Decoded CSS JavaScript

Can you teach code in a day to those who don't know their CSS from their elbow?

By Gordon Young, Editor

April 5, 2012 | 6 min read

It’s a common complaint amongst traditional agency stalwarts and media owners. They understand every task associated with their craft bar one; coding for websites.

In fact what goes on in the coding corner can seem as a bit of a black art. And its young, headphone-clad practitioners can be viewed with suspicion. After all they have a lot of power when it comes to deciding what is possible, achievable and doable by dint of the fact nobody else really understands what they do.

However, now a team – which includes a very traditional ad man in the form of HHCL-founder Steve Henry – have decided to do something about this. They have launched a company that aims to teach people who don’t know their CSS from their elbow how to code in a day.

Operating under the name Decoded, it promises that, after just a few hours, students – regardless of their previous experience – will be able to build their very own mobile app, complete with geo-positioning functionality. Intrigued, I joined one of the sessions, which was being held near London’s Silicon Roundabout.

There was around 10 of us taking part, ranging from large agency CEOs to a housewife looking to develop a new business. An eclectic group, but the introductions demonstrated we shared the same insecurity; our lack of knowledge in this key area could cost opportunity. Heaven forbid, if nothing was done perhaps the guys with the headphones could even end up taking our jobs.

Our course leader for the day was Alasdair Blackwell. But despite describing himself as ‘digital Sherpa’ he did not fit the profile of the usual coding nerd. He had social, as well as social media skills.

Bright and engaging, his enthusiasm for the fundamental elements of coding – HTML for structure, CSS for design and JavaScript for functionality – was infectious. He made clear from the outset that be believed everybody should be able to code, and expressed amazement that, despite the fact digital is so fundamental to the economy, coding is still not taught in schools.

“What people to not appreciate,” he told us, “is that by delegating all responsibility for coding they are actually abdicating responsibility for a major part of the creative process.

“Coding is really about 40% planning, 40% research and 10% debugging. Only 10% of the process is actually putting together code.

“But can you really learn to code in a day?” he asked. “Surely it takes 10,000 hours to learn a craft? But today is really about starting to break this process down. Today we are going to pull back the bonnet and allow you to take a look under the hood.”

And the day itself was broken down into distinct parts. In the morning there was a helpful overview of the history of the internet. Although the briefing contained few revelations, it was still helpful standing back and looking at its development chronologically; from the development of HTML, the rapid evolutions of browsers such as Firefox and Chrome, and revolutions such as JavaScript.

We also touched on touched on how a culture of sharing had taken hold in the internet, a theme set early on by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his development of web as we know it, the setting up of resources like jQuery where JavaScript can be downloaded free, and the API movement where sites such as Facebook have opened up their code to the general community.

The afternoon itself then focussed on the development of our geo-positioning app. After a session which aimed to demystify coding terminology we were briefed on the app we were to build.

It was to be a simple app – their description not mine – that was to deliver a message when the user arrived at a specific location.

Blackwell pointed out that there are three key steps in every build; defining the function, the variables and the logic. So in this instance the function is to monitor a user’s position, the variable might be the distance between the user and the final destination and the logic how to calculate the actual distance between the two points, so the app knows when they have arrived.

The other key revelation here was that most of the code we needed already exists. It was simply a case of finding it, and then effectively cutting and pasting it into our application.

Apparently the technical term for this is ‘matching’ as opposed to ‘stealing’, but it does demonstrate the very open nature of the web: the ethos seems to be that it is better to open your code up so a vast community can contribute to its evolution, as opposed to keeping it locked down where only a few can move it forward.

But it was safe to say that I was not doing much to improve the JavaScript. I was borrowing. I was just so amazed that when I moved to the browser, my series of brackets, letters and numbers actually metamorphosed into an app which even – after a group debugging session – worked.

The whole experience was without doubt the most intensive learning experience I have ever had. But can I now code? No. But do I feel have a better sense of what goes on in coders corner? Absolutely. There is no doubt that everybody involved in this industry would be better off with a grounding in this area. That way at least we can ensure the geeks will not necessarily inherit the earth.

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