CodeYear, and Coding for Marketers

My favorite session at the becoming-less-recent conference of my employer’s that I attended was a surprise, since it wasn’t actually even part of the schedule. It was a hastily-assembled meet-up for people doing CodeYear.

CodeYear is a free online JavaScript course. Presumably it will last the year; every week, participants get notified of a new lesson to work through. It’s got a fully web-based interface; you type the code in a box on the lesson web site, and it evaluates it for accuracy before you can move on to the next part of the lesson.

I’m enjoying it a lot so far. There’s a cool factor–getting a free class in something technical and hopefully useful is nice, and the idea of doing it with almost 400,000 other people is unique. Even though that 400,000 figure is probably the number of total sign-ups rather than actual participants, it feels good to be doing this as part of a crowd.

It’s hard for me to gauge the class’s effectiveness. While I’m not a programmer by trade, I’ve taken enough programming classes that none of the concepts that have been introduced so far have been foreign. Some people at the meet-up said that the class was quite difficult for them, but even that’s hard to gauge: Is it because the teaching method isn’t all that effective or that the subject is difficult to wrap your head around.

I could come up with a bunch of other quibbles too. We’re learning the language, but we haven’t yet learned anything about implementing it outside the CodeYear interface. The lessons give step-by-step prompts, so we haven’t yet done a lot of algorithm creation. The lessons are short, and it’s easy to speed through, getting the right answer without fully understanding. Are any of these critical? It’s hard to say, at this point. My hunch is that they are all, at least, overcomeable.

One thing that I at least strongly suspect is the value of communities that have grown up around the class. My employer has an online group (which grew out of the meet-up) for its members to discuss and get help with the class. There are more generic ones as well–CodeYear even hosts a forum for just that purpose. I think that the lessons are pretty well written, but they do have the limitations of written lessons: Sometimes, you just need a human’s help to figure out a foreign concept.

How does this matter for marketers? Communications people and sciencey-technology-mathy stuff frequently don’t go together well. (I seem to remember that when I was in college, the journalism school changed the math requirement so that there was a class below algebra that would qualify for graduation.)

That’s too bad. Even though I’m not a programmer, viewing computer systems as something that I can manipulate to my own ends, rather than something that’s foisted upon me and never works right, has paid dividends. In my current position, I inherited the administration of the magazine’s Drupal-based website, and my only training was about an hour with the departing administrator. Anything I did, I had to figure out through exploration. My programming experience didn’t directly help with that, but without having some sense of how computers think (or, rather, don’t think), I wouldn’t have had anything close to the confidence to do that, and I probably wouldn’t have had as good a sense of the experiments that would likely be safe and effective versus the ones that would destroy the site.

From the other side, looking at colleagues who don’t have the comfort with computers that I do. Frankly, I shudder to think of what opportunities they (and the publications they have worked for) have lost because of their distaste for the computers on their desktops. Again, coding wouldn’t directly affect this, but I can’t imagine someone being frightened of or spiteful towards the internet when they know that they have power over the box they use to access it.

Ultimately, I don’t know that CodeYear is a must-do for marketers or for anyone. But the price is right, and the prospect of learning something new ought to excite anyone with a bit of curiosity and the time to devote to it. For me, it’s certainly enough to press on.

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