'You will be coding a multi-platform app by the end of the day,' announces Richard Peters
, one quarter of programming education collective Decoded
, to a gathering of nine people in an airy loft space in Clerkenwell last Thursday.
Despite being here to learn how to do exactly that, a few sideward glances between the assembled suggests there are lingering doubts. Contagious
' daunted group includes a wide variety of different people - amongst them a human resources consultant, a brace of creatives from one of London's bigger ad agencies, a venture capitalist, the owner of a small ski holiday business, a marketing executive, an entrepreneur, all with no programmming experience - who are here to learn the history and basics of this dark art.
As we go round and introduce ourselves, it's clear that the level of web understanding varies a great deal, but the reasons why we're all here gel around one theme: to better understand coding, its limitations and possibilities, and therefore be better informed when talking to the coders we're increasingly dealing with.
Decoded was dreamt up a year ago by Peters, fellow former adlander Kathryn Parsons
(the pair worked together in channel planning at Ogilvy
founder Steve Henry
and self-taught coder Alasdair Blackwell
. The industry had gone digital, but the people working with it, explained Peters, hadn't kept up. Coders, Peters went on to say, make up a tiny portion of ad folk, and yet coding affects everyone in an agency. Decoded was set up to address that inbalance, demystifying a practise which underpins an increasingly large amount of what modern advertising does.
But can we really learn that in a day? After seven months of wrangling, refining and whittling, the team think they've cracked it, and since August they've been teaching small teams exactly that, with 65 people having taken the course already. Browsing History
Raison d'etre explained, Peters and the enthusiastic Blackwell gave us a whistlestop tour of important landmarks in the history of the web. The very first US defence-funded connected network of computers in 1969, through the rise of the personal computer and an open-source sharing ethos in the late seventies courtesy of the West Coast US tech-hippy movement including Jobs and Wozniak.
Fast forward to Tim Berners-Lee's invention of HTML
and the URL
in 1989 while at CERN, through the rise of Web 2.0
and, latterly, HTML5
, which has opened up a huge swathe of new opportunities for browsers to do smart things like animation, geo-location, video and drawing, for example.
A revelation - at least for this writer - is that most code is a Google search away, using a resource called jQuery
. Set up in 2006 by coder John Resig
Finally, the pair touched on the introduction of Web 3.0
and the rise of the API
(Application Programming Interface), a new era of how people interact with code, and how brands are embracing open source, releasing their data and platforms to allow for crowdsourced innovation.Language, spelling, punctuation and grammar
Suitably schooled with the terminology and history of the web, Peters and Blackwell plunged us straight into the building blocks of the web. Blackwell explains that it's vital to remember we're designing for the end user, but coding for the browser, which means understanding how the browser works, and how to talk to it. Peters explains that the coding process should be split as follows: 30% planning, 30% research, 10% coding and 30% bug fixing.
The holy trinity of the web are HTML
(the content, such as video, pictures and copy), CSS
(determining how those pieces of content behave dynamically and interactively). Showing that in action, Blackwell shows us the Periodic Table of Elements
, which breaks down any site into the parts that make it up, including contagiousmagazine.com (check it out on your own site).
Getting stuck in, we log into Coda
Emboldened and hands dirtied, we're ready to code our app. We head back to the sofas and plan what our app will do: welcome anyone who comes within 100m with a special message, and how we're going to do that - tracking the user's position, calculating the distance between user and location, and then showing content. Like most coders, explains Peters, we don't know how to do a lot of what we need, which means researching, with a little help from
Mapping out what we need - the things the app should do (functions), the information we need (variables), and what it would do, when (logic) - we used jQuery, Stackoverflow
and other accessible web resources, to slowly build up the code we need, condensing everything to a beautifully simple piece of logic that we almost literally wrote out by hand. Then it was back to the Macbook Airs and typing in our newly written code, under the watchful guidance of Peters and Blackwell.
And after an hour of typing, trying things out, debugging, Peters' unlikely promise that we'd have built a multi-platform app was remarkably fulfilled. Decoded 2.0
As attendees - who had started the day unable to create even the most simple of webpages - started polishing their apps and comparing their efforts, Contagious
broke off to talk to Peters, Parsons and Blackwell about the future of Decoded.
'We're digital sherpas,' explains Peters carefully of how they define what they're doing. 'Getting people to the top of the mountain.' The quartet are not looking, he adds, to come up with big ideas, or digital development, or what people should do with the programming they learn. Instead Decoded is promoting transparency, and helping people better understand the nuts and bolts, as well as foster better working relationships in the marketing community between developers and creatives. 'It elevates [people's] thinking,' says Peters, 'but they can take from it what they want.'
Completely booked up into February and beyond, the team are delighted with the response the course had elicited. 'There are two types of people who come here - the doers, who go off and actually use this; and the top agency people, who just want to know about it and be up to speed with 2011,' says Peters of the attendees, who have come from a huge variety of backgrounds: VCs, bankers, agencies, agency networks, small business people and as far afield as Dubai, South Africa and Bangladesh.
Fellow Decoded alumni, BBH Labs
' Mel Exon
, says that the idea of being able to code in a day was irresistible: 'It irrevocably cemented my view of how fundamental code is to creativity. It's already helped me better understand how we can improve the way we approach projects - being a lot clearer about what we functionally need and why. [I gained] a much deeper appreciation of what developers really need from creatives and UX strategists. Also Gabor Szalatnyai (ace BBH creative technologist) told me with a completely straight face that new ideas come thick and fast whilst writing code. I wanted some of that.'
Catering to requests from attendees, they're working on a suite of new products too: a 45 minute primer for C-suite execs, and a longer 10-week course to go deeper into the subject.
But the wider implications of Decoded are profound. Parsons and Peters recently undertook a recent free course they did with Stoke Newington School
'For kids, learning to code is not just about wanting to become a programmer,' concludes Peters. 'They appreciate better than we do that if you want to get into media, journalism, creativity, music and more, having an understanding of coding and the technologies that underpin the developments in these fields will be key to getting ahead.' http://decoded.co