Kathryn Parsons: I want to teach the world to code
17 July 2015
Decoded’s Kathryn Parsons is on a mission. The 33-year-old wants to smash up traditional hierarchies and bring programming to the masses.
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, Kathryn Parsons wants to give you a crash course in digital skills. She has spent nearly five years on a mission to teach the world to look beyond their screens and see the languages that power the internet.
In 2011, Parsons co-founded Decoded, a company that teaches anyone to code in a day, to bring “digital enlightenment” to the masses. “I saw that technology was changing lives and businesses – there wasn’t a facet of life that was unaffected,” she says. “But just 1% of people understood what was happening behind the screen.”
The 33-year-old, who can speak Latin, ancient Greek and Mandarin, was determined to teach the new languages that were taking over the modern world. “I saw people who were afraid of technology, and people who were using the digital vernacular without having any idea what it meant,” she says.
Parsons has taken Decoded from an ambitious London-based startup to a global company that has taught its ‘Code in a Day’ formula to 3,000 businesses, from MTV to the International Monetary Fund.
The company has worked with more than 15,000 individuals to date – and hundreds of thousands through its online learning tools. “People who have never done anything more than a Word document learn to code an app in a single day,” she explains. “It’s accelerated learning.”
The company has exclusively grown through word-of-mouth recommendations. “We had a marketing budget of £27 in the early days,” says Parsons. “You could call it a lean startup, but actually we were just plain broke.”
It raised an undisclosed but “game-changing” investment from the Guardian Media Group last year in return for a 15% stake and is poised for a serious growth spurt.
The company, which has offices in London and New York, is about to launch its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Sydney. “We only go when we’re invited, so there’s very little risk involved,” she adds.
Parsons and co-founders Richard Peters, who is co-chief executive, Steve Henry and Ali Blackwell have helped create a movement that has given rise to hundreds of other coding organisations.
“When we started, everyone told us that we would fail, that no one wanted to learn this stuff,” says Parsons. “Look how much that’s changed now. Coding is on the school curriculum.”
Decoded’s rivals and collaborators include Codeacademy, Rails Girls and a number of initiatives within bigger organisations, such as Google’s current drive to teach digital skills to teachers and communities, or the BBC’s Making It Happen campaign.
“People used to say to me, ‘if I’m driving the car, why do I need to know what’s under the bonnet?’,” says Parsons. “But I no longer hear that phrase.”
Parsons is not only a coding evangelist; she’s an economic force. The House of Lords Digital Skills Committee recently warned that the UK is at risk of falling behind the rest of the world if we do not become more digitally aware. Its report into the UK digital landscape showed that six million people have never used the internet and 9.5 million lacked adequate digital skills, partly because they have been “poorly served at school”.
“There is deep digital illiteracy and cavernous levels of fear,” says Parsons. “People need help to be part of this new world. That’s why no one ‘fails’ our courses. We want learning to be a positive experience.”
The business has expanded beyond its flagship product and now offers a business consultancy, helping big corporations to “embrace a culture of innovation”.
“If you close the gap between the developers and the rest of the business, people can collaborate and innovate together, which is something that all businesses desperately need,” explains Parsons.
She has also expanded the company’s ‘... in a Day’ portfolio. Decoded now runs ‘Hacker in a Day’, ‘Data in a Day’ and a ‘Future Technologies’ workshop, which helps people learn about the Internet of Things, where devices ‘talk’ without human interaction.
“In one day, we take people on a journey that might take them five years if left to their own devices,” says Parsons.
“It’s hands-on learning, so in ‘Hacker in a Day’ you learn how to hack into a wi-fi network or bank account. It helps people understand cyber security in a new way.”
Developing new products is no mean feat. It takes Decoded a year to put together and refine each programme. Experts are brought in and their experience and knowledge is distilled into a learning package that is accessible to anyone.
Decoded is currently developing its most ambitious product to date: a virtual learning tool that will allow the company to teach millions of people remotely. “The irony in what we do is that we are technology educators delivering content face-to- face,” says Parsons. “There is an inherent flaw there but what is culturally perceived as more valuable: a Harvard degree or an online one? How many times have you started an online training course and thought, ‘this is awful’?
“We’re trying to address that challenge at the moment and we’ve been working on it for five months. If we succeed, it could completely change digital learning.”
Decoded, while technically an education business, has more in common with the dot-com darlings than schools or universities. When its team of educators are delivering programmes, every keystroke is monitored to work out exactly how people learn.
“We’re nuts on the data,” says Parsons. “Every problem can be solved using technology. We release small products, test and test again, use the data to improve the product, and iterate and tweak all over again. It’s a constant process.”
The company learned the hard way that it’s better to test an unfinished product than risk building a completed version that fails to address the market.
“Traditional companies spend two years on research and development and then put the product into the market, where it can fly or die,” says Parsons. “We had two occasions where we invested time into a product that just didn’t work. It was six months wasted and we won’t make that mistake again.”
To read the full interview with Decoded’s Kathryn Parson’s, featuring details of the company’s holocratic management structure and how personal projects are used to add fuel to Decoded’s growth, pick up the latest issue of Professional Manager, available exclusively to CMI members.
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