Home >Opinion >Columns >A better way of getting tech ready than learning to code

Wherever I look online, I am bombarded with ads for courses by trained information technology specialists who promise to teach coding skills. Everyone seems to think that the pandemic has shifted the world firmly towards technology and digitization, and that the only businesses of the future would be technologically-enabled ones, or at least those that can quickly pivot themselves to a digital, remote delivery model. Displaced workers are signing on for these courses in droves in the hope that a newly-minted certification from an online learning app or a “massive open online course" will make them employable again. And then there are parents of school-going children who seem intent on producing a Sundar Pichai at home, even if not a Sergei Brin or a Larry Page.

In relatively private conversations (in so far as WhatsApp or other messaging applications are still private), I hear from parents of school-going children who have been enrolled in such classes. Almost down to the last person, most of these are complaints about the quality of such classes. Many parents claim that these courses and the companies running them are frauds. They allege that they are rife with false marketing, aggressive sales, unlicensed photos of computer greats such as Bill Gates, and false claims of millions of downloads.

Preying on the gullibility of displaced workers or worried parents is not hard. To start with, most of those who are in this class think that the world is a tough place, and that one needs to adapt to what is definitely going to be a watershed event (the covid pandemic) by retooling or upskilling oneself to meet new demands of the future. The tumultuous changes that are going on in the world have hastened the adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, and the Internet of Things. The pandemic will also serve to speed up the use of automation and technology in a bid to reduce human-to-human contact across a variety of business functions. Industry body Nasscom even has a website devoted to future skills. But in my observation, those who trained in other disciplines before finding themselves in careers that required a deep knowledge of several types of technology have two sure-fire ways of making themselves future tech-proof. One is to truly understand how a given technology works at a macro level, and the second is to figure out how to adapt oneself to the changes it brings.

While this sounds like an overly simplified explanation of a tough task, learning how to leverage technology does not demand that you become an expert programmer. In reality, it only needs the application of certain specific filters to truly understand a technology, so that one can play the role of via media between a person with only a passing knowledge of that technology and someone who is so deep in its workings that he or she cannot understand its broader implications. This is an old consulting secret that is not freely shared even among consultants of the same firm since it allows those who are adept at it to gainfully occupy that middle ground for decades.

The first rule of understanding technology is to approach each new breakthrough in an attempt to understand all the nuances of the “functionality" that the new technology offers—at the individual, group, industry and societal levels. All that “functionality" means is a translation—in simple English—of what the technology actually achieves. For instance, understanding what blockchain technology actually does (it removes the need for a central verifier of transactions such as a bank or a credit-card clearing house) allows you to become fluent in extending that understanding to various levels of aggregation—from the individual to a firm or nation. Once you understand the functionality of the technology, filling in the gaps around the technical minutiae of how it is delivered is a much easier task, and can be left to the ones who know how to write code.

The second is to internalize the gross logic of how and why the technology functions, and its logical design sequencing within the economic chain of an industry. In other words, one will need to learn why the functionality of the technology he or she has now understood has economic impact. For example, blockchain could conceivably replace credit cards. The basis for this logic can come from a variety of areas: breaking existing trading groups, statistics to predict outcomes, user-friendly access and so on.

The third is to learn from where the technology gets its data or information on which it acts to provide the above-mentioned technical functionality. Once these three components are properly understood, one will then be armed with enough knowledge to see how to adapt to it, or better still, profit from it.

People also assume that there is another key, a behavioural one that several self-help books tout. However, many of these books, some of them timeless classics, do not provide any practical advice with respect to learning technology.

It is about time we stopped trying to fix ourselves by looking to the insights of behavioural science to help us form new behaviours or preparing for the future by merely learning how to code, while completely ignoring how the pieces of the jigsaw actually fit together.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India

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