It’s time to get with the (computer) programme; 2014 is the official Year of Code. But is it as easy as just taking a few lessons ? Nel Staveley reports.
Since its launch a couple of weeks ago, the government’s official Year of Code campaign - a £500,000 initiative to get computer programming taught in schools - has seen a high-level resignation, a spokesperson who’s never done coding, and a wave of scathing press.
Even the most ardent optimist would struggle to call it anything but ‘sketchy’.
And yet, perhaps, with a little imagination, they could also call it ‘right on plan’.
After all, overcoming obstacles in order to create the perfect system is what computer coding - or at least learning computer coding - is all about.
“When you start coding, you have to be prepared to be wrong,” explains Jules Coleman, founder - and builder of - hassle.com, a website to help Londoners find a bookable cleaner.
And Coleman should know. Back in 2011, uninspired by her consultancy job in the City, she and a few colleagues had an idea for a new website - initially, a platform where people could share tips on local services. Trouble is, they had no idea how to build said website, or the funds to pay anyone else to do it; cue Coleman’s plunge into the, seemingly, murky waters of coding.
“I had no experience at all, and I didn’t come from a ‘computer’ background; I hadn’t studied computer science at university, I’d only got my first PC when I was 14,” Coleman says.
But, luckily, coding isn’t fussy about entry requirements.
“You don’t need an official background or qualification. Coding doesn’t care, you just have to do it.”
Coleman herself decided to do it by finding a book about it - she went for that option, rather than an online course, so she “couldn’t just copy and paste everything” - and slowly, step by step, built her first website, “a ropey version of Twitter”.
“I had to put in hard learning, but I got there little by little,” she remembers. “There were hard points, where you get constant error messages, but you build up a knowledge of these errors and that’s how you learn.
“You can’t be put off, you will get such satisfaction from looking at what you’ve done.”
Pride isn’t the only reason you can’t be put off learning to code though - another reason, without getting too hyperbolic about it, is the future of our unstoppably digital world.
But in honesty, most of us are a little bit scared.
“I think there are a number of factors which hold people back from learning,” says Zach Sims, co-founder and CEO of Codeacademy.com, a learning site for code.
“Learning to code is critical in both the current and future job market. We think the demand for staff fluent in code will only grow in the coming years.”
“But people do find coding intimidating.”
Thanks to Facebook, Google and the like, it’s hard not to associate computer coders with trainers and hoodies and offices with slides - fine for those aged under 22, not so much for those over it.
There’s certainly an anti-women theme going on too - after all, Facebook started as a way to rate the looks of women on a university campus.
“It is undeniable that there has historically been a strong gender divide in those who learn, with the young male stereotype difficult to refute,” admits Sims.
“This may create even more barriers for women to want to join the industry because the work environment may not be as welcoming as it could be.”
But things are changing.
“There’s no reason at all why a guy should be a better coder,” says Coleman emphatically. “It may be that there are old expectations, but there is no actual reason.”
Codeacademy adds that female students have responded “as enthusiastically, if not more so, than the male students in the English schools we have worked with so far”.
Things are changing in the reasons why people - girl or boy - might want to code too.
“Not everyone who learns how to code need end up becoming a software engineer,” points out Sims.
“Coding can be used in producing art and design, to do data analysis for scientific experiments, or to execute financial transactions. People are still largely unaware about the power and flexibility knowing how to code provides.”
Hopefully, the Year of Code, despite its shaky beginnings, will be the thing to raise this awareness; with their upcoming Hour of Code week (March 3-9) where every student and classroom can learn how fun coding is in just one hour, and the plans to fully include coding the national curriculum by September.
And of course, the critics have dismissed - and for the rest of the year, will no doubt continue to dismiss - all this, saying teachers (and spokespeople) who aren’t coders can’t teach coding properly.
But they are slightly dimly missing the point.
The Year of Code is to introduce people to how easy learning coding can be; hence why teachers who aren’t coders, can easily learn to teach it.
As Sims says: “Many teachers have had little formal training with computing and coding, but by attending training sessions and self-educating with online resources, they have quickly got up to speed.”
They’re not going to profess to be experts; they’re not going to try and build the next Facebook - but perhaps the child at the back of the classroom, listening to the their first lesson, just might.