Secret Recipe for Programming Skills #CodeWeek (You’re already doing it every day)

Do you know how to program computers? Have you ever changed your profile picture on social media? Selected a ring tone on your mobile phone? Installed an app? Good, so you know how to program computers.

Programming means telling a computer what you want it to do. When we talk about programming, we tend to make it much too complicated. And we talk about coding, we talk about it like a foreign language that only a select few can master. We mystify programming. This week is “Code Week”, which is supposed to bring more Digital Skills to Europe so we can be more competitive in the digital future. Or something along those lines. If we want all that, we need to de-mystify programming. If we think of programming as something hard, connected to science and math, a difficult skill to be mastered by hard intellectual work, we say that not everyone can learn to program computers. We make programming a domain for a exclusive certain group of learned scholars (probably dressed in white lab coats). A clergy with a super-human ability to talk to The Machine. Except not only can everyone learn to program computers, but actually we do it every day. There is no difference in principle between writing a random number generator using linear congruence in assembly language and adjusting the background color of your screen desktop, only a question of detail (and learning more difficult words to describe the process). Anyone can click “view html” (or press F12 on most browsers) on a webpage and experiment with making changes to the code*. Experiment. See what happens. Go back. Try again. Change something different. Tell the computer what you want it to do.

I think we approach programming from the wrong end. Let’s start instead by making it fun. Let’s think of programming as a creative skill. We can build something with it. Start with a game like Minecraft. Build something. A tree-house. Burn it down just for fun. Play around. When you feel like trying something more useful, use redstone to build a working calculator with the blocks. No, it really works, here is a video that shows how. Now you master both the Minecraft technology, but have taught yourself the principles of a calculator and binary computing. Do it again, this time capture a video from the process, build a webpage around the video and post the link on your social media so you can brag to your friends. There, you have the basics of digital marketing. Don’t know how to build a webpage? Do it like a programming pro: find something similar to what you want online, look at the html, copy-paste the code into your web tool, start experimenting with changes and tweaks until it looks like what you had in mind. Don’t forget to ask permission and give credit if you use somebody else’s code.

Digital skills are creative skills. Programming is not foreign or difficult, you’re already doing it every day. Great with coding campaigns and crash courses, but first let’s get this idea that programming is hard out of the way. Maybe first let’s stop talking about coding. That sounds hard. And boring. Make it creative. Do it in a fun context. You’re already doing it every day.

*) Try it! You may need to paste it into a web tool or Word document. This blog is made using WordPress, but there are many easy tools out there.