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Interview with Byron Nicolaides, president at CEPIS

“Understanding the language of computers will be what separates the educated from the ignorant masses of tomorrow”

Byron Nicolaides

Code runs everything. And as coding increasingly becomes one of the most highly priced skillsets globally, digital literacy and the future of coding becomes a central issue among the community. Here, we talk to Byron Nicolaides, president Council of European Professional Informatics Societies (CEPIS) about the importance of digital literacy, the future of coding, CEPIS’ mission and more.

JAXenter: Quite some time ago, you mentioned that in the future we will learn coding just as we learn how to read and write. What is the reasoning behind this idea?

Byron Nicolaides: I strongly believe that coding is becoming one of the most highly prized skillsets anyone can have in the global economy.  Understanding the language of computers will be what separates the educated from the ignorant masses of tomorrow.  All our actions going forward should have the same aim – to make people aware that this new reality is fast approaching and to provide the necessary means for them to be prepared. Coding as an object of study and as a profession, as well as everything evolving around digital technology, will be at the forefront of demand.

WEF estimates report that more than 2 million new jobs for highly skilled in IT will be created, while 7.1 million jobs worldwide will be lost to jobs that are either outdated or are overcrowded by state-of-the-art technology. Thus, it’s not a surprise that knowledge of or exposure to coding already makes young people competitive in the job market. For example, a digital marketer who deals with content development has to understand different technologies (e.g. WordPress/MailChimp/Sitecore) and have the basic coding knowledge to help increase understanding across business functions and eliminate disconnection.

JAXenter: What is more important: to learn coding for software applications or for the merit of developing computational thinking?

Byron Nicolaides: Learning code for software applications requires the knowledge of a programming language and problem-solving skills to develop the instructions that can be followed by a computer in the most efficient way. This requires algorithmic thinking, evaluation, decomposition, abstraction, and generalization.

We have to explain and resolve the wide gap between supply and demand that one can witness in the world of high-tech computing across Europe and beyond nowadays. The paradox is that while IT jobs are rising, IT graduates are declining

But, according to Jeannette Wing “Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists….” And, therefore, writing code for software applications requires computational thinking. Patterns are one common concept behind these two statements because learning code for software applications requires the use of software patterns while learning software patterns develops computational thinking. This may lead to the discovery of new patterns that can be incorporated into our new software applications.

Overall, I would say that both statements are of equal importance and in some way intertwined.

JAXenter: According to the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), Europe appears to have a relatively low percentage [of 24,3%] for ICT specialists, especially in countries like Lithuania, Romania, and Greece. Why do you believe this is the case?

Byron Nicolaides: The lack of recognition of Computer Science as a central school subject has been identified as one of the main reasons why there is lack of interest in ICT careers. Actually, immediate action is needed to better integrate Computer Science in the school system and change the perception of computing among young people. We must invest heavily in our younger population, educating them to become programmers and ICT professionals.

SEE ALSO: The value of code knowledge – The literacy of the future?

At the same time, we have to explain and resolve the wide gap between supply and demand that one can witness in the world of high-tech computing across Europe and beyond nowadays. The paradox is that while IT jobs are rising, IT graduates are declining. The need for reskilling new unemployed graduates is now more necessary than ever in order for them to enter the labor market.

I would like to elaborate further to explain what we are trying to achieve in Greece. We commissioned a feasibility study with two of the most prestigious private and public universities in Greece, Athens University of Economics and Business and ALBA Graduate Business School alongside with HePIS (the Hellenic Professional Informatics Society) to investigate how we can create 500.000 IT jobs within 10 years. In brief, we just need to create the opportunity from the existing pool of unemployed people with the co-operation of both the government and the private sector. We are now slowly starting to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

JAXenter: Do you think coding courses should be part of core school curriculum and why?

Byron Nicolaides: Coding should be part of schools’ curricula since an early familiarisation with the world of programming will add to the experience of young people who will find it essential for their career, regardless of their job orientation. Students must become globally-minded and globally-relevant from a young age. I am sure you will agree with me that this can only happen through technology.

Apart from being an essential qualification, learning how to code is itself contributing towards the development of critical thinking, rationalization, problem-solving and decision making. Therefore, coding could and should be part of core schooling as the skills it offers can be vital for everyday life. I am in favor of the opinion that everybody in the world should learn how to program a computer because it teaches us how to think.

JAXenter: What is CEPIS’ mission with regard to coding being part of core schooling?

Byron Nicolaides: CEPIS contributes significantly to the developing and promoting ICT Skills on the European agenda, while also defining the core areas of Professionalism amongst informatics practitioners and contributing to the development of ICT within European education systems.

In order to reinforce members’ efforts to promote high standards in informatics education, and ultimately bridge the gap between supply and demand for ICT professionals in Europe today, CEPIS in 2014 established a Special Interest Network (SIN) dedicated to ‘Computing in School’. The CEPIS Computing in School SIN aims to help member societies engage purposefully with schools.

A series of initiatives are taking place in Europe towards the development of student’s coding skills:

  • The Coder Dojo initiative which runs free not-for-profit coding clubs and regular sessions for young people between the ages of   5 and 17.
  • The Code Kinderen initiative in The Netherlands provides educational materials for teachers in order to teach coding and programming to children.
  • The Scratch competition in Ireland which encourages young people to develop small pieces of software using a simplified programming language.
  • The electronic game GetCoding in Greece offers, in an easy and entertaining way, basic knowledge of programming. Using their logic, users can write the first lines of code, essentially basic coding commands,  directing Thales and Iris, the heroes of the game, into finding the gold coin.

JAXenter: As president of the CEPIS, what changes do you aspire to promote? 

Byron Nicolaides: CEPIS works to shape policies that foster e-skills development and digital literacy in Europe’s workforce and citizens. With the demand for ICT personnel with the right skills expected to increase in the future, CEPIS aspires to:

The future of coding is already here.

  • promote coding as part of core schooling in a European level
  • promote ICT-related careers
  • promote equal gender representation in the ICT sector
  • encourage and stimulate the interest of young people, particularly women, to engage in ICT-related studies and subsequent care

I am also very much interested in promoting women in the ICT sector. Currently, only about 10-12% of the workforce is female. At the same time, I would like to see a reduction in average age. Do you know that the average age in Europe for an ICT professional is 50 years old? Why? Because it isn’t considered a very interesting or “attractive” job. We want to address this and lure younger people into the industry. We want to change this wrong perception. Age and gender are very important to us. At the end of the day, in the future, 50% of the jobs, in general, will be ICT related. Therefore, the population and workforce must adapt.

JAXenter: What do you think the future of coding will look like?

Byron Nicolaides: I agree with Jay Jay Billings, physicist and computer scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who argues that in 2040 human beings will write sophisticated coding that addresses very specific problems that cannot be addressed easily by machine-generated code (MGC). Most coding generated now will be written by code generators using technologies like machine learning, AI, and Natural-language Processing (NLP).

SEE ALSO: Ethics education among developers: Is it adequate?

Technology has been embedded in our lives in more ways than we are willing to acknowledge: the use of smartphones, social networks, VR gaming are just a few examples. In Japan, a clothing sales chain uses high-tech virtual mannequins, which, when customers are close to them holding some clothes, are “dressed” with the pieces. Burberry in London has equipped its stores with interactive mirrors, while in 2025 three-dimensional printers will print clothes. The future is already here. According to a McKinsey study, within the next 20 years, more than half of the jobs we know today will be replaced by robots. Already 4 million robots have been ordered in China.

JAXenter: Will code generators take over coding or will they remain just a tool?

Byron Nicolaides: Alan Turing said in his 1951 lecture on “Intelligent Machinery, A Heretical Theory”: “It seems probable that once the machine thinking method started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers… They would be able to converse with each other to sharpen their wits. At some stage, therefore, we should expect the machines to take control.”

Code generators, as tools, have been improving for decades. Artificial intelligence, too. The progress that has been done in the Grid provides the infrastructure for a better integration among code generators, machine learning, AI, and Natural Language Processing. Therefore, highly sophisticated code generators will prevail as the most helpful and useful tools for coding and it would be very difficult for someone to tell whether their output was produced by a tool or a human. Still, in my opinion, human intervention will not cease to remain crucial in the coding process, at least in the foreseeable future!

Thank you very much! 

Eirini-Eleni Papadopoulou
Eirini-Eleni Papadopoulou is an assistant editor for Just finished her masters in Modern East Asian Studies and plans to continue with her old hobby that is computer science.

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