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How women can turn learning to code into a realistic career change – Catherine Heath, Tech Blogger and aspiring Programmer

Woman programming

Catherine Heath is a tech blogger and an aspiring programmer. She has experience working as a digital specialist, having learnt to code at a London co-working start-up, and collaborating with a wide variety of tech industry clients.

Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

“…Learning to code is a valuable skill, but how you go about it depends on your end goal. Even if you don’t take coding to a professional level, learning this skill opens doors to a whole new world…”

Taking the leap into code

Partly because of the way that the home computer was marketed in the eighties, and other social influences, young girls who are now women grew up believing that programming wasn’t for them. A whole generation of workers missed out on learning to code in school, contributing to the growing skills gap in the technology sector.

Despite this unfairness, many future jobs will be technology-based. Having a basic understanding of the code that powers the technology we use every day is crucially important. Now there are lots of women teaching themselves to code and ones who are interested in taking the leap. These women want to take advantage of the many opportunities that the tech industry offers.

Flexible working for women

The tech industry is new enough that it’s still within reach to mould a flexible working culture for women, because we’re not competing against entrenched structures.

To ensure that the tech industry can become a welcoming environment, more women need to make the career switch into code. Learning to code is one way to do that. As exciting as learning to code may seem at first, it’s easy to trip up at the first hurdle when you realise just how many languages they are. And what can you actually do with your coding skills once you’ve learned them?

Start with front-end coding

I started off with learning HTML [HyperText Markup Language] for my job in digital to break into the world of coding. It was a valuable skill to have in my career managing websites, social media and email marketing.

HTML is the framework that websites are built on: it forms the pages, images, paragraphs and so on, and links them all together. CSS refers to Cascading Style Sheets and is how we style our websites to give them a certain look and make them enjoyable to use. HTML is a part of front-end design, which for many feels easier to crack than back-end programming.

Go on to any website. If you’re on a Mac, right-click and select ‘view page source’. You will be able to see the code that is generating the page you’re currently looking at. You can build this.

What to build

Image © #WOCinTech

Everyone says that you should learn to build something if you learn coding. FreeCodeCamp provides an excellent tutorial on how to build your own portfolio page in HTML and CSS.

Of course, front-end web design is very important, but it strictly codes the visual aspects of the web pages you visit (although if you learn JavaScript, this is useful for both back-end and front-end programming).

If you want to build programs, you need to learn a programming language.

Choosing a programming language

This is where I really got stuck when I was learning to code. All the different languages were really scary and I didn’t know which one I should learn. What the heck is programming, anyway?

Programming is computer logic for performing tasks. You code an instruction for the computer, and the computer outputs something useful. This is the basis of all computing.

Many people agree that learning Python is a good place to start for beginners. Python is a useful language in data science, and is used to build many popular applications.

Ruby on Rails is a framework based on the language Ruby, and it was purposely created to have a shorter learning curve. It’s good if you want a quick introduction into the world of programming. Rails Girls is a global group on a mission to teach more women Ruby on Rails with free workshops, and there is no age restriction.

Javascript is both a front-end and back-end programming language that many beginners find easy to start with. Almost all websites now use Javascript.

WordPress is an open source platform that powers a large chunk of websites, and is especially popular with bloggers. WordPress is built in PHP, which is another language you could learn.

Which programming language is the best?

You will come to find that many people try to apply a hierarchy to programming languages. Developers often compete with each other over whose language is *best*.

Getting stuck in debates over which languages are better is unhelpful. Different languages are better depending on what purpose you want to use them for. Just ignore any naysayers, and pick a language. Whichever language you learn, the basic building blocks will be transferrable to other languages.

Possible career changes involving coding

You can get a career in digital as I did after learning to code for free online. It only required the basics of HTML and CSS to get by, but inspired my interest in learning more about coding and the world of technology.

Many women feel more empowered after they learn to code, and feel more confident in their jobs with some technical know-how. Some people might choose to become web designers with their new-found HTML, CSS and JavaScript skills. Lots of graphic design roles now require coding skills these days, as design been transformed by digital.

Some roles you could go into are:

  • Technical writer
  • Project manager
  • Product manager
  • Marketing manager
  • Quality assurance
  • Web designer
  • User experience designer
  • Ops [operations] / sysadmin [system administrator]
  • Data analyst
  • Security analyst

Other areas of the tech industry you could work in are:

  • Product development
  • Marketing
  • Design
  • UX
  • PR
  • Security
  • Customer experience
  • Copywriting
  • Data
  • DevOps [development and operations]
  • Finance
  • Sales
  • Business development

Or, you could become an actual developer! It’s not your only option, but if you have an interest in building applications then you can give it some thought. Different career paths will require varying amounts of learning and specialisation.

Becoming a professional developer

There are a few ways to become a developer, and not all of them involve gaining a computer science degree. Learning to code is an amazing way to show businesses you’re serious about becoming a developer, as is building your own projects.

Image © #WOCinTech

Lots of companies are launching junior developer programmes that will teach you the basics of being a professional programmer. For example, The Guardian advertises for junior developers to learn on the job with their more experienced development team. Look around for roles that interest you and apply.

Coding bootcamps get mixed reviews because some of them don’t teach their students the skills you need to actually get your first job as a junior developer. Some popular and verified coding bootcamps are Makers Academy in London and Northcoders in Manchester. Keep your eye out for scholarships for female developers too.

Free coding experience

There are many, many free tools online to teach you to code through gaming. Here is a selection for you to try:

Combine these tools with your own practical learning and projects. Ideally, if you can, find a mentor to help you when you get stuck. There’s always helps available online in forums and other platforms, but they can be intimidating to new coders.

Participate in open source software projects, which are based on the idea that software code should be freely available for anyone to improve, and also free of charge. Github is a popular online repository where you can find many open source projects, although there is some learning curve to it. Up for Grabs is a curated, helpful list of beginner-friendly projects.

Grasp the framework

There are lots of resources out there to learn coding, but if you don’t understand the basic principles of what you’re doing, you’ll struggle to progress. Remember that the Internet is simply a huge repository of information. It is a series of many billions of pages hyperlinked together so users can ‘surf’ around.

The first website database was simply a web page maintained by the founder of the web himself, Tim Berners-Lee. He kept track of all new websites on a page of the first website ever created. Tim would manually add new websites that people had sent to him. Now, Google (and other search engines) index billions of websites.

We also now have complex web applications, such as Facebook or Airbnb, that allow you to connect with your friends, or book accommodation halfway across the world. Many of these applications need to communicate with each other through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).

All of this is powered by software code and is something you can learn.

Keep your spirits up

When starting out, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Learning to code is a valuable skill, but how you go about it depends on your end goal. Even if you don’t take coding to a professional level, learning this skill opens doors to a whole new world. You’ll be introduced to the world of technology, and from there you can decide which exciting new direction to take your career. Women are very much needed in the technology industry, which so far has largely been directed by the values of wealthy young white men.

Apple-MacDon’t be put off by people who already know lots. The world of coding can have a bit of a closed-shop feel to it. For so long, the Internet was an underground movement, but it’s now exploded into the mainstream. Nevertheless, some people are still motivated to keep it as their own exclusive club for white male nerds.

The technology that we use must be created by diverse teams and in a manner that is mindful of the future, and globalisation. Good luck in your journey towards becoming a maker of, or working alongside, web technologies.




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