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%."
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.
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]