Coding As A Second Language

29 Mar, 2012

Alliott Cole sees a large number of tech start-ups in his work as principal in the early-stage investment team of private equity firm Octopus. The trouble is that he often struggles to comprehend what those writing the software that underpins those companies are talking about.

"For several years I have worked hard to understand how new infrastructure, products and applications work together to disrupt markets," he says, explaining why he recently decided to take a course that claims to be able to teach even the most IT-illiterate person how to create a software application, or app, in just a day.

"While [I am] conversant in many of the trends and the – often confusing – array of terminology, it troubled me that I remained an observant passenger rather than an active driver, particularly in the realms of computer programming." Mr Cole is not alone, which is why eight executives and I are sitting in a penthouse apartment perch­ed on top of a 1930s office block in London's trendy Clerkenwell having our turn on the same course.

The programme is run by Decoded, a training business created by three former advertising executives – Steve Henry, Kathryn Parsons and Richard Peters – and Alasdair Blackwell, an award-winning web designer and developer.

They appear to have tapped into a widely felt, but rarely discussed, problem. Tech talk is increasingly commonplace in business and life. Many of us rely on smartphones and the web for work, but most people, including senior executives, find the language used by software engineers, social media professionals and the "digital natives" for whom modern technology is intuitive, baffling. So, anything that can help is warmly received.

Decoded has invited me to its rooftop classroom to see whether it could bring out my inner geek. After pacing the streets while struggling to use the Google Maps function on my iPhone to find the venue, it seemed highly unlikely that I would be an app developer by five o'clock as Decoded had promised.

My fellow students are an assortment of executives and copywriters from Ogilvy & Mather, the marketing group. Decoded says earlier course participants have come from organisations including BT, O2, Facebook, the BBC, as well as the editor of Campaign magazine, members of the Downing Street policy team and the founder of the think-tank Education Foundation.

For some, memories of coding are distant. Mike Nicholson, head of strategy at OgilvyAction, the company's branding agency, admits that he had not tried to program a computer since his school days in the early 1980s. "We had BBC Micros and I learnt how to make the screen go red and to print," he says.

Now, however, as modern technology is changing his industry, he feels the need to revisit the basics of how technology functions. "In my department I have people who build websites and work in social media. In order to take the fear away you have to understand it. I am here to understand what happens inside the box."

Nick Midworth, the company's finance director, says his last experience of computer programming was typing numbers into a machine during the maths component of his economics degree in the late 1990s. "I am sure that would be miles away from this," he says.

Like the others, his main reason for attending the training session is to help his day job. "It is being able to know a little bit more than clients so you can at least get by," he admits.

As we huddle in a corner of the living room around the coffee and pastries, there is an air of nervous anticipation you do not normally experience on corporate awaydays. "I feel like I am joining the Matrix," one of the creatives quips, referring to the films beloved of many programmers.

According to Mr Blackwell, however, the popular view of code promulgated by movies such as The Matrix is part of the problem his company is trying to combat.

"A lot of the reason people fear software programmers is the fault of Hollywood," he says. "The idea of coding is that it is done by someone who has a different brain to the rest of us – a boy in Illinois who is tapping away on a computer in his bedroom, hacking into the CIA."

Mr Blackwell and Mr Richards, our teachers for the day, spend the first part of the course leading us through a brief history of the internet before moving on to the basics of modern programming. The assumption is clearly that everyone on the course knows nothing and needs to have every piece of jargon explained clearly.

The good news, it seems, is that ever since Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web and hypertext mark-up language (HTML), the main coding language used to create web pages, writing software has become ever simpler, helped greatly by programmers posting their code online so that others can copy and adapt it.

By the time we get down to actually writing the code on stylish MacBook Air computers in the afternoon, we can at least see how it all fits together. All the data we need to use will be stored in HTML. We use a programming language called CSS to turn that into a nicely designed webpage. Finally, we animate it all by telling the computer what to do using a language called JavaScript. Put these three elements together and you have a working website.

And, by the end of the day, each of us has built an app – a simple location-based tool that tracks the movements of the user on the map function of a smartphone or tablet device, then alerts them when they have reached a certain grid point. The app could be used by a retailer to promote discounts when the smartphone owner walks past one of its shops, or as a game to encourage people to try to find a new nightclub venue.

While it is unlikely that we will be challenging the position of location-based apps such as Foursquare, the sense of achievement among the participants is incredible.

Mr Cole says he had a similar experience. He had arrived at the Decoded apartment with a blend of nerves and excitement, but had walked out a convert. He likened the experience to the "sense of wonder" he felt the first time he went scuba diving.

However, a day at Decoded is not enough to convince him or the others to quit their day jobs and become full-time programmers. That is a role they are happy to leave to the experts – but now, at least, they feel more confident of being able to talk the same language.

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