Coding is like Cooking

2014-03-14

Coding is like cooking.

Well, not really. But a bit. This is not an article about how recipes are like programs, it’s about the role that cooking has in our personal lives and in society.

I can cook. A bit. Well enough that I can cook for my household, and friends that might drop by. I don’t always eat frozen pizza. Day to day cooking I can mostly do without a written recipe (spag bol, salmon and broccoli, that kind of thing), but when we entertain I’ll generally use a recipe; we own a few too many cookbooks and I can find recipes online. Perhaps one or two dishes I can make well enough that they’re actually good. So I can cook, but not well enough that anyone would pay me to do it. And as for being a chef there are probably other skills that professional cooks have that are part of the job that are simply not on my radar. Planning a menu, choosing suppliers, managing a kitchen.

I’m not suggesting that because I can cook a bit that I’ll be a cook. But conversely just because I can’t be a chef, that doesn’t mean that cooking is pointless. I don’t cook because it’s useful to the economy or because it helps me get a better job. I don’t do it as a hobby. I cook because it’s useful to me personally. It’s a sort of basic life skill.

I imagine most people are like me in this regard. They can cook, something. The amount of cooking that people do might vary. Some people will do it as a hobby, cooking things for their friends every week. Some people will do it professionally and cook for hundreds or thousands of people.

I would like programming to be like this.

I think most people can program. A bit. Not to a professional level, not to a standard where they would be comfortable getting paid to do it. Some people might like programming a bit more and do it as a hobby. Again, doesn’t mean they would be paid to do it.

You don’t have to be a programmer to program. Just like you don’t have to be a cook to cook.

Tinkering

I have friends who I think of as cooks. Some of them do it as a hobby, some professionally. One thing I’ve noticed is that they enjoy cooking, and they like to tinker. They’ll try cooking something just for fun on a Saturday morning. The professionals will try some new technique or ingredient or idea because it will expand their power. I don’t do that. Not with cooking anyway. But I do with programming. I’ll write a browser-based Logo implementation to learn a bit about SVG and JavaScript. Or I’ll learn a new language because it seems fun and might stretch me intellectually.

Are there problems with this analogy? Yes there are:

  • Cooking is useful in itself. The result is usually a meal; you can eat it. This is not so clearly true of programming. There are useful programs to be written, but by and large the kinds of programs that non-professional coders write are not all that useful (yet; see below).
  • Terminology. Lots of people (professionals and hobbyists alike) seem to think that when you say “teach people to program” you mean “train people to be professional programmers”. We don’t. Or at least, I don’t. No more than “teaching people to cook” means “teaching people to be cooks”.
  • Access

    The access route to cooking is pretty straightforward. Most homes and (all?) schools have a hob or a cooker or a microwave. You can cook something with that. I don’t have to buy a stainless steel counter and professional range to cook. You shouldn’t need “pro-level” tools to program. You shouldn’t have to buy a specialist computer and learn how to use an editor like vi, emacs, or TextMate.

    So I think we have to make the access route to programming simpler.

    Tools like ScraperWiki’s Code in your Browser tool help (full disclosure: I work for the company that made this), as may things like CoffeePlay (note I said things like CoffeePlay, which is a whimsical tool created over a weekend, not a serious product). You can start programming using just your browser. There is a browser based version of MIT’s Scratch programming environment. The Raspberry Pi helps.

    At the moment, I think these things show possible futures. They are hints at how we can make coding more accessible. But I think it is possible to make the route to programming simpler. A child can take the first steps in cooking by mixing flour and butter, and putting scones in the oven. We need to make programming just as easy and accessible.

    We need to make it easier to do more things with code. What I mean here is more hackable things in the spirit of the maker community, hack spaces, and so on. It’s kind of neat that I can log into my Kobo ereader and modify the software, it’s a shame I can’t do that with my Kindle so easily. I really love my label printer, but I wish I could hack the firmware on it.

    I don’t think everyone should be a cook, but I think everyone should cook.

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