Decoding the unknown digital realm

Getting to grips with HTML, CSS and JavaScript is stimulating, challenging, creative, intense, frustrating - but ultimately rewarding

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The Independent Online

In my last years at school they opened a computing room, wherein lurked a terrifying beast, spewing out reams of tickertape with “0”s and “1”s on it. If you have seen this season’s Mad Men. Yes, it was just like that.

The room was for “geeks”, not that we knew that word then, nor that geeks like Tim Berners Lee, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would change our lives and inherit the world. As successive digital technologies have come to revolutionise our lives, the knowledge gap between those programmers who created that world and those of us who simply benefit from their brilliance has become a chasm.

It is terrifyingly opaque to an outsider, but it need not be so. Certainly, that’s the belief of the four founders of Decoded, an organisation set up to demystify the coding process and unlock ordinary people’s digital potential. In the belief of Kathryn Parsons, one of the four co-founders of Decoded “too small a group of people had the power and knowledge”.

Decoded, in its surprisingly swanky loft-like space near East London’s Old St Silicon Roundabout, aims to teach us, with our zero skills, enough code in a day that we can build our own app – in a day.

It seemed an unlikely outcome as a nervous group of ten disparate coding virgins (from the City, retailing, design, the wine trade…) settled down to the history lesson that begins the day. That history, and the moderators’ skill at situating our day in the continuing digital evolution is what really opens our eyes.

To understand, as Parsons puts it, how “human” technology is in the flawed way it is often created and iterated, is to realize that you too can “engineer”. Berners Lee created the World Wide Web in ten days, the HTML code in a dozen. It actually is as counter intuitive as it first appears, partly because of that speed and partly because nuclear physicists like him aren’t the world’s greatest communicators.

So began one of the most stimulating, challenging, creative, intense, frustrating but ultimately rewarding days I can recall as we got to grips with HTML, CSS, JavaScript and so much else that was hitherto impenetrable. I actually did come up with an app on the back of a brand idea that I coded myself (you’ll be amazed how much of other people’s coding work you can just cut and paste for free from Google) to a viewable working standard. Yes it was done in one day, with wine, cake and gorgeous brain food, designed not to let you doze off in the afternoon. I’ll even share the app with you one day soon.

Decoded’s founders recently taught all their mums the course. “In a day” matters, says Parsons, because most people can’t take six months out to learn code. Her beguiling, confident matter-of-factness about “realising the art of what’s possible” is credible because Decoded spends one year devising, planning and testing each day-long course.

Children, increasingly, will get long-overdue help at school. For many adults of both sexes, there is a stark choice: we can either stand back, paralysed by fear of the unknown, or we can choose to join in (just go to Parsons is correct: the abstract can become less so, but, dear reader, that JavaScript? It’s a real bugger.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of High50

Twitter: @stefanohat