About the only code most non-programmers are familiar with is Da Vinci's. Even within cutting-edge tech companies, there is often very little institutional knowledge of the lines of commands that make products work. Programming has not been a high priority in schools, and it's a subject that people tend to naturally feel uninterested in or unequipped to handle.

The result is a severe shortage of programmers: Less than 2.4 percent of college students graduate with a computer science degree, according to code.org, a nonprofit that promotes CS education. By 2020, the group says, there will be 1 million more computer science jobs than students learning the skills to fill them. Your company may not be in the tech industry, but chances are, this talent shortage will hit you in some way. 

Training Tomorrow's Coders

One bold attempt at a long-term solution is the Hour of Code, part of the December 9-15 Computer Science Education Week. Code.org, which is one of the organizers of CSedWeek, is rallying students to spend one hour at some point this week learning programming skills. Several organizations have developed tutorials that K-12 students can use, on any type of hardware and without any experience, to code projects like holiday cards and basic games.

Members of the tech business community have long called for immigration reform that would open the door for more programmers from overseas. And while the Hour of Code is an international initiative, the need for American students to get involved is something on which U.S. political rivals strongly agree. Both President Obama and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor each recently appeared in videos exhorting young viewers to take part.

Among the groups that designed Hour of Code tutorials is code.org itself. Recognizing the skepticism with which some people may regard coding, the organization designed it to be fun and engaging. More importantly, it's as easy as advertised: Users drag-and-drop simple commands to direct an Angry Bird through a maze toward a pig, or a hungry zombie toward a sunflower. Although they don't appear as complicated strings of characters, each set of commands is, in fact, a series of lines of code.

In between rounds, familiar faces like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and NBA star Chris Bosh appear in videos to provide guidance. After you complete each of the 20 rounds, a message appears on the screen offering congratulations and telling you how many lines of code you've written. The idea is to program a game, but instead it makes you feel like you're playing one.

Several competing tech companies are planning to join the pro-programming campaign as well this week. Apple and Microsoft will host Hour of Code workshops in their retail stores, and Google, Disney, and others will promote computer science on their websites or by email.