them, two laptops, two phones, a tablet. They decided to code their Snore App on the bus on the way to the event. Whether they finish by noon on Sunday doesn't really matter, they say. What does matter is the project will be on their resumes.
WONG: I'm hoping to work for Google or maybe Microsoft. But Google would be like my, like, dream job.
MCEVERS: Everyone here is thinking about jobs. But no one is too worried about it. They all know how to program. Edward Foux says programming isn't some kind of secret language anymore.
FOUX: You don't need to be genius today. Maybe 30 years ago, you had to. But today, not. Just look at me.
MCEVERS: Jacob Sharf is a junior at UCLA. He's working on a video upload site. To him, learning to code is just the way of the future.
JACOB SHARF: It'll be something that everyone knows. Just like everyone knows how to read or write, it'll be something that's taught in middle school or elementary school, and so everyone will be familiar with the basics of it.
MCEVERS: Jacob Sharf is not the only person with this idea. Back when he was mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg tweeted that his New Year's resolution would be to learn code. And just last month, this is how President Obama announced Computer Science Education Week on YouTube.
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OBAMA: Don't just buy a new video game. Make one. Don't just download the latest app. Help design it. Don't just play on your phone. Program it.
MCEVERS: And it's not just the White House that's encouraging people to code. U.S. Representative Tony Cardenas from Southern California has introduced a bill with a name I won't even try to say. It's a string of 34 letters and numbers that spells out, in hexadecimal, the words America Can Code. Cardenas is hoping to classify computer programming as a foreign language, and allocate grants for schools to start teaching coding as early as kindergarten.
But some people are starting to push back.
JEFF ATWOOD: Reading and writing are hard. The basics are hard. And now, we're telling people you have to learn this programming thing, too, or else the robots are going to get you.
MCEVERS: This is Jeff Atwood. When he was a 12-year-old in the '80s, he was making his own video games. Now, he runs a coding blog and a set of websites to help people with programming. That said, he does not think everyone needs to learn how to code.
ATWOOD: You know, when I got my first computer in the mid-'80s, when you turned it on, what you got was a giant blinking cursor on the screen. That was the boot up. It wasn't like turning on an iPad where you have a screen full of apps and you start doing things. No. You had to figure out what that cursor meant and when the magic incantations to type at that cursor to make programs actually run. And that's the way computers worked back then.
And when I hear everyone must learn to program, what I hear is we're going back in time to a place where, you know, you have to be a programmer to do things on the computer.
MCEVERS: Right. Somebody's figured it out now how to not have to do that is what you're saying.
ATWOOD: Yeah. And, you know, I think in some sense, that's going backwards. I always loved the idea that, say, you're, you know, I don't know, a tax prep person, that you don't actually need to learn programming to do your job, like some programmer figure that out for you.
MCEVERS: And what you're saying is they're not - there's just only so many people who need to be doing that, not everybody.
ATWOOD: Well, it's like - sort of like an obsession with being an auto mechanic. I mean, there's tons of cars, there's tons of driving, and it's obviously essential to a lot of what we do as a country. But I think it's a little crazy to go around saying, you know, everybody should really learn to be an auto mechanic because cars are so essential to the functioning of our society. Should you know how to change your oil? Absolutely.
There's some basic things that I think you should know when you use a computer, but this whole become an auto mechanic thing is just - it's just really not for everyone.
MCEVERS: So maybe we don't all need to be coders, but Atwood says it's much easier now to figure out if programming is something you do like. He points to tutorial websites that recreate that 1985 experience complete with blank page and blinking cursor.
ATWOOD: And now, you go to figure out what to do in the page or it walks you through. And you see if you like commanding the machine.
MCEVERS: That's the best thing to come out of all this, Atwood says. If you do want to code and you're really serious about it, the resources are there for you to do it on your own.
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