Digital Idiot Abroad - can our editor learn to code in a day?

Decoded promises to teach anybody to code a website or app in a day. Analogue throwback Matthew Gwyther went along to see if it was really possible.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 14 Feb 2014

In the land of the digitally challenged I'm right up there with Cro-Magnon man. Back in 1985 I was quite happy with my Amstrad 8256 but lost the plot not long afterwards. When my computer 'says no', I rarely have the ability to respond with anything more than a panicked squeak.

I have the MT Towers IT helpdesk first on my speed-dial and if they gave airmiles for each hour of assistance they dispense I'd be spending every weekend in Nassau.

So when an invitation came from Decoded for an MT member to learn how to code and build a website in a day, every finger in the office naturally pointed to Mr Web Minus 0.8 - the editor.

Led by Kathryn Parsons, a Veuve Cliquot businesswoman of the year award winner and MT 35 Under 35er, Decoded tries to soothe that most painful of the tech world's prob- lems: the fundamental disconnect between the 'specialist programmers' who build the digital world with code and the management that commissions sites and apps but can't understand the language they are made from. Even tech behemoths such as Google, eBay and Microsoft are clients and have sent managers on the course at £750 a pop.

The courses take place, inevitably, near Shoreditch in a post-industrial building with a pale hardwood floor and white walls. Dinky Macbook Airs abound and the Wi-Fi password is 'hello universe'. Which says it all really.

Our teachers were Susan, an American with a PhD in bio-engineering and links to Imperial College, and Felix Cohen, who divides his time between digital consultancy and his Shoreditch cocktails business, the Manhattans Project. Neither arrived by skateboard.

A genius at work: Matthew Gwyther gets some tips from fellow student Kevin

Our pupil group was an interesting mix. There were the Etonian twins Thaddeus and McCoy, a cool duo who had just completed their GCSEs. There were a brace of trendy design types from Tommy Hilfiger in Amsterdam. Another guy, Kevin from Kuala Lumpur (pictured above), was on holiday in London and preferred a day coding to one spent in the queue at Madame Tussauds. Then there was the amazingly nice Queen of Silicon Roundabout, ex-boss of Facebook in EMEA and now the UK business ambassador for the digital industries, Joanna Shields. And there was Dumb Boy - me.

We started off with a brisk stroll through the history of the web: Tim Berners-Lee, the birth of html (hypertext markup language), CSS (cascading style sheets) and the 1995 arrival of JavaScript. So far so good. I like a bit of history.

Then we learned the nature of programming - the interaction between functions (blocks of code that can be run on demand) + variables (used to store data within our code) + logic (how we define the decisions that our programme makes). I sort of got this.

I was just about keeping up but when it came to actually trying to write lines of code down, the fear descended. Why always a semicolon at the end of code lines? What is it with those < and > brackets that have to surround each little code nugget? And Clairaut's formula?

But I didn't panic and Felix kept things bowling along with his tech jokes, most of which went straight over my head while getting knowing smiles from my fellow pupils. Examples were: 'There are only two types of people, those who can extrapolate from incomplete data' and 'There are 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don't.' (Ten, they tell me, is two in binary notation.)

Perhaps the most discouraging moment came when half-way through the morning Joanna Shields piped up: 'This is so easy compared with the programming I had to learn in the 1980s.' By this time, my brain was starting to ache.

Our task for the day was to create our own basic app. Everyone else set to creating sites for sport apparel shops, bars and kids toys. The idea was to use the latest GPS software available via smartphones to attract customers with a special offer on arrival.

I decided that what I wanted to do was make the individual the centre of attraction, not a shop. What about a casual meeting/friendship app that would enable you to meet up with like-minded people when visiting a new place?

It was to be called Here I Am or The Honey Pot. I downloaded a smart picture of Brando in his prime for my home page. I carefully cut and pasted the 598 lines of complex code connected to location and geo-positioning.

My geo-social networking concept was, someone later pointed out, not dissimilar to the idea behind the legendary gay cruising site Grindr. 'So you were trying to make your own "turn up and shag site",' remarked my unimpressed deputy when I displayed my handiwork on my return. Well, all I can say is that nobody understood Galileo, Brin or Dorsey in the early stages. It's the vision that counts.

Here I Am had a number of problems with its functionality, as they say. It wasn't quite ready for beta-testing and I hadn't managed to get things fixed when the time came in the late afternoon for presentations. Needless to say, the twins, the Tommy Hilfiger crew, Kevin from KL and Joanna all had snappy sites that worked when clicked. All I had was a frozen home page with Marlon Brando grinning at me.

The next Facebook? Matthew Gwyther's creation

You have to develop a mechanism for being the classroom dolt. How otherwise can your ego survive? Playing the fool always came in handy at school when some piece of Latin pluperfect or quadratic equation got the better of me.

It was, as they say, an interesting day. My conclusion was that a website is more like a gothic cathedral than Milton's Paradise Lost. Blind John did it all on his own.

But while it's a good thing to have an idea of how you lay stone and fit beams and flying buttresses in place, the most important thing is the vision.

Certainly, it's a very good idea to have an understanding of what programme coders are doing, the challenges they face when creating these complex digital edifices, but knowing how to perform every last task simply isn't possible or desirable. These people are skilled and rare, which is why if you understand the back end of a complex banking IT system, when it goes wrong you can virtually name your price.

This course won't be able to turn a novice into a Zuckerberg in eight hours. However, next time we have a little barney with our digital colleagues who run the MT website, at least I feel I understand their language a little better and they will know that I did at least try to enter their world.

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