Learning to code can solve homelessness

Of course not! Or at least, not directly.

Last week a young engineer named Patrick McConlogue sparked a controversy among tech and media types by announcing that he would be offering a homeless man in New York a proposition:

1) A $100


2) A cheap laptop, three JavaScript books, and daily tutoring sessions

Now, there were a number of problems with this plan. It was tone deaf, social unaware, and most problematically, Patrick assumed that he could possibly know what would solve this man’s problems.

By making assumptions, Patrick violated the first rule of customer development
Neither you, I, nor Patrick know what would solve this man’s problems. Based on my limited knowledge of homelessness issues and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I would doubt that technical skills would be high on the list of desired solutions. But no matter how socially aware I may think I am, I am in no better of a position to be making assumptions about this man’s life.

I don’t know. You don’t know. Patrick doesn’t know.

The only way to know, would be to ask him.

When interviewed about the post, Patrick said that he was simply acting like an engineer: he saw a problem so he struck out to solve it (I have hammer, this homeless man is a nail!).

But the irony is that this approach to solving a problem would be no less ham-fisted if the problem Patrick was solving was a technical one.

Ask any successful tech entrepreneur if their original assumptions about the market were correct. Then ask them how they pivoted towards product market fit.

I would bet good money (hundreds of millions in fact), that they will all say that they listened, closely to what problems their market had and then worked their ass off to provide an elegant solution.

Of course learning to code isn’t a solution to homelessness
I think that anyone who thinks that the learn to code movement believes that learning to code is the solution to all of humanity’s problems (or any of humanity’s most pressing problems) is misconstruing the marketing message.

Learning to code is not penicillin. What it is, is a very specific solution to a very specific problem: a lack of well trained technical talent in the job market.

To suggest anything else would be ridiculous.

That said, learning to code can offer an individual a greater opportunity for personal fulfillment, job opportunities, or just greater ability to see one of their hare-brained side project ideas come to life. And the good news is that it can be accomplished with relatively little investment on the part of the individual, outside of their time.

Which brings us to a big question: should we focus on social activism or personal development?
I think this is a central question of human ethics: should I act on behalf of my community, identity group, or society, or should I act on behalf of myself?

One of the problems with Patrick’s proposition was that it suggested that this homeless man was in some way culpable for his homelessness, and that given the opportunity to change his behavior (by learning a new skill) he could overcome his homelessness.

In a lot of ways, I wish this were true. Solving great societal problems would be a lot easier if all that needed to change was personal behavior. Well maybe not easier. But at least we wouldn’t waste time figuring out what was causing the issue.

Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case. We exist in a complex society, and inherit the legacy of our forerunners. And then there are those things that we simply have no control over.

So what is a lowly individual to do? Would we be better off if Patrick hadn’t made friends with this homeless man? Should he have donated the money to a non-profit that serves the homeless population? Continued on to work, made millions of dollars, and believed in the trickle down?

I think you can’t choose. Instead its a constant balancing act of doing what you can with what you have, for yourself and others.

What do you think?