Do You Code
A chance meeting with Derek Sivers at a music conference got me thinking about my relationship to coding.
One of the reasons I dislike going to networking events and conferences is my aversion to answering the “so, what do you do” question. I know it must seem odd for a blogger to say they hate talking about themselves. But, answering the “so, what do you do” question in a concise (i.e., non-boring) way has always been hard for me.
But, when you meet someone smart, invariably they will ask you questions that challenge you to think. To some extent, that’s the only real reason to go to these kinds of events and, of course, a big reason for always staying open to making new friends.
At MusicMatters last year I had the chance to meet Derek Sivers. I’ve admired Derek for a long time. I can remember when I first head about CD Baby, my reaction was; “hell yes, we need this!” Derek outlines his story, from starting CD Baby to selling the company and the lessons he learned in his very readable book, Anything You Want.
As we talked, Derek proved to be every bit as switched on and compelling as I had expected him to be. Then, he asked me a simple question that I struggled to answer: “Do you code?”
I took the question as shorthand for asking; do you write computer code or scripts, or programme software, or develop applications, or design websites?
I fumbled for an answer.
Let me give you some background before telling what I said to Derek. For the past few years, I’ve hung around people in the the tech startup, app-development and online entrepreneurship worlds. I often assumed, perhaps wrongly, that these were the people who really knew how to code. Since I didn’t work in those areas on a day to day basis, I didn’t feel like a “coder.” But, maybe I was looking at it all wrong?
My childhood computer (yes, I grew up with computers) was a TI/994a. I wrote programmes and games for it. At high school we had an Apple IIc, I also wrote for that machine.
At university, I signed up for computer studies. However, since the course was oversubscribed, I didn’t make the cut (missed by 3 marks on a score graded out of 500). Still I kept learning as the software world evolved, including playing with Notator, the precursor to Logic Pro. Later, when I landed my first full-time job, I took every course I could in dBase and Lotus 1-2-3.
Then, in 1997, I built my first website and started to learn HTML. At King’s College London, I went through their training for web content creators (2000), which introduced me to Dreamweaver and working with frames. Then, in 2004 I started using WordPress, which was my introduction to the current ways of styling websites.
Moreover, I’ve written plenty of Apple Scripts and a few Kontakt performance scripts. I’ve dabbled with writing Sibelius and Audio Unit plugins. And, when I was trying to get into composing for Games, I worked with trigger and movement codes for 3D environments.
I meekly answered Derek by saying, “no, I don’t really code.”
My Big Mistake
Humility wasn’t my mistake. My education in this area is patchy, coming as it does from fitful, impatient bursts of activity. And, lack of regular use means I forget much of what I do learn. I know enough code to modify a WordPress theme, but not enough to design one from scratch. I understand how Kontakt sample libraries work, but I’ve never put that to the test by building a full library.
My big mistake was comparing my inside to somebody else’s outside – an error Hugh MacLeod points out in Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity. When it comes to coding, I am cautious and full of self and I was comparing that doubt filled inner reality to the carefully crafted outer appearance of folks who are pitching themselves as tech experts in a competitive, savvy marketplace.
Of course, what really matters is not what we say in one conversation, but what we do with the realisation that we have more to offer those around us if we consolidate our knowledge and experience.
The Coding Imperative
Today, coding, programming and scripts are hardwired into our reality. It isn’t just about creating websites, designing apps or running personal computers. The machines you find in most factories today run on code. Same is true for the engine management systems in cars, trucks and airplanes. There’s code in phones, toys, kitchens, cameras and music equipment.
Coding is all around us, we can’t avoid it. The real question is what do we do about it. Do we accept the world as it is, or allow ourselves the freedom (and power, to change it). In a very real way, coding is the new literacy (hat tip here to Matt Mullenweg, for helping me crystalise that thought).
Right now I’m working, behind the scenes, on a new design for this site. I’m not working with a predesigned theme. As much as I can, I’m diving into the code and customising the look and feel of the site.
And, I’m teaching my daughter how to build a website. Its basic nuts and bolts stuff, but I’m passing on what I know about HTML so that she will at least understand that it is within her reach to shape and design the world she lives in (what in our house we now call the Steve Jobs lesson).
So, if I were to answer Derek’s question today I would say; “Yes, I code. Slowly, imperfectly and in my own way, but I do code.”