Learning to code: Six women &a mooc

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I have some much to do over the next few days, but here I am writing a blog post confession… Damn Twitter, damn interesting people who make me think ūüėČ

Scrolling through my Twitter this morning, I came across Laura Gogia’s post about being a “reluctant coder.” I was struck with the similarities with my own reluctance to learn to code (and do car maintenance).

I am a lifelong generalist who like to pick up little bits of different things, and I do tend to be able to learn these things quickly – chemistry, journalism, analytics, anthropology, education, women’s history… Heck I even learned enough about the law to successfully argue a case in three levels of courts. None of that even seemed particularly hard or inaccessible even though I know nothing about any of it¬†when I started.

Then I think about my relationship with computers, coding, really anything technical. Avoidance. I completed a Masters in Distance Education including courses in EdTech but avoided learning anything technical. I supported the Learning & Development of the technology vertical at my job that had clients including Microsoft, Apple, Cisco and NetApp but never had any interest in digging in or learning more about how the actual things we were supporting worked. People¬†assumed ¬†I was technical and even though I explained when given the opportunity that I was not, they talked to me like I knew what they were talking about. I don’t think these technical folks could possibly comprehend how really, really ignorant I was when it came to technology. Over time, my learned to use this ignorance to my advantage and began to think of myself as the bridge between the technical people who I could talk to and the rest of the non-technical world. At the same time, within me grew this self-doubt and fear that one day my complete lack of knowledge would be exposed. I knew I needed to learn, but didn’t know how or where to start… I had even¬†methods of defending/ protecting my lack of knowledge.

So when in early 2015, I ran into Alan Levine in a computer lab at TRU and he said, “You know you could learn how to code if you wanted to,” I responded in the same way I’ve responded to similar comments 100 times before, “I know, but why would I want to?” Sometimes I have a true knack for shutting down a conversation (and probably an opportunity). ¬†And the self-doubt and fear grew a little more. The closer I got to the actual field of coding & people who understood it, ¬†the further out of reach it felt.

It wasn’t until earlier this year when I ran into Kirsty Kitto who¬†encouraged me, against my own instincts, to attend the LAK16 Hackathon. (After all, why would I go to a hackathon?) But I did go. What I found was a room full of people who really didn’t have it all figured out, who were making things up, guessing and questioning. what they were really doing is developing a way to represent the messiness of the world in a language (xAPI). Huh, it is not what I expected for a community of coders.

I also realized how desperately important it is to be involved at the “coding” level. Since watching Ruha Benjamin’s keynote, I’ve been thinking about coding in a broader sense and am starting to fully understand that cultural code and computer code are less different than I once thought. The main difference is that computer code is just being developed and it is usually easier to change a developing system than it is a legacy system. Once that computer code becomes a legacy system, it will be as hard to change as every other cultural belief.

I also started to think that maybe…

pythonbut I couldn’t figure out how to even run the software. And I didn’t / couldn’t/ was too afraid to admit it. These folks would’ve helped me. Tony even followed up and checked in. This issue wasn’t them, I was completely the problem. And that could have been the end of my foray into the world of coding. Until…

coding2¬†I suddenly found myself¬†¬†connected with¬†Stefanie Butland ¬†via Brian Lamb who decided to connect a group of women to take the ¬†Future Learn to Code MOOC together. And with that, I finally started learning to code using Jupyter Notebooks and Python. I had to get help to install the program, and to find it once I’d installed it. But in that environment I did ask. ¬†My coding skills are still really bad, I have learned that copy/paste gets you much of the way and when that fails, you can ask questions on Stack Overflow and no one even laughs at you¬†(or if they do I don’t have to hear it). ¬†I even managed to apply the skills I’d learned to some Open data (full circle back to Brian and Alan), though this project is on hold while I find a faculty member using a SPLOT interested in exploring the data more. coding3Now I’m learning starting to learn R and Hadoop. I’m certainly in over my head, but for the first time I am in.

When I think about what it took to overcome my resistance to learning to code, I hate to admit it, but it really was the encouragement of other women. And a MOOC (I also hate to admit that). I don’t know why I couldn’t get there on my own. Honestly, it’s a more than a little embarrassing. But I am very thankful to the great women who got me over my own limitations and fears – and to the not-women who found ways to nudge me along even when I was too stubborn to ask for help.


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