Learning to Code In One Day and Losing My Mind

This blog post is by New Tech City host Manoush Zomorodi.

Considering that I host a show about technology, my inability to do more than dabble in a smidgen of HTML seemed unacceptable. 

In fact, when I had my personal website built two years ago, I often didn't even understand the developer's questions. Would a small change to the size of an on-screen box take five hours or five minutes? I had no idea. 

So I signed up for Code in a Day, a class run by the British startup Decoded. The instructors claimed that we would learn the ins and outs of coding and then create an app in just nine hours.

Video produced by Jennifer Hsu

I had my doubts that I could learn so much by the end of class, but I hoped to leave with an ability to ask programmers better questions in interviews and work more intelligently with WNYC's digital team.

Talk the talk even if I couldn't walk the walk.

A History of Math Aversion

At the very least I wanted to have a showdown, a reckoning of sorts, with my life-long insecurities about computer science and math.

Let me take you back for a moment. When I was in tenth grade, the head of the math department at my high school told me I didn't have a natural aptitude for the subject.

This was before all the talk about empowering girls to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and catering to students' various "learning styles." These days, my professor's outright dismissal of my lack of numbers savvy wouldn't fly. 

Nevertheless, I'm not sure he was wrong. My instinct has always been to focus on the "why" rather than the "how." Case in point: Last week's New Tech City podcast about the internet mystery Cicada 3301.

Rather than walk you through every obscure reference and piece of encryption, we told the story behind the cryptography challenge. Words and stories, not numbers and code.

What I Learned in Coding Class

Journalists who can code are still rare (h/t to WNYC's data news guru John Keefe), and I was the only one in the class. 

My Decoded classmates included the head of a travel startup, the CEO of a private equity group (with his CTO along for the ride), an MTA marketing exec, and Jared Grant, a strategist at Paper Magazine.

Jared's Twitter bio reads: "My blonde hair makes me glamorously hard as nails." Clearly Jared's another storyteller, and needless to say, we became fast friends. The instructors were two Brits who claimed to have transformed from English Literature majors into coding dynamos. They said we could (sort of) do it too.

By the end of the day, I did learn the difference between HTML, CSS and Javascript. And that's not all.

The most meaningful takeaway for me: It turns out you can search, cut and paste your way to coding. Kind of like using a phrase book in a foreign country in lieu of actually learning the language.

Most coders go to Github or Stack Overflow to share code or post code questions.

But let's say you're a beginner like me who, for example, wants to make your font bigger on a website. You can just google, "How can I make my font bigger in HTML?" Then just copy and paste. (Here's the answer from HTML Goodies).

I Made a Functioning App (and Had an Existential Crisis Along the Way)

In addition to actually creating (mostly) an app that allows my kids to "check-in" when they get home (yes, geolocation included), I also had a bit of an existential crisis.

Here are some of the thoughts that ran through my head throughout the day: 

"Am I letting womenkind down by admitting this is extremely difficult for me?"

"Would this class have been easier for me if, in third grade, I had actually learned what multiplication is instead of memorizing the times tables?"

"Why doesn't anyone else here want to talk about how this class is making them feel????"

So, Did I Conquer My Fear of Coding?

In the end, yes.

To put a finer point on it, I think I gained an even greater deference for code.

The whole "learn-to-code-in-a-day" experience reminded me of my dear friend's wise words from a decade ago.  

We had just completed a three-day "hostile environment" survival training course for journalists where we had tripped over fake IEDs and been "kidnapped" (complete with sacks over our heads). Afterward, I turned and asked her, "So, what did you learn?"

"I learned I never want to go to war zone," she said.

Just as my friend realized covering international conflict wasn't for her, I learned coding isn't for me. But you don't really know unless you try, right?

Resources for Learning to Code in an Hour, a Day or a Few Weeks

If you have an hour, check out Khan Academy, Codecademy, Udemy or Code.org.

If you have a day, try Decoded or General Assembly.

If you have several weeks, consider Coding Dojo, Noble Desktop, The Career Center, The Flatiron School or Dev Boot Camp.

This episode is included in the New Tech City #smartbinge podcast playlist at wnyc.org/smartbinge