How I learned to code

September 4, 2014

html code

It was a dark and stormy night in rural Nova Scotia. Teenage me was reading a Wired magazine by the warm glow of my CRT monitor. It was the late 90’s and we didn’t even have Internet access at home yet, but one day I found an article in that copy of Wired about HTML – the code behind web pages. The article’s accompanying image was a picture of a web page, literally showing its HTML source code behind it.

I typed the code into a plan text doc., saved it as a .htm file, and fired up Netscape (whose “N” icon I replaced with an “I”, and renamed to Ianscape. Yeah, I know. I had to make due with what I had, like free icon editors.)

That was it. Headings, paragraphs, images, and links were all you needed.

Once we did get online, I built a bunch more websites, got them uploaded to — you guessed it — GeoCities, then set up some ads and affiliate marketing stuff and actually made a few bucks. I even designed a couple sites for local businesses. Fast-forward through university to my first job at an e-commerce company where I got acquainted with CSS (for SEO reasons, how about that) and my soon to be business partner, Nick. In summer of 2009 we founded hi there, Halifax’s finest web design studio. I got into CSS3, WordPress, and responsive web design. The iPhone 3G had recently been released in a number of countries including Canada, so mobile was starting to become a thing, and part of our strategy was to be on top of it and build future-friendly, responsive websites.

Those were the good old days. And these are the good new days. Now Word has replaced TextMate on my MacBook, but I still like the idea of being able to make things. It’s kind of like being a digital handyman. While I’m currently working on digital strategy and planning, a technical background has been useful for helping me see down the road to how something would be executed. And hey, I have a minimal yet hand-crafted blog and the next version is going to be pretty sweet.

Kids these days…

My path was not very efficient compared to the options out there now. I had lots of trial and error and no direction, but my opportunity cost was also pretty low, and maybe even kept me from accidentally starting a forest fire.

Now there’s a bunch of great options to learn front-end development and beyond in a structured way. You can learn on your own with websites like Treehouse or Code Academy, or in a classroom at community college or specialized classes like HackerYou. A Kickstarter project called Kano, a little computer you put together and then use to learn code, is targeted at children. Cool website too.

In today’s market I can’t see being a web designer without some understanding of how websites are built. They’re getting more complex, we’re moving away from static Photoshop files and into the browser to prototype and we’re dealing with all these fancy new devices. But can’t people just make their own websites without any coding? Yeah, sorta. But they aren’t. It’s still just not that sample for most people in the world. And those same people don’t know what to build. The “no code required” editors like Squarespace, Unbounce, Tumblr, etc. can usually use a little extra HTML and CSS love anyway. Maybe front-end dev will become commoditized eventually, but not overnight.

For me it comes back to the usefulness in my role as a strategist, and how empowering it is to be able to make something myself and get it online without anything getting in the way. Now if I could only make stuff look nice…

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