Actual coding. The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system.
Actual coding. The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system.

Why “coding” limits our understanding of what programming is all about

As more people realize the power of software engineering, words like “coder” and “coding” have entered the common parlance. They may seem equivalent to as well as harmless and less bulky than “software developer” and “programmer”. In reality they just thicken the veil of mystery that surrounds the job.

One of my firm opinions is that language is powerful and should be respected. That's why I don’t like it when pop words are used carelessly. As a student of linguistics, I understand their role and that language serves many purposes. One of them is communicating your identity. So it has been and so it will likely always be.

But there are exceptions. In journalistic writing such as in press and media, clarity trumps association-by-slang. Why I’m quite frustrated with the frequent use of the word “coding” as a substitute for “programming”. This isn’t just me having a case of Soup… err Grammar Nazi. There’s a more fundamental issue at play here.

Why on earth someone would think “coding” is a better word for what a developer does is beyond me. Let's look up what the word “code” means:

“a system of words, letters, figures, or symbols used to represent others, especially for the purposes of secrecy.”

To the programmer, there’s nothing secret about what we do. We write instructions that a machine performs. It’s not unlike setting the time on your digital clock radio in 1985 (recall the term “programming the alarm”). It’s just a billion times more powerful. But just because it isn’t secret doesn’t make it easy. Modern day programming isn’t something you learn in five minutes. It’s something it takes years or decades to handle with some grace and likely a lifetime to master.

It’s no wonder the job seems obscure or full of secrecy to the uninitiated. And it’s partially our fault too. Geeks and hackers have enjoyed the mystery surrounding their craft. Hollywood has spun hundreds of scripts based on “the power of the geeks”.

But it’s not helping us get more people to learn to program.

By using a word like “coding”, you communicate that what is done is secret and even mysterious. It requires joining the cult, scrubbing the floors of the main prayer hall for a decade before you’re considered ready to be let in on the big secret – learning the “codes”.

If we were to apply the same reasoning to other jobs that require specialized skills and long training we’d end up with terms out of a fantasy novel:

  • Matter Wizard for physicist.
  • Healer of the Third Echelon for surgeon.
  • Chronicler of Legends for journalist.
  • Philosopher for scientist.
  • Mind Thaumaturge for psychologist.

Coding isn’t a mystery anymore. Aspiring programmers have it better than ever. Websites like Stack Overflow and Quora offer direct help and there’s an abundance of free and cheap learning resources. If I wanted to hide something in code, then I’d be doing a piss-poor job of it if this were the result.

I prefer calling things what they are. Programming is just that – writing or designing instructions as part of a program for a machine to perform. It doesn’t involve whispering secret words through a keyhole and expecting papyrus notes written in cipher in return. So let's stop this nonsense of calling programming “coding” and focus on making it more, not less, accessible.

Photo: Actual coding: "The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The vellum on which it is written has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and it may have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912." -- Full Wikipedia entry

This article was updated on 2020-03-08

Jakob Persson

Your host. A founder and entrepreneur since 20 years. Having worked as a freelancer, consultant and co-founder of a successful digital agency has shaped his skills in and insights into business. Jakob blogs at, speaks at events and consults with agencies and freelancers in growing and developing their companies. He holds degrees in media technology and cognitive science.