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08/11/2013 | Webreality

Coding for anyone


Who needs to know how to make computers do stuff? A group of professional developers in Jersey reckon it's a good idea for everyone to have some coding knowledge. I went along to their first "coding dojo" with my 9-year old son to find out more.

For several months, have been getting on with the job of informing and inspiring people in Jersey interested in technology.

Their meet-ups have put some of Jersey's brightest tech thinkers in the spotlight, and shown that there's already a lot of talent here to underpin the States of Jersey's "Digital Jersey" ambitions.

Last night's was a new kind of event for TechTribes - a short, sharp coaching session for complete novices who want an experience of learning to code.

The teachers were Simon Brown (@simonbrown), Rob Dudley (@robdudley), Charles Robertson (@charles_jsy) and Terry Cox (@bootstrapjersey). All accomplished professional developers who gave their time freely.

I went along primarily to give my son, Eddie, a chance to start learning coding with the benefit of some expert help on hand. He's always been interested in computers and how they work. Like others his age, though, he doesn't benefit from any computer science teaching in the primary school currriculum, so I've been looking at other ways for him to learn. We've recently been experimenting at home with the truly excellent which is superbly structured and free to use. Last night was about giving him a more collaborative learning experience.

My own usable coding skills are limited to basic HTML, learned in the mid 90s and ever since in the management of many websites. I didn't expect to get too involved in last night's dojo... but found it too compelling to keep my hands off the keyboard throughout!

The group of trainees consisted of 11 (from memory) and was impressively diverse. One of Eddie's school mates was also there with his mum. The rest of the group was evenly balanced between men and women, with ages ranging from 20s to 50s. Perhaps most surprisingly, two States members were there - hats off to Juliette Gallichan and Jeremy Macon.

Everyone was asked to bring a laptop, onto which Simon loaded a simple code editing tool called TextMate. The aim of the game was to get us all writing and running very simple programs in Ruby.

The trainers had prepared a set of exercises which got progressively more challenging, and had us learning in particular about mathematical calculations. It reminded me of the elementary coding that I learned at school in BASIC on the original BBC computers. That was in nineteen eighty something...

Everyone sailed through the easy stuff last night, with the trainers looking over shoulders and helping where necessary. But the last two exercises certainly raised the mental temperature in the room. Simon had warned us at the outset that it wouldn't all be easy, and he was right.

The two-hour session was due to end at 7pm, but at ten past there were still several of us hacking away at the fizz buzz challenge.

My main observation was that learning the code syntax was the easy bit - the real challenge is navigating the logic required to get the code to complete a task, before translating the logic into code. 

My boy is all the more motivated to progress with his Codecademy course now, and I've come away with my own refreshed interest.

People often say things to me like, "You know about computers..." or "You're a bit of a geek..." I guess it's all relative, but my real strengths lie in business strategy, management and marketing, not specifically in technology. Although I'm surrounded by coding professionals in the office at Webreality, it takes a step away from business as usual and some time for abstract thinking for someone like me to get a better grip on the realities of writing code.

But there is no doubt in my mind that business people of all backgrounds can benefit enormously from improving their knowledge of technology, including software development, and how it might help them and their business. Unless we have some sense of what's possible with technology, how can we think beyond what we already know?

So many thanks to the TechTribes team for offering their dojo, and also to Prosperity 24.7 for providing their facilities.

If you get the chance to go along to a future TechTribes Coding Dojo, I'd thoroughly recommend it.