The Numbers Game

From weekly ‘TechJams’ to one day workshops, entrepreneurs across the country are making learning digital coding accessible, sociable and fun

Steve Henry was a co-founder of one of the most influential ad agencies of the last 30 years at HHCL. He is now one of the team behind another zeitgeist-savvy outfit, Decoded, which claims to teach people how to build working apps and websites in a day. Henry founded the company in 2011 with Kathryn Parsons and Richard Peters (founders of ad agency The Scarlett Mark) and web developer Alasdair Blackwell, to address a lack of digital coding knowledge among UK creatives.

“Coding underpinned everything yet no-one really understood it – creatives could design and plan digital strategies but they didn’t know how to build them,” says Parsons. “We wanted to give creatives the tools to make prototypes of their ideas, instead of just pitching them,” adds Henry. “The first few workshops we did went really well but it quickly became obvious that it could be useful for anyone in any industry. Now, we teach people from all kinds of industries and in positions from sales to account planning.”

Decoded runs four one-day workshops: Code in a Day, Social Data in a Day, Data Visualisation in a Day and CodeEd – an introduction to computer science for teachers. Code in a Day teaches programming basics; social data explains the code behind social networks and data visualisation explains digital databases and graphics.

Teaching a technophobe to build a mobile app or understand the coding behind Facebook in a few hours is an ambitious claim. But Decoded’s crash courses have received glowing reviews from staff at companies including Publicis, BBH, Conde Nast and Microsoft. A glance at its website reveals named testimonials describing classes as “brilliant”, “inspiring”, “wonderful” and “fun”. Since launching, it has also opened offices in New York and Singapore and run pop-ups in Shanghai, Mumbai, South Africa and Atlanta.

Decoded’s success relies on the way its classes are structured: there are no lecture halls or textbooks, just a brief history of the web to contextualise coding and a basic introduction to programming languages; followed by an afternoon of practical work in response to live business briefs. Code in a Day attendees, for example, are asked to create a basic website, make it look pretty, sync it with social media and enable geotagging. At the end of the day, it is promised, they will have worked with others to make things, analyse coding problems and use their creativity.

“It took eight months of testing to get the right mix of practical and theory,” says Henry. “Instead of launching into technical talks on Javascript, we explain the history and the basic principles of programming because everyone can grasp a history lesson. Places are limited to 10 per workshop and there are two tutors at each, so everyone gets stuck in and can ask questions throughout,” he adds. “They’re not going to be able to write original code but they can use basic code and shortcuts – hopefully we’ll have demystified it.”

Another organisation aiming to teach corporates code in a day is social enterprise Freeformers. Founded in 2012 by Gi Fernando (a co-founder of social media agency Techlightenment) Freeformers also runs one-day workshops teaching the basics of HTML, CSS and app construction from offices in London, Los Angeles and Amsterdam and operates a “one-for-one” policy – for every paying corporate, they’ll teach a young person the same skills for free. Promising young trainees on Freeformers’ free programme are often later employed by the company, or by organisations who have attended.

“Freeformers was born out of the idea that companies need to learn to innovate quickly, and masses of young people are out of work but have grown up dipping their toes into digital projects – customising games, setting up social media profiles and mixing music. Not every business needs a super coder – just someone who has a good grasp of digital skills and a passion for what they do,” says co-founder Emma Cerrone.

As well as its formal training programme, Freeformers has launched a volunteer-run scheme, Digital 10,000, which aims to teach 10,000 people how to code for free through weekly TechJams held at Costa Coffees and other informal venues. The 2 3 company has also run workshops at UK universities and colleges to teach students and graduates new digital skills.

The Digital 10,000 project was launched as part of Make Things Do Stuff: a campaign led by Mozilla to train a new generation of digital ‘makers’.

TechJams are open to anyone aged 18 or over and operate in London, Carlisle and Bristol, with plans to go nationwide this year – the company is launching a new website in August to help users find their local meet-up.

The TechJams are designed to be fun, sociable and creative: past workshops have been focussed around themes such as mixing music or creating Instagram apps – and attendees are set digital missions such as ‘create your own soundcloud app’ or ‘devise a low cost PR stunt using YouTube for a product of your choice’.

“We’re also working with media companies such as production and film studios to set briefs using their footage,” says Cerrone. “It’s essential that these workshops are fun and that people can build things they’re genuinely interested in. Hopefully, we can build a new generation of creative technologists, but at the heart of it we want this to be a chance to meet new people and work on some genuinely interesting projects,” she adds.

As educators and policymakers become increasingly aware of the need to teach coding and computer programming – UK education secretary Michael Gove announced plans to introduce it into the national curriculum last month – social enterprises and not-for-profit organisations are popping up around the country to show children as young as nine how to build basic apps, games and websites.

Code Club, founded last year by designer Clare Sutcliffe and creative technologist Linda Sandvik, runs free after school coding classes for nine-to-11-year-olds and aims to be in 25 per cent of UK primary schools by 2015; while global organisation CoderDojo runs coding clubs for children and young adults in the US, the UK, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.

Local enterprises are also seeing a growing interest in community coding and programming workshops that are open to all, such as those at Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab).

MadLab is a 1000ft former weaver’s cottage in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, home to most of the cities digital start-ups and creative agencies. The space was set up to provide a place for creatives, programmers and coders to meet and discuss projects, but now hosts a daily programme of workshops and classes – from beginner’s WordPress to Raspberry Pi building sessions – as well as a theatre company and arts meet-ups.

“When we set MadLab up, there were lots of informal tech meet-ups happening around Manchester, but most were in the back rooms of bars and pubs. We thought it would be a good idea to create a dedicated, informal place for people to get together and collaborate and since then it’s snowballed – we hold everything from specific technologies and programming language workshops to fiction writing and graphic novel clubs,” says co-founder Asa Carlow.

MadLab also runs formal professional development courses but costs are kept low to ensure they attract start-ups and individuals as well as larger businesses. MadLab staff also teach digital skills in community centres and libraries around Manchester in partnership with local organisation Digital Skills for Women.

By providing an open place for people to build a game, shoot a music video or learn about WordPress from founder Mike Little, Caslow says MadLab has built a “vibrant informal ecosystem” that has encouraged collaboration between different groups and organisations and encouraged more people to take an interest in coding and computing. “One of the nice things about MadLab is that it’s used by a very wide demographic – there’s a real mix of cultures and interests: some people are using it to build their career, others use it to network and others come to hang out and do what they enjoy,” he says. “Different groups interact and collaborate – people from book clubs get chatting to people from the tech industry about building blogs and websites – and as a result, we’re humanising technology and getting more people interested in coding. Tech in a vacuum isn’t very interesting, but when it interacts with real life and people can work on hands-on projects, then the process is demystified.”


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