I learned how to program when I was four years old. I am fairly unique in that regard. Now, before the slew of “me too’s” and “my son/daughter started using my iPad when they were 2″ thoughts overwhelm you, please understand that programming a computer is very different from using a computer. This blog is about that difference and about how that fundamental shift in how I started my relationship with computing and how so many others started theirs is impacting our ability to innovate in the future.

Who’s Smarter, You or the Computer?

In 1984, when I started programming, the answer was simple. The vast majority of people would say that they were smarter than the computer. The computer was nothing more than a dumb tool that did exactly what you told it to do. “Garbage in, garbage out” was a common phrase that really meant something. Now, the line is far more blurred. Don’t get me wrong, in most cases, that is a great thing! I love the fact that when I misspell a word in a common way that my word processor will automatically clean up after me. I like that I can type almost anything into Google and get the answers I need. I don’t mind it because I can see through the UI and I can imagine the code to a large degree. If I needed to reproduce the same result, with a bit of time I could make it happen.

However, for most people today, the landscape is quite different. While many people who are 20-something may have been exposed to computers in some form from perhaps an even earlier age, their relationship with them is critically different. For the most part, they are consumers. They were first exposed to computers as a device to entertain them, a device to tell them what to do, a device to help find the answers to their homework. Should these devices fail, most treat it like any other consumer device like a TV or even a car. They either take it to be repaired or get a new one.

Our Paradigms Are Out of Sync

Art is taught as something you do as a child, so those who are inclined to be a good artist are spotted and nurtured early. There is no shift from consuming to producing because they’ve been producing and consuming simultaneously their entire lives. This isn’t the case with computing. Educationally, there is little distinction between consumers and producers in computer science until high school (often not until college.) Critical thinking skills relating to designing, building, and creatively using a computer suffer because classes at the college level are training people how to do specific tasks, not how to think about the pieces and parts and rearrange them in new and different ways.

Conversely, on the job, those who choose to enter a computer science related field are expected to be experts with everything computer-related by those who are not also in the industry. For those who are, there is still an expectation that they will possess those critical thinking skills. The old-school IT crowd have spoiled everyone with whom they’ve come into contact. The passion for the craft is still an assumed feature in every IT professional. Expectations haven’t caught up with the new reality.

Start Them Young!

As I stated previously, I started programming when I was only 4 years of age. I cannot thank my parents enough for rarely buying me the latest computer game and instead making me think of a way to make it myself. While I can’t imagine every single set of parents doing the same thing mine did, we can start dealing with how computers are viewed at an earlier age in the schools.

Computers, for all the excellent programming that has been done in recent years, are at their core still those dumb machines that will do exactly what they are told to do. Given the continuing decline in the manufacturing sector in the United States and our quickly falling ranking in math and science scores, we need to make some changes from an early age. Few will argue that computers are the future (in whatever form) so one piece in a huge puzzle seems to be in early childhood education. The more we can develop methods and processes to engage our children at even younger ages to think of themselves as producers and think of the computer as a tool, the better off we’ll be as a country.

Matthew Bradford has been in the I.T. Performance Business for 14 years and has been critical to the success of many Fortune 500 Performance Management groups. He is currently the CTO of InsightETE, an I.T. Performance Management company specializing in passive monitoring and big data analytics with a focus on real business metrics.