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Teaching youth to code is more than just a ‘fad’

Tobi Lütke is founder and chief executive officer of Shopify Inc., an Ottawa-based software firm

I got my first computer at the age of 6. To me, it was magic. By the time I was 12, I wanted to know the secrets behind the wizardry and that started my journey toward computer programming. This was the early 1990s, when computers weren't built for the mass market. Users were expected to pick up basic coding to even launch a program, and so I learned simply by doing. I'm incredibly thankful for this experience. My entire life's path has been forged by this accidental discovery.

In a recent opinion piece, The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente expressed her belief that coding for kids is "another silly fad." She states that only a small percentage of people will become programmers, and therefore not everyone should learn to code. Although I agree with some of her points, to me, this argument is like saying that teaching math is not important, because kids won't grow up to be calculators. In my mind, the importance of computer literacy – the ability to use computers and related technologies efficiently – is paramount. Eighty-four per cent of Canadian companies consider computer and basic technical skills essential to their operations, according to a 2016 survey by the Information and Communications Technology Council.

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Computers are the most powerful tools that humanity has ever created. Yet, we treat them largely as a black box; as if it were an alien artifact that magically appeared on desks, in homes and in our pockets. Most of us don't really understand them, even though we rely on them daily for work, access to information, secure transportation or ordering food. Computers add convenience to our everyday lives, but we are limited in what we can do with technology others have imagined. The ability for humans to teach machines entirely new things – coding – is nothing short of a superpower.

In addition to the value of basic programming knowledge, the correlating skills that come alongside coding are hugely beneficial for everyday life. The most important of these skills is computational thinking – taking something really big, and turning it into a series of small actions. One step at a time; one line of code at a time. Being exposed to this simple idea, especially at a young age, changes the way you look at the world. It did mine.

A decade ago, I found myself with a garage full of snowboards that I needed to sell. I couldn't find existing software to help me. With a bit of programming and my learned ability to take big problems and break them down into small steps, I was able to create an online store that could accept credit cards. This software was later rebranded into Shopify, and now employs more than 2,000 people across Canada and around the world – most of whom know how to program computers. While I don't get to code every day any more, I still rely on computational thinking. In fact, I see running a global company much like building a complex piece of software: searching for simplicity in smaller chunks of a larger challenge.

It is my strong belief that computer literacy should be part of our educational system's core curriculum. It's also why I invest my time into organizations such as Ladies Learning Code run by chief executive Melissa Sariffodeen and its nationwide initiative, Canada Learning Code. While there are limited hours of time within a school day, there should always be a place for essential skills that serve not only individual students, but the national economy of the future. Those magic boxes we call computers are not going anywhere.

Thankfully, almost every other country has also been slow to seize the opportunity that programming education could provide. My belief is that whoever figures out how to teach computer literacy first will have, by far, the most prepared work force for the future – and it's hard to overestimate the potential of that.

Margaret Wente referred to kids learning code as "cute," but I would argue that more fitting words include "essential," "world changing," or maybe just "about damn time." Ms. Wente, teaching kids how to code isn't a fad. It's the future.

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this story had a cutline that referred to Shopify as “an online store.” Shopify is a provider of online software to retail merchants. This version has been corrected.
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