Make it Work

February 5th, 2014

Why You Need To Know Code (And How You Can Learn In A Month)

And though the number of coding jobs in America is set to grow 30% by 2020 (twice the rate of general job growth), understanding programming concepts — or even knowing a bit of code — will be important to almost any job of the future. This is particularly true for writers and multimedia artists, who wield incredible power when they can both create both stories and the experiences that contain them.

All other things equal, I’d dare say I would hire the person who knows how to code over the person with the 4.0 GPA or master’s degree for just about any position.

But though it’s been years since learning to code required one’s butt to be in a plastic chair at a university lecture hall, teaching oneself to code via online tutorials is difficult, frustrating, and lonely. It takes forever, like trying to learn to speak French by reading Wikipedia.

The way most programming is taught to beginners is pretty stupid. Every online tutorial site seems to operate like a 500-page textbook. (And try to remember the last time you motivated yourself to read one of those of your own volition!) The thing about programmers teaching programming is they take for granted things that non-coders could never figure out on their own, like how to set up your computer to do code in the first place. Abstract concepts like loops and variables are often taught in a vacuum, and even shiny tutorial sites that let you type code on the left side of the screen and see results on the right don’t seem to actually teach you how to think, just what do type.

Until now. If you want to learn the web programming language Ruby, at least, which at least one startup claims it can teach you enough to build real apps in about a month.

The site is a YCombinator company called One Month Rails, created by an overachieving startup kid in New York named Mattan Griffel. Griffel experienced all the abovementioned frustrations when he taught himself to code, and because he comes from outside of the programming industry (and has a natural gift for teaching) he was able to distill all those frustrations and create a better mousetrap for teaching all of us wannabes to get up and coding in dramatically shorter time.

“A lot of people start with sites like Codecademy or other general programming tutorials thinking that what they learn will be enough to let them build a website. But it won’t,” Griffel says. “In that sense, most tutorials are really lacking. It’s like teaching people grammar but not how to tell a story.”

Griffel’s site teaches Ruby on Rails, which is one of the easiest ways to program (essentially, “Ruby” is the code language, and “Rails” automates a lot of mundane or difficult tasks, so you don’t have to spend years learning them.)

“Web development requires a pretty unique set of skills, like knowing how to deploy to Heroku, connect to a database, combine css with html, etc.” Griffel writes. One Month Rails teaches what those things are and how to make them interact with each other.

Seems like a pretty obvious concept, but just like translating arcane science research into entertaining New York Times articles, boiling DIY code down for the masses is easier said than done.

Though it’s early days, Griffel has some good success stories already. Mike Preuss, co-founder of a startup called Visible, one of the early testers of the program, says that after trying several of the popular “teach yourself to code” sites online, One Month Rails was the only thing that worked. He says it’s helped him both deploy code at his company and better understand his engineering team’s needs. Other OMR graduates have built wedding registry sites, design communities for sharing sketches, and various nifty apps.

A month isn’t much time to really master anything, much less programming. But it may just be enough to teach people to start thinking like programmers. (And it’s likely enough for some people to decide they really want to jump in with both feet.)

Part of the importance of programming literacy is the problem-solving mentality it induces, but more importantly, the ability to build and/or understand systems that automate work or make work efficient is increasingly valuable in today’s business climate, where tech touches everything. Furthermore, as we lean into the future where the Internet of Things is real, and platforms like IFTTT and Raspberry Pi allow us to build functions on top of life, I think that we’ll all soon be doing more “programming” than we expect.

I’m bullish on One Month Rails and fast-tracking tech schools like High Tech High and the Flatiron School (from which we recently hired an amazing programmer after just 12 weeks of intense code training). But I’m even more bullish on people who take the time to invest in becoming at least semi-fluent in this new 21st century literacy.

And fortunately, now it doesn’t take much time to do so.


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