Can a boss learn to code in a day?

12 June 2015 -


Business leaders talk about how technology is changing the world, but know little about what this means in reality. Here, in her own words, is what happened when CMI’s chief executive was challenged to learn coding in a day…

Ann Francke

A sunny yellow morning in Shoreditch. A converted factory building with black leather couches near Old Street roundabout. A collection of good-looking and exuberant normcore hipsters. A sunny yellow SMEG fridge stocked with coconut water. A suite of 12 shiny macs on white tables, no wires anywhere. It’s cultural code, clearly, for Decoded!

Recently I took the challenge to learn coding in a day. Let’s say it was personal – a dare from Decoded co-founder Kathryn Parsons (who’s also on the cover of the forthcoming summer edition of Professional Manager magazine), to take the “Learn Code in a Day” challenge. I thought about saying no but then I thought again: this is important. When one regularly talks about how technology is changing the workplace, it’s a good idea to boost one’s understanding of the technology and the culture it inspires.

Everyday coders

Back to sunny Shoreditch. There were nine of us learners, plus instructors Zak and Robin. Who are these people interested in code? A very diverse group: a trio from a football charity wanting to help young people succeed; an investor targeting financial tech firms who thought he should understand more about the companies he was buying; a PR guy who handled Decoded and needed greater understanding; a Dow Jones exec; a BBC director leading a huge digital change programme, and me. A very mixed bag and, apparently, pretty typical of Decoded Alumni.

Zak and Robin are self-taught, a bit of a leitmotif in coding culture. Zak has funky dreads and is a mathematically gifted artist who realised how code and his online understanding could help build his art audience. Robin, who is experienced in all things digital, designs websites. Neither of these guys does this full time. I’m learning this is not unusual, another facet of the coding culture: do many things, not just one.

First up is a potted history of the internet, with selected dates from 1840 to 1995. I realise from this the simple and powerful truth that the internet is NOT an internet of things – it has been invented by people. With back stories. A key Decoded coup is to humanise the internet and it works! Suddenly I’m captivated by the fact that in 1840 Ada Lovelace wrote the first algorithm but despite this died young and unhappy – a kind of female, digital Mozart.

Tim Berners-Lee basically invented the World Wide Web in 1989 and by giving it away as opposed to charging for it created one of the most ingenious and fundamental internet tenets. Others followed him with libraries of “how to…” where geniuses put up their solutions to problems for others to use for free, rate and improve upon. The star is someone called John Resig of jQuery, who is basically the Harry Styles of code with thousands of dedicated fans. Your currency in the coding world is measured by your peer points (à la video gaming), not by your monetary value.

Building blocks

So after being inspired by people, it’s time to move quickly onto technology and our actual ask: build an app that allows a customer to check in at a physical location. We are given all kinds of relevant examples: you are hosting a street party and want to encourage attendance; you own a coffee shop where those who check in get digital reward stamps; you are an anxious parent wanting to know if your kid has safely arrived home from school. Ah, that last one resonates but instead of arriving home from school it’s arriving home half a world away. I immediately seize upon the “Izz There” app – designed to tell me when Izzy, my daughter, has checked into her LA apartment after another night out on the town. Creepy? Yes, but totally possible.

Onto the app build and design phase. This is the highlight of the day. It’s also where more universal truths about code culture are brought home. Three in particular stood out:

1. When it comes to code, you've got to love brackets and slashes. They’re the building blocks of the original code language – e.g., <>{}{}[]<>//////. Heaven forbid you should forget one of them because, if you do, your code crashes. HTML rules, even though people have invented lots of other code types. They no longer number the upgrades – HTML5 is just the latest version.

2. It’s all about sharing. All the information is already out there, so hone your Google search skills and your cut-and-paste. Codes are the anti-IP generation.

3. It truly is a meritocracy community contest. No mean girls here! Apps and answers that get used most rise to the top.

Culture truths

After a quick design session and a lovely clean lunch (amazing salads, cod aioli, and more coconut water) it’s off to get our apps to talk to our computer. This is about hooking up technically the front end of our content – the browsers – to the back end of the server or computer, so you can share it. It’s very necessary but a bit boring so I zone out. It’s more languages – different ones from the front end, except for JavaScript which someone clever decided could work for both front and back end. But hooray, basically it’s about Yin and Yang: it won’t work unless you do both.

After that it’s the home stretch, a plunge into programming so we can tell the computer to find our location. We could use Google Maps or WiFi triangulation (here is where geometry geeks would triumph), but for the rest of us, no need to memorise, just hone your by now up-and-running Google skills, search and locate in JavaScript, copy the formula and paste it in the proper code body. Admittedly a bit of a struggle but the very watchful Robin and Zak are keen to help, especially with pasting in the proper latitude and longitude (or long and lat for short!). The net of this: hey presto, voila, you’ve built an app!

At the end of the day we shared our creations and Kathryn also came up to listen in. I was surprised at the cleverness of my classmates who designed wonderful street party apps and a great football sign-in app for young people. Then, of course, my spyware contribution.

I chatted with the Decoded team about other coding culture truths:

It’s all about open-source innovation, not closed IP

You have to buy the giving away thing. It’s how it’s done. Companies trying to recruit talent don’t get that they have to give developers time to post on jQuery.

It’s so not about the money

It’s the status of peer elevation, not hierarchy.

Language is relative

And is there to be upgraded all the time. Long live HTML5.

If you can code, you can hack

If you can hack, you can steal data. So Decoded also runs “Hack in a day” and “Data in a day” to help companies cope.

Indeed, the best part of the day was the dawning realisation that this is a different language and value set. Will it take over the world? Some would argue it already has. Coding has created lots of new cultural landscapes, so it is better to be in the know. So go on and crack the code. You’ll be the much wiser for it, and it’s as close as you can get to a technological epiphany.

Find out more about Decoded.

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