Ready, get set – code!

In all areas of modern society, new technology is being developed at breakneck speed. Much of this depends on coding, which is now seen as such a fundamental skill that it was introduced into the National Curriculum in September 2014. Now, children as young as five years old are learning how to ‘talk’ to computers.

Code First: Girls class of 2017 – photo credit: Pauline Narvas

Sadly, I am a generation too late to benefit from this and hated being so clueless about how all these wonderful new gadgets actually work. Even though I use them all the time, from booking train tickets to writing my PhD thesis, I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. It didn’t seem like too much of a problem – I just accepted that I wasn’t ‘technically minded’, unlike my brother who spent most of his junior school years dismantling computers and learning JavaScript. But when I decided that I wanted a career in science communication, it became clear that having no knowledge of coding could really set me back. All too often, when I scoured ‘dream’ job applications, I would see ‘Basic knowledge of HTML and website design highly desired‘.

Clearly ignorance was not bliss, and I would have to try and learn some coding. But I’m not a natural linguist… given that coding is, in essence, a language, surely I was going to struggle? I didn’t fancy trying to go it alone with YouTube videos and How-To books…I was bound to run into difficulties and would have no one to turn to for advice. What I needed was a proper course with a teacher (and a patient one at that!) who could put me right when I went wrong.

So when I found out about the Code First: Girls course it seemed the perfect solution. An eight-week instructor-led evening course right on the University campus….and completely free. Understandably, the course is always massively popular – it actually took me three years of applying before I got a place but 2017 was my lucky year!

I went to my first session with trepidation, feeling that I would surely be the bottom of the class with everyone else being way more experienced. But I needn’t have worried. The atmosphere was friendly and supportive and started right at the basics of how the internet works. From there we progressed rapidly through the topics, flying through HTML, content styling using CSS, GitHub, Bootstrap and basic JavaScript. Because the course is based on learning through practical tasks, we put our new knowledge to use straight away, progressively developing our skills. I never got tired of writing a new line of code then refreshing the browser to see the result – instant gratification!

Learning collaboratively through practical tasks – photo credit: Pauline Narvas

Every time I got stuck, one of the friendly instructors was quickly by my side to put me right. But we shared ideas among ourselves too and it was wonderful to see such a diverse group of young women – different courses, nationalities, ages, etc. – all united in wanting to learn how to code. We were also treated to a number of guest speakers who shared their inspiring stories of how women are shaking up the technology world. It was also amazing to find out how much is going on in Sheffield alone, from Hackathons to advanced Python courses. It really has opened the door to a whole new community for me.

The language of coding – it now starts to make sense to me! – photo credit: Pauline Narvas

Even if I had had a trying day in the lab, with none of my experiments working, the class never failed to lift my spirits. I would always end with a feeling of accomplishment, a set of new skills and a couple more groovy stickers for my laptop! (It’s not just about learning how to code but how to look like a proper coder too!). We are now working in teams to produce a website for the end of course competition. The winning entries will receive and the prestige of being featured on the Code First: Girls national website. But we’re all winners and I am so grateful to the university and all the Code First: Girls instructors for the opportunity to learn. It’s little wonder that many Code First: Girls alumni go on to launch new groups to introduce more young women to code.

I may have started from feeling that I ought to learn to code to now firmly loving learning to code! It just goes to show that it’s never too late to learn…so look out for Code First: Girls 2018!

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