Crosstown Digital Communications

Should Content People Learn How to Code?


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.
  • I once bought a book about Javascript. I didn’t read it, but I bought it.

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.

$q=question(“Q”);
if ($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:

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.

Related Reading

Your Take

What do you think? Is this a waste of time, or a worthwhile resolution? What else should content folks understand about the developers’ world?

7 Responses

  1. Dan G says:

    Bookmarked. Thanks, Georgy.

  2. LoriPA says:

    Yes, yes, and yes! Content people should definitely learn how to code, if only to make life easier for themselves and their co-workers, or at least to understand when something they are asking for is easy (I get people jumping up and down in glee when I print something to PDF for them) or when it is hard (those same people get very disappointed when I can’t display calendar events events by non-existent categories).

    I’d go beyond coding though and say maybe 2012 should be LearnSomethingNewYear. In a world where realtime event coverage (or close to it) is becoming the norm, there really shouldn’t be one person in an office who can resize photos, for example, or post to a Facebook group.

    Support is key — there are people who are never really taught much about how their own computers work and who never get much beyond Microsoft Word, Outlook, and Powerpoint (and don’t use them well) and that’s not really their fault. But there also needs to be a desire to learn and do more today than you did yesterday or last year.

    • Georgy Cohen says:

      Yes, yes, yes! Let’s extrapolate this to LearnSomethingNewYear, as well as BetterUnderstandThingsYouDontCurrentlyUnderstandYear ;-)

  3. Meghan says:

    Learn about code/coding? Yes. Learn how to code? I’m not sure. If I’m going to learn how to do something, I’m gonna want to do it. And, I truly think I have no business coding anything. I’d like to leave that to the people who are skilled in their craft. Sorta like I don’t think everyone who has access to Indesign or Photoshop should start designing stuff.

    But, in theory, yeah, I agree — learn enough to participate in the conversation.

    • Georgy Cohen says:

      Hey Meghan – Great points. In higher ed, it’s definitely a “your mileage may vary” situation. At the bare minimum, I think everyone should learn enough to participate in the conversation. But there are some folks out there without easy access to developer/IT resources who may gain from picking up some practical coding skills they could put to work every day. Maybe not building apps, but enough to make web updates without needing special dispensation from the pope. I actually think that the more content folks know about coding, the more reasonable and agreeable their relationships with developers will be, because we’ll have a better sense of what’s reasonable and what’s not before asking for it — from the design perspective, it’s sort of like, I can understand *why* the logo shouldn’t be bigger before asking the designer to make it so, but I’m not about to start designing webpages :-)

  4. Ben says:

    As a content person who’s worked at learning some code over the past several years in order to become more self-sufficient (I got tired of being at the mercy of others’ schedules), I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do — especially because of how it helps open your eyes. You realize that the things you think are simple to accomplish actually take quite a bit of work, and that some seemingly complex tasks can be easier than expected. It’s valuable to understand the feasibility of one of your genius content organization or presentation ideas so you can think realistically about goals and timelines. A little coding/web knowledge can also go a long way toward building relationships with the experts in your organization, which can help to move projects along. That said, I’d agree that it’s not really essential to become a master coder. My ongoing struggles with various languages have taught me to focus on where my strengths lie; I’m never going to be the best coder, and it’s not the best use of my time to try to be. But I can apply what I do learn to become a much more effective content person.

  5. [...] that someone like, say, our infamous marketer is well equipped to help answer. No coding required (though sometimes it’s fun and even useful to learn), but they will have to sit down with the designer and developer and, together, figure out how to [...]

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