I was never a born project manager. I didn’t have the organisational skills, the discipline or indeed a sufficient dislike of my colleagues to want to inflict upon them the highlight reports, gantt charts and benefits realisation plans needed for Proper Projects. But in my fairly brief stint as formal Project Manager, I did have one knack, and that was getting on quite well with developers. I can only think that the reason for this was that I can relate to the work they do, have an idea of what is easy and what is hard, and respect the elegance of the craft – because I dabble in code myself.
My ears pricked up when Alistair pointed me to Mercedes Bunz of The Guardian asking: ‘Will journalists of the future need to know how to code?’:
Up until now, as a journalist you worked with information, researching facts and figures which then you passed on to the reader. However, in a digital world there are more platforms you can use to convey that information – think of maps or mobile applications, augmented reality. And to be able to do that you will have know how to code.
I think it’s an interesting thesis, even if the scenario of journalists learning Python to develop their own Google-esque apps is pretty hardcore. But I don’t think it just applies to journalists – almost regardless of your role, I think it’s worth learning a bit of code, especially if your academic training has been in hand-wavy social sciences like me.
- It helps you think about how everyday processes work: there’s nothing like building your own applications to make you think logically about how people behave online, and the hidden sophistication of seemingly simple systems like cash machines or website subscription services.
- It’s good for your attention to detail and organisational skills: you can be sloppy about how you capitalise words or use punctuation in the real world, but the world of code makes you a more organised, consistent person (n.b. those who know me will laugh at this hubris)
- It gives you an insight into why websites work the way they do, and why they break: as a webbie or even just a web user, coding for yourself helps you understand the anatomy of websites, the technologies which come together to deliver them, and gives you some explanations for why they’re ‘being a bit funny today’.
- It lets you translate ideas into prototypes: talk is cheap, but if you can turn it into a prototype, you’re already a step ahead – and you can refine your thinking as you build it and get feedback on something tangible, rather than just a brainwave.
- It opens up a new world of lifehacks you can build for yourself: whether it’s a way to backup your Twitter account or a to-do list application that actually reflects how you work, being able to write bits of code to save yourself time is neat.
- It’s a social* thing: fifteen years ago, I was getting little applications on computer magazine cover disks, and receiving letters back from all over the world via the school register. Now, when I release code I get feedback instantly, along with help, suggestions and improvements, and feel part of something energetic and positive. (n.b. I say ‘social’, but not necessarily family friendly. I’m still squaring that circle
- It’s creative and relaxing: I don’t actually get paid to code, so for me there’s something relaxing and challenging in sitting down of an evening to make a new tool or improve something.
- It’s good for the career: maybe a bit obvious, but even a small amount of coding capability (real; not just puffed-up for CV purposes) helps you do your job, and get noticed for doing it, generally without antagonising your colleagues. Frankly, bosses like clever bits of digital innovation: it’s worked for me in pretty much every job I’ve ever had, particularly the non-digital ones.
It’s worth putting two caveats on that list of benefits:
- Know your limits: the old cliche ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ is a double-edged sword when it comes to coding. If you believe it, then you’ll never start learning anything. But if you ignore it, you’ll find yourself in dangerous territory (exposed to hackers, losing friends’ data, costing yourself money etc). Strike a balance between the courage to learn, and the humility to ask for help or say you don’t know.
- It’s a long way to the summit: ‘coding’ as I’m describing it here is a shorthand for knowledge of a whole range of technologies – all of which are changing over time – which you’ll find you want to develop at least some familiarity with. Of course, you can do some things with just a little practice and knowledge, but unless you focus very narrowly, I don’t think you ever reach a plateau of knowledge – there’s always an infinite amount more to know and potentially keep up with. You’ll be learning forever.
I hear the other side of it, of course: do what you’re good at, and leave the heavy lifting to the professionals, like you would car maintenance or central heating. I think that view gets too much unthinking acceptance, for the reasons above and more. Be proud to be a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, I say.