Just Learn to Code


Publication date:

June 30, 2021


Many employees, after years into a job, neither have the ability nor the motivation to learn anything new. They are way down the river without a paddle. Ever since they lost their paddle, they have been coasting with the flow, just sitting back and taking in the scenery as it slides by. Not rocking the boat gave them a sense of comfort and security. The thought that they might need a life jacket, jump overboard and swim, or change boats mid-current never crossed their minds.

For many of these employees, work-based education channeled them into narrow career paths and their working environments neither challenged them nor fostered a culture of learning and personal growth. Routine became comfort as they slowly lost flexibility and initiative. Without realizing it, they froze into poses molded by context and time.

When their jobs are no longer needed, these employees go into free-fall. Nothing prepared them for this and they have no strands to grab for or hold on to. To them, the well-meaning “just learn to code” sounds like an indictment for being a witness to and a victim of a process of change that they neither saw coming nor could be held responsible for. They are suddenly caught in the swirl of a rapid and they need to get out of the boat and swim to shore to save themselves.

Being told “just learn to code”, many of these employees will feel exactly the way the French citizens did when they took their queen Marie-Antoinette to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. To them, those words convey a lack of understanding and a complete disregard for their plight. Starting anew is far easier said than done, especially when most jobs in most organizations commit employees to a slow process of petrification.

If you have had a hand in reskilling employees, you know exactly what I am talking about. For these bewildered employees, “just learn to code” comes across exactly the same way “let them eat cake” did to the French citizens in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

“Let them eat cake” is a quote attributed to Marie-Antoinette who, as wife of Louis XVI, was the queen of France at the time of the French Revolution. She supposedly uttered the words “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” when told that the peasants had no bread to eat. “Brioche” got translated into “cake”, even though it refers to bread enriched with butter and eggs, and is still a favorite snack for French pastry lovers. The quote captures what the French felt was her frivolous disregard for the starving peasants and/or her poor understanding of their predicament.

Marie-Antoinette almost certainly did not utter those words. They were penned down as an anecdote by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his fictional book Confessions when Marie-Antoinette was still a child. But over time, the quote came to describe how she, and the whole royal family, were out of touch with the conditions of the mineable peasants. She might not have said the words but she certainly lived by them and for that, she was condemned to death.

With many jobs and professions becoming increasingly fragile, let us hope that we are not ushering in another revolution with similar consequences. From the top, labor market dynamics are simple; from the bottom, they are anything but. When their jobs become obsolete or get radically restructured, employees need to find a way to wiggle themselves out of the narrow career paths their education forced them into. If no learning culture characterized their working environment, these employees forgot how to learn anything, let alone how to code. They are in a life-threatening swirl with no life jacket on and only a faint memory of how to swim.

With the obsolescence or restructuring of many jobs, reskilling has  become a hot topic. A quick scan of the recent literature on the topic reveals that pretty much all the attention is on the corporate view. Indicative of the mindset at the top – and, hence, the throwback to the French Revolution, simple and straightforward cost-benefit analyses suggest that it makes sense to invest in retraining employees, even when learning something new was never before encouraged, promoted, supported and/or rewarded.

The reskilling literature hardly touches on the plight of the employees and the challenges they face. The reality is that many employees were left to welt into petrified trees and they are not about to sprout new shoots no matter how much water and fertilizer you give them. Organizations need to come to grips with what they created and do a far better job going forward. Reskilling is an ilł-fitting bandaid and does not address the root causes of the employees predicament. Those lie in work-based education, the nature of many jobs, and the lack of a learning culture in most organizations.

Those in education need to reflect on whether work-based education is still aligned with the reality we increasingly encounter. Our formal education system gives everyone a basic education and then pushes each one of us into ever narrowing career paths. This made sense when careers were stable, predictable, and sustainable. For many jobs and professions, this is no longer the case.

Just think of a radiologist. With the performance of medical imaging and recognition technologies rapidly approaching – and in some cases already surpassing – human accuracy, do we still need them? We currently need them to label the images that train the neural networks that drive the recognition algorithms and perfect their diagnostic capabilities,  but then what? As we go down the list of jobs, it becomes quite apparent that none are safe in the digital era. The reality is that most of us do jobs that smart algorithms will be able to do better, faster, error-free and, it must be said, with no human drama.

If we want employees to be able to learn to code (or learn anything else when it might be necessary for them to do so), we need to encourage and support them to keep learning. As with education in general, people should be taught what they might need before they do so they can hit the road when the need does arise. Dealing employees the learning card when it was never played before will only be met with contempt.

With lifelong learning looming large on the horizon, all organizations need to create, support, and reward a forward-looking culture of learning and personal development. Otherwise, employees will just freeze into poses molded by these organizations’ shortsightedness. Top management should remember that it was not the peasants who found their heads on the guillotine.

Human resources are a crucial asset in any organization and, as with any asset, if it is not managed properly, sooner or later it will become a liability. A sure sign of employees becoming a liability is when management needs to take the initiative and encourage them to reskill. Reskilling (and upskilling) will only be effective if it is internally motivated. This requires a long game that starts with recruiting employees who possess a learning mindset, and that then continues with lubricating those mindsets so that the employees remain an asset no matter what is thrown at them.

Let us not repeat history but learn from it. That might be a good first step in creating a learning culture.

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