Code makes things happen

Let’s admit it. Talking ourselves into something isn’t the problem; it’s talking ourselves out of something that does the real damage. While dreaming big comes easy, execution may get problematic, especially when the hurdles hide in our own minds. As an English major, while I always admired my computer-type colleagues, I remained convinced I couldn’t do what they did. I got used to describing myself as non-technical, a flimsy excuse. Then I decided to learn to code.

Computer lab at American University's library; Washington, DC.

As the owner of a new freelance writing business, I’m no technophobe, although it’s true that I’ve never been an early adopter. For ages, I held off on streaming music until I could do so with my phone, because I didn’t want to carry an extra device. Only a few months ago, I grudgingly set up a Twitter account, and still can’t fathom how people have so much to say. Worst of all, I’m the last person on earth who hasn’t launched a rocket to planet Facebook.


Against all odds I did start this blog, and then, not long after that, bought a shiny new professional domain name. Next, I needed a business website where I could set up shop.

The WordPress sample theme looks so beautiful, why doesn’t mine?

Adding pages, okay, I could figure out how to do that. Filling in content and uploading photos, no problem. Plugging in a site title and tagline, after a little clicking around, turns out to be easy-peasy.

Then I got more ambitious. I wanted to change the font size and color. Maybe add a little spacing. The banner background needed adjusting. Nothing huge, right? Remember, a website page isn’t a Word document. Although I tweaked and tweaked, trying to find workarounds, it all kept coming back to code.

I could have hired someone to help, yet that seemed like overkill for my needs.

As I wandered around my online properties, I ran into some classic problems. On one hand, I had a beloved residential site (the blog), built on a shaky platform and held together with glue and Band-Aids, fast becoming a maintenance nightmare. On the other hand, I had a messy, under-construction commercial site (the business), with a bunch of “coming soon” signs that I could rely on for only so long if I was serious about this freelancing thing.

A wiser and technically savvy friend recommended I look into Women’s Coding Collective (WCC), which offers web development classes in a collaborative online environment. Since the beginning of the blog, she had been watching me blunder along and struggle with basic tasks like migrating to WordPress and setting up an RSS feed.

“I think you’ll really enjoy the WCC class topics,” she said, and sent me a referral discount code with a link to the class listings:

  • HTML: Website Basics
  • CSS Basics
  • CSS Layouts & Positioning
  • WordPress Basics
  • Practical & Realistic SEO
  • PHP Basics
  • JavaScript w/JQuery

I filed the email away, still feeling stubborn, and recited the usual excuse: too busy. Behind the scenes, my so-called non-technical brain labeled the classes intimidating, despite the “basics” qualifier.

Coding comes to the rescue

Weeks passed, and I continued to fight with my websites. I grew more and more frustrated from hours spent poring over the confusing results of countless how-to Google searches. I felt trapped by my limited understanding of what makes websites work.

Looking for a way out, I found my friend’s email, and signed up for the WCC’s HTML class. If I learned only one thing, I reasoned, then at least I’d make my money back in Google research time.

After all that disinclination, what a surprise when it was love at first !DOCTYPE.

The small classes run in two-week sprints, and are designed to build on one another. Instruction style is informal, even chatty. Hands-on lessons arrive via email in manageable segments on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The coding concepts come to life when compared to pancake batter, and when accompanied by kitten photos or kitten references.

WCC’s underlying premise is that coding shouldn’t mean taking everything so seriously. The lessons encourage learners to have fun, make mistakes, experiment. Creativity is applauded. An instructor-moderated forum serves as a friendly study group for each class, a place to ask questions and get coding feedback if stuck.

When my modest efforts at typing a little HTML into a code editor returned that very first “Hello, World!” in the browser window, I was hooked. Now, almost a year later, I’ve worked my way through that formerly daunting list of courses, and am finishing the last one.

As for my websites, they’re coming along. Although I realize I’m only at the beginning of understanding a few of the many processes that coding involves, I feel much better equipped to control the look and feel of the various pages. And I’ve even been able to help clients with certain aspects of their business websites.

Learning to talk to a computer makes me think about language on a whole new level. How frustrating it is to type a command, and not get the anticipated effect; just like trying to pronounce words in a foreign tongue when nobody understands. Then comes a breakthrough, that amazing process when a string of seemingly nonsensical characters returns a meaningful result.

In short, learning to code – and learning how much I enjoy it – took me by surprise. Sometimes, like code, we run along, ever functional, apparently without much effort. That is, until something stops us. Then maybe we shift direction, or maybe we get past the glitch and start again, or maybe we take five to read a grayed out coding comment before making a decision.

The most interesting outcomes occur from an unexpected approach.

Do you talk yourself into or out of things?