Web developers are in high demand, and a host of websites now teach huge audiences some of the profession's most in-demand skills for free. And some in the web development community aren't happy about it.
What's not to like about learning or sharing a free skill set without spending a dime? W3schools, for example, boasts 19 million pageviews per month and calls itself "the largest web developers site on the Internet."
But all that free coding comes with a caveat. Some of the loudest complaints surrounding the movement argue that it sends a misguided message that web development knowledge is a necessity. In around two months this year, Codeacademy signed up over 400,000 eager pupils for its CodeYear program, one of them being New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
That post was circulated widely, appearing on Gizmodo. "I would no more urge everyone to learn programming than I would urge everyone to learn plumbing," he wrote.
At w3fools.com, a community of web designers and developers have penned a screed against W3schools, condemning the utility of a w3schools education, not to mention errors in some of its lessons.
"W3Schools offers certifications whose value is highly debateable … No employers recognize or respect W3Schools certificates. Unlike Microsoft's MCP or Cisco's CCC [two certification programs], W3Schools has absolutely no authority over the technologies for which they claim to provide certification," they write.
So maybe dentists and letter carriers don't need to learn HTML. And if they did, they might learn sloppy methods from certain sites. But without a doubt, one potential motivator for many people visiting the sites is to learn in-demand skills.
Knowing those skills can be a major boon in the job market, says Amanda Steinberg, CEO and founder of DailyWorth, an online community of women who discuss money. Steinberg started teaching herself basic coding late in her college career.
"For me, what it's meant is total and endless job security and income streams as I've kind of ebbed and flowed in various careers," she says. "If there's a qualified developer on the market, chances are that he or she has more work than he or she knows what to do with."
"I got an E-mail from a user this week saying that they got a front-end development job because of the things they learned on Codeacademy," says Zach Sims, cofounder of Codeacademy.
And then there are the uber-success stories. Watching self-taught programmers like Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom get wealthy off of their apps is enough to send any discouraged jobseeker out for an HTML for Dummies book. Sims points out that the current cultural atmosphere is one in which "learning to program and building something that people want can lead to a business that's worth $100 billion. So what I think we're starting to see people's recognition of how powerful it is to be able to program and control the world around you."
But as far as career strategies go, taking a free online course and banking on a multi-million-dollar payoff runs anywhere from unfathomably risky to plain stupid. And the amount that a person can learn in a few online courses pales in comparison to the breadth and depth of knowledge that some of the most in-demand programmers have.
"If you're building the next transaction layer for PayPal, then you need to have a computer science degree," says Steinberg. "If you're putting up a basic blog for your new nursing website, then, no, it doesn't matter."
However, to many proponents of making coding education more available, the philosophy of free coding sites is what is important.
"I wouldn't say that these websites are going to turn people into great coders." says Srini Devadas, professor of computer science at MIT. "It's difficult to do without human beings being in the loop. But I think [users] get through the concepts, they get exposed, they get excited by computer science."
That knowledge may be a necessary basic building block of education, he adds. "I'm starting to think that as everyone needs to know a natural language, people need to know a computer language."
"I think what we really believe in is that not everyone needs to be a software developer, but you need to understand how code works in order to understand the world around you," he says.
Steinberg believes that coding could round out educational fundamentals, though whether that might happen is up in the air.
"I definitely think it's way more useful than geometry, if you think about it. But so is personal finance, and that's not taught in schools," she says.
"A lot of people who get into MIT don't know how to program, And these are people who want to do computer science," says Devadas. "And this is the U.S. we're talking about, right?"
Because of that slow-motion movement toward more computer courses, those who do learn to code might find that running a coding-education website might be some of the best job security around.
"It's not clear to me that second school education in any given country is going to evolve fast enough to put these websites out of biz in the next five years," says Devadas. "I think they're around for a while."
Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corrected on 06/01/12: An earlier version of this article reflected incorrect capitalization in the name of Codeacademy.