With the DIY Coding Revolution, Even Technophobes Can Become App-Creating Geniuses

Thanks to platforms like Codeacademy and organizations like Black Girls Code, computer science is no longer just for Silicon Valley.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 23, 2014· 4 MIN READ

Kerensa Cadenas is contributor to TakePart. She is also an editor for Snakkle, a pop culture throwback site. She has written about TV, films, and music for Women and Hollywood, Bitch, Ms. Magazine, This Was TV, and Forever Young Adult.

Whether it’s getting background information on the World Cup from Wikipedia, discussing comic books on Reddit, or scrolling through a digital news site, the Internet is a ubiquitous part of our lives. While much of the Silicon Valley community is painted as insular (Mike Judge—please add a lady programmer for season two of Silicon Valley!), learning how to build a Web page, an entire platform, or an app is no longer just for tech geniuses thanks to the growing DIY coding movement.

Nowhere is that more evident than through the rise of Codecademy. Launched in 2011 by Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski, the interactive platform offers free classes in basic HTML as well as more advanced languages like Python and Java. The platform gamifys coding by giving users motivating digital badges for daily lesson completion and for finishing entire courses.

The idea for the platform came out of Sims’ personal need to learn how to code. During the summer of 2011 he and Bubinski were accepted into YCombinator, a Silicon Valley startup incubator. Originally the duo was interested in creating an online platform that could connect people to skill-building opportunities that could make them more employable. While there, Sims, a political science major, discovered a severe lack of easy, accessible, and interesting materials for learning how to code. So he decided to create a platform that uses the Internet to create a simple and free environment for people to immediately immerse themselves in the learning process.

Soon after their launch, says Sims, Codeacademy had over 200,000 sign-ups and immense online support. Even former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg signed up. Today, the platform has had over 24 million users—70 percent of whom live outside the United States—who have even gone on to create cool apps and the Airbnb home page.

Sims, who is now CEO, believes that as technology grows it’s even more critical to have coding knowledge because code is the new universal language. Unfortunately, although the number of coding jobs is forecasted to grow—the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.4 million new programming positions will be created by 2020—coding education still isn’t a priority in American schools. According to CODE.org, 90 percent of American schools don’t offer coding at all. Sims believes that is a short-sighted mistake since learning to code can add value to fields beyond technology.

“It’s important to highlight that coding teaches lifelong skills such as critical analysis, attention to detail, and algorithmic problem solving. Even individuals who don’t want a coding-centered occupation would benefit from these digital skills,” says Sims. “Journalists could better analyze the needs and demands of their online media consumers by interpreting data more effectively. Farmers could create coding algorithms to determine when and where to plant their crops. The possibilities only continue from there. A digitally literate society will be more impactful to society and infrastructure.”

That’s what Katie Zhu, a Beyoncé-loving software engineer for Medium, an online space for users to share stories has discovered, too. A recent Northwestern University graduate, Zhu began her college career as a journalism major. She spent her freshman year learning how to animate a bike wheel in Flash and design an interactive infographic. But during her sophomore year, she saw The Social Network and was so inspired that she decided to double major in computer science. While that sounds like a traditional way of learning programming, much of Zhu’s real knowledge was gained in a more modern DIY fashion.

The following summer during an internship at GOOD, she was asked to build the online platform’s mobile site. Aside from some small projects, she’d never had any actual coding experience aside from using HTML and making alert boxes. Upon learning that she would be building the mobile site, Zhu’s initial reaction was puzzlement. “I have no idea what that means!” she recalls thinking.

Fortunately, the company’s Web apprenticeship program paired her with full-time engineers that helped her through the learning curve. Once back at school, outside of her traditional classes, Zhu continued to spend plenty of time online—Googling, reading articles, and finding books to fill in the blank spots while she tried stuff out through trial and error.

She later went on to intern on Web teams at both NPR and The New York Times. Her computer science degree wasn’t the newsroom norm and much of her colleagues’ digital skills were self-taught. But Zhu sees the similarities between both journalism and coding. The parallels of writing a polished piece of code or a published article can both be seen in artistic terms.

“When I was first learning, it was clearly hacking. Now, part of my work as an engineer here [at Medium] is when we implement new features we write a design spec—thinking about the architecture and design decisions you make,” says Zhu. “It has really made me appreciate the actual art of engineering, as cheesy as that sounds. Sometimes I’ll write some code and it feels like a polished piece that I wrote as opposed to messy notes.”

The coupling of her journalism and computer science background also helped to make Zhu more employable in a dire job market, setting her apart as someone who has a skill set that will increasingly be in demand as its importance becomes more realized. “Working at NPR and the Times would have not happened if I didn’t have a computer science background,” she says. “That’s what I feel like really makes you competitive in journalism these days.”

The DIY movement is also helping populations that haven’t traditionally been represented in computer science get a foot in the door. Black Girls Code, founded in 2011 by engineer Kimberly Bryant, is an organization dedicated to teaching computer science to young black girls from underrepresented communities. So far the grassroots nonprofit has taught over 3,000 girls of color how to code. This summer the nonprofit is running workshops and hackathons across the South.

Black Girls Code was an early advocate of creating access to coding for women and minorities, and now Google has jumped on board with Made With Code—an initiative to inspire girls to code and pursue careers in computer science where the numbers for women are very low. In 2011, only 25 percent of computing jobs were held by women. With Google’s initiative, celebrities like Mindy Kaling and public figures like Chelsea Clinton are bringing a popular-culture legitimacy to coding. Zhu says she has felt lucky because she’s always worked in diverse environments that have valued women engineers. However, during her college career, she was often the only woman in her computer science classes.

While the DIY movement means that we’re seeing greater diversity in coding, more tools to make learning it more accessible to various populations are still needed. As Mother Jones’ Tasneem Raja recently pointed out it’s necessary to change the continuing belief that coding is merely for coders. Early exposure and educational reform to ensure that coding is taught to children and young adults can help. Only then will we truly have a generation that can use technology to solve real-world problems.