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An expert perspective: how to get started in coding

Knowing how to code opens up a whole world of possibilities: you can build (or help to build) your company website, customise its design and manage any updates. We caught up with Clarice Hilton, programme manager at Code First: Girls, to get her perspective on the importance of coding for small businesses.

Having decided to take a Code First: Girls course herself last year, she found she was really interested in tech and wanted to work more closely on equipping women with tech skills. Find out more here about the brilliant work Code First: Girls does to encourage more women to enter and succeed in technology.

In a nutshell, what is coding?

Coding is what enables us to make software on devices – you’re essentially writing a list of instructions for the device to follow.  It could be a piece of computer software, an app on your phone or a website.

Why is it so important for businesses (both big and small) to equip themselves with coding skills?

In every area of business, technology is being created. Businesses that don’t educate their staff in these areas risk falling behind in their field. Having a basic understanding is important to be able to talk with developers in a meaningful way.

I have a friend who’s not very technical, who created an app and website that give you information about cheap things to do in London. Because he didn’t have much of an understanding of tech, he asked his developer to create something that they weren’t happy with at the end. Basically, he found it difficult to communicate what he wanted and didn’t understand the limitations or time constraints – there was just a mismatch in understanding. Having a basic understanding means briefing someone to do something is far easier.

Could you provide a few instances in which knowing how to code would be invaluable?

Coding is an incredibly valuable skill. It gives you the opportunity to build a personal website or get your own start-up online. It also makes you highly employable – there are more jobs for developers than there are people with the necessary skills.

What impact can poor coding have on a site?

Lots of things! The most basic ones would be that your website takes a really long time to load or just doesn’t function well. If it’s designed badly, your user won’t understand how to navigate it properly and can’t get the intended value out of it.

Does it need to cost a lot to learn how to code?

It definitely doesn’t. I’ve been overwhelmed by how much good will there is from people who know how to code – they really want others to learn and want to help them. There is a huge range of different online resources that you can use to learn how to code, such as Code Academy or General Assembly’s Dash. Codebar runs weekly mentoring sessions in London, Brighton, Birmingham and Cambridge for people who are learning to code or expanding their skills.

What happens once you’ve learnt to code? Do you need to update and revisit your code?

To answer your first question, I wouldn’t say there is an end point in learning how to code. There are so many different languages that enable you to do a huge variety of things, from creating a blog to creating a database. It’s also young so there are constantly new technologies being invented, which open up different ways of using code.

In terms of learning the basic concepts and gaining a basic understanding, you then have the opportunity to investigate all the languages you could learn and explore the area you’re interested in, be it front-end or back-end web development or databases.

In terms of updating and revisiting code, I think there is always room for improvement as you’re constantly getting better and learning how to write better code. I’ve spoken to lots of developers who have said that when they revisited code they previously wrote they were horrified by it!

Is the tech landscape changing in your opinion? Are more women working in tech and setting up tech companies?

Sadly, there is still a huge deficit of women in the industry, but you can see the beginning of a change. We have a huge amount of interest in our courses and events, and statistics show that, of females in tech, many have been in the industry two years or less, which is a great sign.

I can also see the industry itself recognising the bias and actively seeking to encourage more women to get involved. We get lots of requests from businesses and start-ups that want help in attracting more women to work for them.

Tell us a little bit about Code First: Girls – what it is, why it was set up and what it does.

Code First: Girls is a registered social enterprise, originally set up by Entrepreneur First (EF), which runs a programme for talented technical individuals to come together and build world-class start-ups. They found that there weren’t many women applying to the programme, and, of those who applied, not many had a technical background. They created Code First: Girls so that they could help the amazing non-technical women who had applied to learn how to code and build their own tech products.

It was incredibly successful in sparking the students’ interest, and, seeing how many female students it had inspired, Code First: Girls has now expanded to universities across the UK. As a result of its growth, Code First: Girls split from EF last September and became an independent social enterprise (CIC). We’re now in 16 universities and have plans to expand to even more next year.

And how has learning to code changed your attitude to tech?

There’s something about building something that’s so satisfying. I’ve done the courses myself – each one leads up to a competition using the skills you’ve learnt over the course to build a website. In my python course, my team created a website to find the middle meeting point between two addresses and recommends places for you to go in that location. At the beginning of the project it was daunting; we were getting a bit confused about different APIs and then we suddenly had that ‘Eureka!’ moment – it all worked and suddenly it was returning something. It was one of the most satisfying moments I’ve ever had. Building something that works and has a function is incredibly fulfilling.

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