Yes, we can all agree that this week's big Hour of Code initiative is a publicity stunt, complete with celebrity video appearances by Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Miami Heat star Chris Bosh, actor Ashton Kutcher, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and others, but you know what?
A publicity stunt is exactly what we need.
We need to encourage kids to at least think about studying computer science and learning how it is the machines that run our world run themselves. Chances are you've heard about the Hour of Code, maybe at your own dinner table. A nonprofit called Code.org has for months marked this week, Computer Science Education Week (yeah, who knew?), as the week that pretty much everyone should spend an hour learning to write code.
The idea isn't to turn everyone in the nation into computer programmers. The idea is to motivate people -- especially students -- to take the time to understand what computer science is and how it is increasingly influencing commerce, politics, medicine, education, design, science and society.
Ali Partovi, an angel investor who with his twin brother Hadi, founded Code.org, says the ultimate goal is to get computer science classes in every school in the country. It's a big idea, but why not start with a smaller one?
"We can't get computer science into every school in America overnight, but what we could do overnight is get everybody to study one hour's worth. And one hour's worth might be enough to get somebody hooked."
See, the United States is facing a growing shortage of skilled programmers. A relatively few high schools teach the subject and very few kids actually take classes in computer science, even in college. The numbers are even worse when it comes to the participation of girls and women and blacks and Latinos.
And so a movement is beginning, the way movements often do, a little bit at a time. Code.org has reached out to schools and hundreds in California and thousands across the country are participating in the Hour of Code. The outfit has created a website that teaches beginners basic coding concepts with the help of video lessons from the likes of Zuckerberg. The nonprofit has lined up big companies to join the effort, which is why Hour of Code events are being held at Microsoft stores and Apple (AAPL) stores.
Millions of kids have already given coding a try, with a couple of days to go. The momentum is growing with the announcement this week that the 400,000-student Chicago Public Schools system with the help of Code.org, will elevate computer science from an elective to a core course in high school. The district said computer science classes will be available in every high school within five years and that the subject will be taught starting in elementary school.
The Hour of Code is the sort of thing that builds a buzz, and a buzz is what computer science could use. Partovi says that when he was a teenager programming computers at home, he didn't even tell his friends. Uncool.
"Fast forward 30 years later and it's not that much better," he says. "There are real misperceptions out there, because we have Hollywood characters of nerdy, pimply white boys in a basement who have no friends."
But NBA all-star Bosh is cool and he codes. The Apple Store? Very cool and kids are going there to code. High-paying jobs? Pretty cool. And a lot of projected job openings? Also cool.
Sure, growing more computer scientists at home will be crucial to the U.S. economy as the demand for programmers in all fields increases. But at least as important is that citizens, even those who never become computer scientists, will be better served by having some understanding of how software and hardware work together and what is possible with the power of computers and how problems might be solved through computing.
People armed with a working knowledge of computing are better prepared to deal with questions about everyday online security issue and even bigger issues like the NSA's vast spying network and the surrounding questions about "backdoor" access, random key encryption and the difficulty in cyberspying on foreigners without spying on Americans, too. Those who understand software and systems are better able to assess the criticisms and claims surrounding the new health care law's website.
Employees throughout a company can better do their jobs when they understand how the data the IT guys and women are crunching can be employed to drive sales, increase productivity and predict the future.
"Technology is being infused into the workplace in a way that is unprecedented," says Sid Espinosa, who as Microsoft's director of philanthropy and corporate citizenship, worked with Code.org on the coding effort. "Part of being good at one's job is really understanding it and how things work. Computer science is going to be a part of that regardless of the sector."
And with luck -- and a lot of hard work -- efforts like Hour of Code just might help everybody understand that.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.