Can You Learn To Code In One Day? We Sent A Non-Nerd To Find Out

A U.K.-based program called Decoded promises to teach n00bs to code in a day. Writer Louise Jack (and many ad industry types) signed on to find out if they can walk in with a civilian's basic web knowledge and walk out with an app.

If so many people’s jobs are touched by the Internet and digital technology, then how come so few of us have even a basic understanding of how things work? This is the fundamental question behind a new course in the U.K. called Decoded, which promises to teach people how to code in one day.

There are plenty of courses and a seemingly endless series of conferences, workshops, and events that discuss “being more digital" and “integration” and which encourage a change of mindset. But really, if you are in the creative or communications industries on any level and you haven’t already addressed this, then what have you been doing for the last 5-10 years? Decoded’s aim is to go beyond changing mindsets and actually teach non-developers how to code.

Decoded was founded this year by a team of four that includes the influential London-based ad creative Steve Henry, Kathryn Parsons and Richard Peters, both former planners at Ogilvy Group and the founders of The Scarlett Mark, a hard-to-pigeonhole agency that has focused on content creation, product development and innovation and Alisdair Blackwell, an award winning web-designer and developer, who is also a passionate educator.

"The Internet is beyond doubt the prime medium for communications and commerce. Unlike TV, it's a two-way tool,” says Henry. “And yet how many people know how it works? Probably less than 3%.”

I went along to a Decoded training day intrigued by the claim that by the end of eight hours I would be able to build a multi-platform location-based app in HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. It’s not that I thought they were lying, I just couldn’t see how that would happen. It did.

My only previous experience with coding was a module of my journalism degree that required me to build a simple publishing website in HTML. This was seven years ago, and in the intervening period the tools that help users to access and utilize code have been transformed. In other words, if I can do it, anyone can.

The day is broken into two main parts. First, participants are taken through a condensed history of the Internet, explaining significant events and developments. Although I was really familiar with the names: Google, Yahoo, Internet Explorer, HTML etc. and thought I understood what they were and are, I hadn’t really grasped how they all connected or how a development in one area--for example, browsers--leads to changes in other areas. It was like having the lights switched on.

We were then taken through the three kinds of code that we would be working with; HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript and got a better understanding of the purpose of each. However, we are not talking about dumbing down coding; there is no pretense that it is either easy or simple. The complexities are acknowledged but that does not mean a useful understanding cannot be achieved.

Nobody is expected to leave being able to look at pages of compressed code and to nod knowingly. But what became clear is you don't have to. There are a range of helpful tools (we used Coda on the day but many options exist) where the process is simplified. Moreover, the world of developers, which many of us think of as being a closed one, is actually completely the opposite. Since the dawn of Internet time a culture of open-source and shared knowledge has been the norm for them. (In other words, if there have been problems communicating with technologists, it’s not them, it’s us).

There is nothing stopping a semi-skilled person tapping into that community and asking for help. Plus, there are huge libraries of pieces of code for almost any function you can imagine. All free, all put there by the developers’ community for the greater good. All you have to do is be able to use Google to locate what you want.

We had a brainstorming session where we nailed exactly what functionality the app we were going to build should have. The idea was that the app would deliver a new message to someone’s mobile device when they came within a certain distance of a particular location. The planning session was enlightening because what became obvious is that it’s easy to describe how you want a user experience to feel--friendly, welcoming, and so on--but what you specifically want an application to do is separate from that. If you need to brief or collaborate with developers, briefing on the former is of little help when they really need to know about the latter.

Part two: We snapped open the Macs and got into it. Yes, we all made mistakes. But no one was left behind, and there is something great about getting in and making something. At the end, with all the bugs finally sorted, when I refreshed the browser and the thing almost unbelievably, actually worked, I clapped my hands and beamed like a 5-year-old that had just completed a complex Lego construction. It is fun.

So to whom would this really be of use and why? Founder Richard Peters says: “We don't tell people what their outputs should be. What people take away from it will be different; they are all intelligent and they all have different roles. You see during the day, it elevates quite high thinking from different people about different things. One person might say, ‘What can I do with all this data,’ whereas others are thinking about how can they can build an app and someone else might thinking, ‘I’m getting ripped off.’ What people take out of it depends on what they bring into it.”

Mel Exon, founder of BBH Labs, the innovation unit of agency BBH, also attended Decoded and is sending 10 people from her team. She says: “Everyone in business today needs to get a grip on this. We are sending strategists, creatives, and some team management people. When we have a better-than-skin-deep understanding of technology, two things happen: We have better ideas and we also treat our internal and external partners in a considerably more effective manner.”

Exon adds: “I think it’s wrong when people use expressions like ‘the language the developer can understand' and make them sound like an alien nation. It’s not an alien nation; they are human beings who have just got a particular skill set. It’s about speeding up and improving our relationships with the people who are actually writing code.”

The benefits to this are immediately apparent because if the developer has the right information then he or she is then freed to have more time to think about different ways of addressing the functional needs that are being sought.

Exon says: “One other thing is creativity happens through the act of coding. When you’re actually in there writing code, you have a hundred ideas, you suddenly see something in eight dimensions instead of two but it was only in the act--beyond the planning stage--that this happened.”

[Image: paper pastries]

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7 Comments

  • thelogster

    Right.... learning to code in 8 hours (not quite a day). So going to university for 3 years, and then spending the next 11 years honing my skills in C,C++,C# were all wasted then. Silly me, I should have just taken the course.

    Or, in the real world, learning to code requires hard work, there is no quick fix.

  • Elana

    How much does this one-day course cost? It sounds like a great idea but similar classes cost a lot. 

  • Robert Perlberg

    As a professional programmer, one of the banes of my existence is people with no formal training and experience who think they can program.  It's not hard to learn the basics of programming, but there's more to it than knowing what a "for" loop does.  It takes time to develop an understanding of concepts like structured design, portability, and data verification.  Many of my jobs have been to straighten out the spaghetti code written by amateur programmers.  It's like letting someone drive in the Indy 500 after their first day of driver's ed class.  I have no problem with people learning programming, or gaining a better understanding of technology, but please don't think that a one day class will turn you into a programmer.

  • Oli Wright

    Interesting article, but you should emphasise that while the statement:

    "There is nothing stopping a semi-skilled person tapping into that community and asking for help."

    may be true, you should always bear in mind this page: http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/...

    Yes, turn to a community and ask for help, but do your own research first.  Google is your friend.

  • Dan Nguyen

    Great article...I do think that anyone can learn to program...the problem is that non-programmers think that programming is only useful for developing websites or complex applications. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but I wish I had learned to program just for how much time it saves me doing the small tasks.

    I've been working on an online guide to teach non-coders how to program by using practical examples and side projects (such as scraping a list of jail inmates). So, pardon the self promotion:

    http://ruby.bastardsbook.com/

    In the intro I've included my thoughts on why programming should be seen as a skill as common as writing and math (it's too frequently conflated with the latter)

    http://ruby.bastardsbook.com/a...

  • Lisa Kaslyn

    Thank you for writing this well researched piece.  I have been trying to find suitable training to learn how to implement basic coding.  Not to become a genius web designer, but to understand the basics of how web site creation works, particularly in association with search engine optimization.  I'm looking forward to checking out Decoded and their approach to teaching code to non-geeks.

    Happy Holidays,
    Lisa

  • Ron Dimon

    Super cool.  Looking forward to this course coming to US & Canada.  And imagine the possibilities of arming people with XO laptops and training up coders in economically depressed areas - creating new talent and opportunities for escaping poverty.