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I’m Learning to Code, and You Should Too—but That Won’t Make You a Developer

Written By Nick Mendez | Apr 30, 2015

It’s true, you should learn to code. These days, programming is as fundamental as reading, writing and arithmetic. Wrap your head around syntax and a whole new world opens up to you.

You should also learn to speak another language, to build something with your hands, to cook dinner for two. These skills are not only practical, but they’ll teach you something even more valuable–your learning habits and where your true passions lie.

“At first I wasn’t at all sure where I was going to take this,” Elizabeth Deering told me, “I come from a print and product design background, and had always been intimidated by web.”

I met Elizabeth at Portland Code School, as classmates in their Web Development Primer course. The program comes in two parts: a one month long, twice-weekly basic HTML/CSS class, and a more intensive, Javascript-heavy follow up.

Taken together, the primer aims to prepare students for a career in web development through project-based coursework, with heavy emphasis on teamwork and communication. It’s not unlike those offered by the myriad of coding schools popping up all across the country.

“I never thought I could learn coding because I was an English major and not very good at math.”

“PCS has been a really welcoming yet challenging environment,” Elizabeth continued, “It allowed me to explore and push myself to ask, ‘why can’t I learn a whole new field?’ It helped me pull myself out of a career pigeon hole.”

I entered the course with a spotty coding history. As a teenager, I learned a little Visual Basic from a book, and even built a rudimentary dungeon crawler where the player character was a teal square.

Later, when I began a career in marketing and built my first web portfolio, I picked up enough HTML and CSS to parse and make small adjustments to websites and email campaigns. I’d tried free online courses like Codeacademy, but had trouble sticking with it.

My classmates, a dozen men and women with varied professional backgrounds, came with similar experiences.

“I never thought I could learn coding because I was an English major and not very good at math,” classmate Ryan Brown told me. He became interested in programming after reading an article on NPR titled “12 Weeks to A 6-Figure Job”.

“It talked about people from all different backgrounds learning to code and finding grown-up jobs,” he said. “I had been looking for a grown-up career ever since I got out of college and thought that this could be it.”

So Ryan tried a few tutorials on Codeacademy, loved the process, and came to Portland Code School looking to challenge himself even further.

01The classroom experience differentiates Portland Code School from popular web-based programs like Codeacademy and Treehouse, the latter of which its instructors actually use as supplementary material. Working with peers, and led by instructors who are themselves working developers, students can better contextualize the techniques that power sound development.

To me and my classmates, that experience offered the missing piece–the perfect cocktail of peer pressure and accountability to keep us afloat in the web development deep end.

“The ability to do web development is like having a printing press and a movie theater and a broadcast channel, all rolled into one,” said Stephanie Argy, a writer and filmmaker taking Web Primer. “I was teaching myself HTML5 and CSS3, but without more context, it was hard fit all the pieces together, and to grasp the possibilities.”

Or instructor, Al Zimmerman, had not only years of development experience, but a background in improvisational comedy as well, so each class began with an exercise designed to get us thinking collaboratively.

The coursework emphasized not just <body> tags and CSS values, but the process behind development–from agile methodology to command line use of Git, an open-source version control system. Students were required to report their progress to the class weekly, and build functional development teams.

“The ability to do web development is like having a printing press and a movie theater and a broadcast channel, all rolled into one.”

“The film production model that I grew up with is definitely one of going into isolation for months or years, then coming out with one big finished work,” Stephanie said. ”Thanks to this course, I’ve definitely re-envisioned a lot of the workflow on my own projects, and that change has in turn shaped what I want to learn next in terms of web development.”

By the end of the course we’d all built several websites, learned responsive design principles, merged our work with those of our classmates using Git, and uploaded the results to Github; just like the pros.

Still, throughout the course it remained obvious that this was a beginning–just the tip of the iceberg, and that a massive gulf remained between what I could do, and the responsibilities of a professional developer earning $60,000 a year.

For many of my classmates, that was exactly the inside look they needed.

“PCS has helped me realize where I need to focus my attention if my goal is to move into deeper coding languages,” said Blake Johnson, a classmate who makes his living in video production. “So I guess you could say that PCS has helped me realize that my goals are possible.”


Possibilities are central to any educational program’s marketing. Students are sold on the promise of a new career, or maybe the right tools to remodel an existing one.

But code schools uniquely operate on the cusp of a new frontier, where coding aptitude is readily compared to literacy, and the base skills of pattern recognition and syntax are being taught in primary school.

In this new environment, code schools are targeting novices and promising the world. Slogans include “Learn to code. Change your life.” and “Code yourself a better future.” Programs ask prospective students “Why just use technology? When you can create it.” and promise to “transform thinkers into creators”.

All with the underlying message that development is lucrative, with salaries starting in the $60k range. It’s quite the pitch.

“I’m trying to get on track with a career, so I can give my little girl a good life,” classmate Traci Reed told me. She works on business development at a web design company, and came to Portland Code School with the goal of transitioning into another department.

“If anything, it has helped push me down the track more,” she said, “I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do, but surprisingly, I am becoming more and more fond of coding.”

I am too! Programming is fun, rooted in logic and even as a novice, you can’t help but dream up pie-in-the-sky applications for your new skills. Learning to code reminded me that we live in an exciting time, when the methods for expressing an idea are expanding.

But it also reminded me of little league. I played a single season in the sixth grade, emulated Bernie Williams’ and Sammy Sosa’s batting stances, and dragged my parents to every game, rain or shine.

I was terrible. The ball more frequently thumped me in the back than made contact with my bat. I remember a moment, standing in my backyard, taking a break between hurling pitches through an old tire hanging from our back fence, where it hit me:

I‘d never be a professional ballplayer.

For a 12-year-old kid, that’s a major revelation. One in a long life of such revelations, that either because of lack of ability or available effort, most of your pie-in-the-sky aspirations end up as just that.

Just like learning Spanish won’t make you a translator, and learning to whittle won’t make you a carpenter, learning to program doesn’t make you a developer.

To get good at anything, nevermind be the best at it, requires a veritable mountain of effort. Most people are lucky if, in their lifetime, they get that good at any one thing.

“There is a gigantic, never-ending amount of information to learn, which is daunting,” Ryan said of development. “But it is also cool to know that this is a career where you are constantly learning new things and growing.”

Personally, when I look up at the mountain that is becoming a competent web developer, I realize almost immediately that I have neither the time, skill or dedication to climb to the top.

The code school marketing isn’t lying. Learning to program can unlock a lucrative new career path for you, and already has for thousands of American professionals.

But don’t get it crooked. Just like learning Spanish won’t make you a translator, and learning to whittle won’t make you a carpenter, learning to program doesn’t make you a developer.

Like any other field, being a professional developer takes years of grinding, honing your craft, building relationships and learning to work well with others. You have to get through days where you’re sure that you suck, and take days where you think you’re the best with a grain a salt.

It’s perseverance through that process, managing the ebb and flow of confidence and self-doubt, that makes any career.

“It’s not the same boring stuff day after day,” Ryan said, “It’s a challenge. PCS is helping me tackle so many challenges in such a short period of time. It’s awesome.”

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