Digital Illiteracy, Fluent In Developer
5 min read

Digital Illiteracy, Fluent In Developer

What happens when the world is so invested in technology, but lacks the understanding of how it all works.

My generation grew up with the assumption that everyone after us will be technologically literate, because by the rate of adoption of technologies by the masses, more and more children will grow up using devices. The assumption was of course that technology will come naturally to them, as children learn very quickly.

And that assumption was sound, for a while. I grew up around devices, and all my friends who had similar childhoods building and disassembling computers are all fairly tech literate. If you were poor, you kind of had to wait until the rich kid got a new computer, buy his used one (or parts of it). Software also came from the parking lot or that friend who had a CD burner and internet access. We had to understand computers and technology because everything was kind of sort of hacked together.

But that assumption now seems pretty naive. I've seen people younger than me interact with computers, there's mandatory computer education for everyone, the internet is everywhere thanks to 4G, and yet, people are not tech literate. People know how to use and operate software, sure, but modern consumer computing is so user friendly that the inner workings of the device / software remain a mystery. That's why it's hard to hire people who have both business skills (like marketing or sales) but are tech literate enough to actually sell software. That kind of literacy training mostly depends on the tech company doing it or having roles that support the non-tech people in understanding the product.

There's also multiple levels of tech literacy - at the top obviously are the engineers, and the difference within engineering is also getting starker as coding bootcamps trained thousands of people everywhere, under much shorter time frames than what a classical CS degree engineer would take to train. The next is non-tech role people within the tech industry, and there are differences between them two. Someone who understands how SQL works, how data is transferred between systems, what APIs are and are capable of and so on are different from people who are trained to use specific pieces of software. That software might be whitelabeled as well, so the person doing the job will not realize they are fluent in something that's very valuable. Outside of tech there's varying levels of tech illiteracy: some of my relatives work in state administration roles, and they understand the very complex processes and internal software they have to operate with, but if their laptop gets malware, I'm still the one who has to remove it.

Something has clearly gone wrong. While computers and technology are quite literally everywhere and indispensable from everyday life, the transition happened not by people understanding the tools on a deeper level, like say how men a generation ago were confident with motorized vehicles. As we transitioned to the consumer internet of small devices, everything was designed to be as slick and smooth and magical as possible, obfuscating that it's all just machinery and electricity and a whole lot of circuits and numbers.

I guess it's natural that the price of mass adoption is the loss of mass, deep understanding. The same thing happened with photography, music and a great many things that are intimately tied to technology. As specialization takes root, we are divided into consumers and makers, and the problem of tech literacy is really only a problem in the tech industry, because selling software means you're living in that chasm between the two worlds.

That's why working in tech as a non-tech person can be tricky. You kind of just assume that the tech part is handled by the tech people, and it takes you a while to realize that actually understanding how any of this works on a deeper level can benefit you greatly - either with projects you are working on, choosing technology to help you, understanding how you can help others in other departments, or even transfering into a different role altogether.

Obviously, if you are starting out in a junior, non-tech role, the day to day tasks will bog you down enough that you'll only gain the necessary understanding to do your job effectively. At most companies I worked for, what happens after is basically on you. But it's quite clear that as you advance in your career, and say, have to make buying decisions on software or request features from the developers - the more you understand tech, the bigger your advantage.

It's not that you need to learn programming: but you need to learn how to 'speak developer'. There's an entire swath of specialists around the world who are fluent in developer, usually working on product marketing or documentation or QA.

(With that said, the best engineers I've ever worked with were people who were 'fluent in user'. That is to say, while they were good as coders, they understood that at the end of the day they are delivering something that is to be used by a human who wants to achieve something, instead of getting lost in the minute details of the code. I also understand that they're probably another layer in between me and the absolute leetcoders who live on a different plane of existence from the rest of us normal human beings.)

The thing is, tech literacy is not very well formalized or assessed. In tech, you are kind of expected to pick it up by osmosis, while there are both government programs as well as for profit trainings for the tech illiterate, while if you think about it, anything tech literate below the actual coding level can be taught / learned in about the same time as it takes to complete a trade school.

This is not meant to be a policy suggestion piece because policy is created by some arcane reasoning that is beyond the scope of this article. But I think there's a growing awareness that this is something that needs to be addressed, and there's some good resources available that are meant to solve these kind of problems and helping people learn (my favorite is the technically substack who wrote about this more extensively).

With that said, it feels like we have a long way to go, and addressing the problem of technical literacy or illiteracy shouldn’t just fall on the shoulders of employees and employers.

  • First, we need some sort of awareness in recognizing the proper levels of literacy and how they correspond to individual success - and how much it is a requirement at tech organizations
  • We need to critically look at where we went wrong in terms of designing apps and computers for kids in a way that leads them to growing up… well, less tech literate than previous generations?
  • When it comes to education, specialized devices & apps could be developed that teach you how the machine works on the inside, instead of relying on the shiniest new tech & simplified educational apps
  • And in general we should probably realign our expectations on tech literacy. Being a proficient user is good but it isn’t good enough, and educational goals have to be re-set accordingly, otherwise tech literacy will be the monopoly of those who have CS or STEM degrees.

That probably sounds like a whole lot. But we’d all be better off if more people spoke at least a bit of fluent developer.