Are Storytellers The Best Programmers?

As Fred Wilson likes to say, often the best content for blogs is in the comments.  In this case, it was in an email I got from Boaz Fletcher in response to my post Web Sites and Books for Novice Programmers.  Boaz made a very interesting observation:

“As for learning how to code, I think good storytellers make the best programmers. I used to freak prospective employees out by having them write a story for me instead of the “what’s wrong with this code?” tests. But it showed me who was able to think well, organized, creatively, and filled in the details.”

He also had an insightful comment about teaching kids to program.

“I had an exchange with someone in the industry about teaching kids how to program – or, more appropriately, how little there actually is to start kids off (think Alice or Scratch). Considering the ubiquity of computers in our lives, I think it’s untenable that most people are just passive users of the things. It should be mandatory to teach kids how to program. They don’t all need to become software engineers (never mind that I think most software engineers today, aren’t) but a basic understanding of how to build something simple and useful to them. Think about “shop” in junior high – hands-on manipulation of the physical world. So you may never need to lathe out a wooden bowl again, but at least you can hang a picture straight. Kids can browse the net, but don’t have a clue why their computer gets stuck when they’re trying to print a webpage.“

I’ve been thinking and talking about this particular construct a lot lately, especially in the context of NCWIT.  A person younger than 15 years old has never experienced life without the existence of the web.  Their view of the world, especially 29 years from now when they’ll be as old as I am today, will be radically different because of how the computers and the web are integrated with their life.

I never took shop in high school.  I’m not mechanically inclined (or skilled) at all.  Not only can I not hang a picture straight, I’m not sure I know what to do with a power tool.  And forget changing the oil in my car.  When I reflect on things I wish I had done more as a kid, it’s tinker with mechanical things so I’d be more comfortable with them.  In contrast, I’m completely comfortable with anything that’s “not physical” – I like to say "I’m only interested in it if I can’t touch it.”

We are definitely living in a world where both are important, but the not-physical is becoming increasingly pervasive.  Making sure that young people are tuned into this seems critical.  When I think hard about this, there’s real insight in Boaz’s comment about the power of storytellers.