Learning to code may seem daunting but getting your head around the basics is easier than you might think. Code First Girls’ Kim Gray explains how to start and why it’s important more women take up coding.
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You’ve probably heard about how important it is that more women consider careers in male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) roles. But have you ever considered how much of an effect the lack of gender diversity in tech has on the world?
A report by TechNation looking into diversity in UK tech companies found just 19% of the tech workforce are women, and just 3% of those are Black and Hispanic women.
The lack of women working in tech means they aren’t involved in developing technology which, let’s face it, affects pretty much every area of our life. For example, research by Caroline Criado Perez for her book, Invisible Women, found the average smartphone is 5.5 inches long, which is too big for most women’s hands. Criado Perez also found that speech-recognition software is trained on recordings of male voices meaning Google’s version is 70% more likely to understand men.
It’s vitally important more space is made for women within the tech industry, which is where organisations like Code First Girls come in. Code First Girls are the largest provider of free coding courses for women in the UK, delivering over £20 million worth of free technology education and teaching three times as many women to code as the entire UK university undergraduate system.
“The technology industry is still heavily male-dominated and Code First Girls wants to help more womxn break into and excel within tech,” says Kim Gray, senior programmes and delivery manager at Code First Girls.
Coding is a great path into the tech industry, as it’s a requirement for many roles and can open up lots of different doors if you’re interested in a career in tech. Plus, you can learn to do it completely from home (and for free with some of Code First Girl’s courses), making it one of the most accessible routes into the sector.
Here Kim outlines the basics of coding, from what coding actually is to the key terms you need to know to learn it.
First, take a look behind a website
Before diving in, Kim recommends you open a website in your browser window, right-click anywhere on that page and choose the ‘View Page Source’ option.
What you should now see in a new tab is the code for that specific webpage: you are ‘backstage’ and can see the language that tells your computer how to make this webpage look like it does.
What language is code?
“At the moment, source code language probably doesn’t mean that much to you,” Kim says. “You might be able to pick out the odd familiar phrase or word, but everything else might seem like a confusing combination of dashes, semicolons and brackets.”
Coding languages (also known as programming languages) are not like languages with vocabulary, grammar and alphabets. Instead, coding languages have special commands: a ‘code’ your computer can interpret into what you visually see on a screen.
“All software (every app or website that you use) has been coded,” says Kim, adding that, “every coding language is unique and hundreds of coding languages exist.”
Some of the most popular coding languages you may have heard of are:
Okay, but what is coding?
“Coding is the process of writing code, or instructions, for a machine to understand, interpret and respond to accordingly,” explains Kim.
Computers can only understand binary language, rather than human language. This means only terms such as “yes” or “no”, “1” or “0” will be understood.
“To instruct the computer you need to translate human language to binary language,” Kim explains. “This is the purpose of code: a written form that is not binary, but is easy for humans to learn and a computer to understand.”
How does a computer understand written code?
“Simply put, there are programs built into your computer that translate your code into binary language for your computer to interpret,” Kim says.
“It’s complex and you don’t need to know the ins and outs of this, but it is useful to acknowledge before starting your coding journey.”
What are the key coding terms I need to know about?
“HTML and CSS are not technically programming languages, but HTML and CSS provide structure and styling,” Kim says.
HTML is the core of every website. It contains every element of a page: images, paragraphs, titles and other tags.
Cascading Style Sheets give the look of your web pages. It specifies the colour and size of each element. They position the sections on the page and specify other design attributes.
Once you understand how HTML, CSS and JS work together, you can start building your first webpage or online game.
How do I start coding?
All you need to start coding is a laptop and some coding software, which you can get for free. Kim recommends using software called Visual Studio Code that can be downloaded onto any laptop. This software will allow you to begin editing and coding.
“It’s definitely possible for people to self-teach,” Kim says, adding there are lots of free resources out there if you don’t want to join a group or course. But Kim recommends joining a course to “create your own community around your learning”.
“Coding can feel intimidating so having a supportive community can be a real benefit,” Kim says.
There are a number of courses, some are free and some you have to pay for. The courses Kim recommends for beginners are:
- MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses: These sessions are CFG’s one-off taster sessions for beginners. They’re perfect if you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of coding but aren’t ready to commit to a course.
- Career Switcher: If you’re ready to commit to coding, this will help you change careers in order to enter the tech industry or to upskill.
Kim’s advice for getting started with coding
Carve out time
Learning to code is a commitment, just like learning a language, so you need to make sure you’re spending a decent amount of time practising it each week. “Try and set a time, like two hours on a Wednesday evening each week, to do some code or work through online exercises,” Kim says. “Having a regimented schedule is really useful.”
Take regular breaks
Find a community
Kim emphasises the importance of finding other people who are also learning to code, especially as a woman. The tech industry is very male-dominated, so it’s crucial to ensure you’re not feeling isolated. “This is the best way to stay motivated,” she says, explaining that starting your coding journey with others is a great way to hold yourself accountable.
Why is coding useful and what career paths exist?
“In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, learning to code can open many doors, regardless of the industry you want to work in or job you’d like,” says Kim.
Knowing how to code is fundamental if you want to go into an industry like software development, but having technical skills can also be useful in finding roles in a whole range of fields from marketing to content creation.
“Having an understanding of coding can make you more adept at quickly learning other digital technologies and becoming digitally fluent,” says Kim. “As well as boosting your CV, it can also help to support your problem-solving and logical thinking.”
“If you are an ‘ideas person’ and want to make your ideas a reality, learning to code can save you time and money,” Kim says. “You can directly be in charge of the evolving vision for a brand or product and will be able to code changes as soon as you have a lightbulb moment.”
There are many different career options in the technology space, including software engineers, product designers and project managers and while you might not code in your day-to-day for some of these roles, having an understanding of coding will definitely help.
If you are new to coding, identify as a womxn or non-binary, and are looking for introductory courses in Web Development, Python Programming and Data & SQL programming, then check out Code First Girls (CFG).
Kim Gray, senior programmes and delivery manager, Code First Girls
Kim manages Code First Girls (CFG) programmes and curriculums, providing free learning opportunities for women across the UK.
CFG trains women up with software and data skills for free and then connects them with hiring companies, from large fintech (financial technology) organisations to smaller, growing start-ups.
Since 2015, CFG has trained more than 28,000 women in the UK.
Images: Getty, Code First Girls