Codecademy, an online resource that bills itself as “the easiest way to learn how to code,” is sponsoring an initiative called Code Year. They are encouraging people to make learning how to code a new year’s resolution and providing resources to support this effort. One of the quotes on the Code Year homepage, by venture capitalist Fred Wilson, reads: “A young man asked me for advice for ‘those who aren’t technical.’ I said he should try to get technical.”
I recall having conversations with folks at Confab last year about the value of content people learning how to code. The dirty truth is, I used to know my way around a set of brackets fairly well.
- I took a couple of front-end web development courses in college, and in the couple of years following graduation, I built a lot of websites as learning exercises, including one ranking Boston-area milkshakes (yes, milkshakes) as an excuse to learn forms.
- At work at Boston.com, I found myself responsible for building out many section fronts, learning a lot on the fly from the stylesheets and code created by my colleagues. I also became pretty adept at UNIX commands. (I even wrote a UNIX primer for our interns!)
- Even at Tufts, before we changed platforms, I hacked around to create popup galleries and other treatments.
- I’ve hacked around under the hood with WordPress, for better or for worse.
So, what was the value of all this elementary coding experience for someone who was focused more on content? It meant that, when working with developers at Tufts, I had a solid foundation for understanding what they heck they were talking about. And for the purposes of collaborating on projects, that understanding was invaluable.
if ($q==”Should I learn to code?”)
echo “You should learn to appreciate code.”;
(Full disclosure: I cribbed the code for that heading from a Google search. I bet it’s wrong. Corrections welcomed )
Back to the conversations from Confab: Should content people learn how to code? Generally, I don’t think it would serve me very well to get PHP certification, or become an HTML5/CSS3 wizard. I don’t have a pressing need to do so, and I need to focus on my content tasks.
However, should I know what PHP is, what a development environment is, and maybe even how the code does what it does? Definitely. Should I be aware of what HTML5 and CSS3 make possible and advocate for supporting the latest standards? Absolutely.
While content people may not need to become coders, we need to better understand and appreciate our developers and the world in which they live. We’re all working toward the same goal—we’re all telling the same story—and it behooves us to become better aligned. As content strategist Kris Mausser put it:
I applaud the initiative to encourage Web professionals to learn to code in ’12 & can’t believe we’ve come so far that people don’t already!
— Kristina Mausser (@krismausser) January 2, 2012
Beyond just code, content people should understand:
- how their server environments are set up
- the difference between a development and a production environment
- the role of code in the separation of content from design
- how websites interact with databases
Knowing this (and more) will help us know the right questions to ask and not make unreasonable assumptions or unfair demands. And that leads to smarter and more effective partnerships to pursue our communications goals. At the outset, though, it needs to be okay to ask what we may fear are “dumb” questions. It needs to be okay to learn. Let’s buy our developers coffee and admit we have a lot to learn.
That said, there may indeed be a need for a content person to gain a greater understanding of code. If you’re a one-man band or rely on a distant and distracted IT department to execute even the most minor website update, learning the basics could go a long way toward empowering you to manage your site more efficiently.
Want to Learn? Here’s How.
- Codecademy and the Code Year project are a great place to start.
- Stanford recently announced that it is opening up several of its undergraduate computer science courses to the world for free.
- A few months back, Mashable shared a list of other great, free resources for learning how to code, including Google Code University, MIT OpenCourseWare and the Mozilla School of Webcraft.
- Lisa Williams—CEO of Placeblogger, a hyperlocal journalism pioneer and a fellow at the MIT Media Lab—has created a great resource called Life and Code, which she bills as “a learn-to-program blog written with journalists in mind.” She openly shares her trials and successes in learning how to code, as well as a host of inspirational, humorous and helpful links and quotes. Here is her “epic how-to” and resource guide.
- A few months ago on Meet Content, I asked four higher ed web developers about how their work intersects with content strategy.
- A couple of years ago, Six Revisions explained why designers should learn how to code, and some of the same rationale shared there applies here, as well.
- At Confab 2011, Relly Annett-Baker delivered a presentation entitled, “Love Thy Geek: Working In and Amongst Web Teams.” In the session, she noted that the future of the web is multidisciplinary, and we should begin working more closely together and acknowledge that “we are all creative problem solvers.”
- EDIT 1/8/2011: Marketer Sean Zinsmeister is chronicling his “journey to add technical skills to my marketing toolbox.” on his new blog, Code of Marketing.
- EDIT 1/8/2011: On Dec. 12, Mandy Brown blogged about why editors should learn HTML markup, and how the foundations of web markup might look familiar to many editors.
What do you think? Is this a waste of time, or a worthwhile resolution? What else should content folks understand about the developers’ world?