We meet the pair behind a new scheme where experienced coders share their knowledge with technophobic beginners.

Skillab: Inside a teaching revolution
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Skillab founders Benjamin Greenaway and Octavia Hirst.

Skillab founders Benjamin Greenaway and Octavia Hirst.

Software may be eating the world, but the invasion of computers (and the web) into every aspect of society has left many without even a surface-level awareness of how the sites they visit every day work.

It’s also left the software industry with a skills gap that sees demand massively outstripping supply. With even President Obama agreeing there’s a problem, it’s no surprise that countless schemes promising to “teach the world to code” have sprung up, all aimed at easing beginners into the intimidating world of programming.

“There’s a massive lack of people who understand what the hell happens inside your computer,” says Octavia Hirst. “People really are very afraid of it. And even people who have worked within industries associated with it, with computing or anything to do with the web – most of them tend to be a bit afraid of it.”

Hirst is co-founder of Skillab, a relatively new series of short, affordable, volunteer-staffed courses introducing programming. While not a coder herself – “I understand the basics, but I definitely couldn’t teach it” – she found herself frustrated by online resources like Codecademy.

“About this time last year, I was playing around with lots of different education projects, mainly education technology projects, sort of web products – and not getting anywhere,” says Hirst. “The more I looked into it, the more I realised that one of the biggest problems is not ‘what exists on the internet to help you learn stuff?’ – it’s the fact that people don’t engage with content online.”

Along with programmer (and W&P Mag columnist) Benjamin Greenaway, she put together a six-week programme designed to be shorter and cheaper than the likes of General Assembly. It’s now been run in London three times, with many “success stories”.

Hirst believes that many important parts of the learning process are lost when education is confined to a website alone. “So many people are like, ‘Ah, I’ve started Codecademy and I’ve never carried on, because it’s boring, and I get distracted’.”

“I saw the first Skillab as a way around the problem that online learning has no immersion,” adds Greenaway. “There’s nobody else there.”

Hirst agrees: “Just you and a machine – some people engage with that, but a lot of people don’t.”

The Students

That’s not to say they dismiss such online tools out of hand. On the contrary, Skillab students complete Codecademy courses as homework, going over their answers in the following class.

“The idea with Skillab was: rather than creating expensive courses with a special curriculum and loads of materials, let’s just use content that already exists, get people in a room regularly and put them in front of people who know this stuff, but wouldn’t necessarily be confident enough to teach it.”

Students pay £200 (around $310) to attend a six-week course where they learn the basics of JavaScript and web development. It begins with a keyboard-free first week in which they learn to think like a computer, playing games where students put instructions in order and playing Pictionary without visual feedback.

It’s necessary to replace the “fluffy analogue, organic logic that your human brain has” with “the strict formal instruction language that your computer program will require”, says Greenaway. “Before you even talk about the syntax and the programming language, you need to talk about programming.”

“And it worked!” he enthuses. “People fricking love it. I mean, everybody walks away from this going: ‘I really understand – so that’s what it feels to be a robot’.”

The pair say that a typical Skillab student might be a nontechnical startup cofounder “frustrated” by their own lack of understanding, a recent graduate looking to boost their employability or just someone unsure whether to invest significant time and money into a larger course.

“We’ve had some amazing success stories,” boasts Hirsch. They tell the story of one student, a professional blogger who, by week five of the course, was able to fix a bug in her WordPress theme.

“She said, ‘I’m not entirely sure you gave me the skills to do that, but you certainly gave me the confidence to try,” says Greenaway. “And I was like…” he pulls a ‘mind: blown’ expression.

Edwin Abl, founder of recruitment startup TalentFeed, recently finished Skillab’s third ever course, and serves as a perfect example of the audience the scheme’s creators are trying to attract.

“I’ve been involved in web project management for several years and wanted to learn more coding skills,” he said. “I’ve used online learning tools like Codecademy and Code School but [Skillab] helped me understand more the overall frameworks better.”

While the ability to code is useful in its own right, said Abl, he also wanted to take the course “to understand the process of working with developers”. “It’s good to understand what they need better from a PM or project brief,” he explained. “I’m now in a position to be realise what I was doing wrong in the past perhaps, but also manage projects more smoothly moving forwards.”

Expert help

The weekly hands-on sessions are attended by volunteer mentors, who – though professional programmers – are amateur teachers.

“We’ve got a really consistent group of mentors, and they absolutely love it. They really, really do. They love coming along,” says Hirst.

“My proposition is that even though not all developers would say that they particularly want to teach, this particular group of people do like the idea of sharing what they know,” adds Greenaway. “They’re really happy to be in a situation where they can talk about it.”

Eleanor McHugh, a regular mentor whose day job is writing backend systems for a DNS service provider, says she sees it as an alternative to the professional conference circuit – one that reaches a broader audience.

“I decided a few years back that it was about time I shared some of what I’ve learned as a developer so I’ve been speaking, but that’s a bit of a hit and miss affair,” she said. “Mentoring offers a much more personal way to help people so it was a no-brainer to get involved.”

Another volunteer, Chris Alexander, currently working at London-based startup import.io, said it has more practical benefits, too.

“Firstly, it helps refine your own understanding to teach something. Articulating a problem or solution to someone makes you think about it a lot more in order to communicate effectively. Secondly, there’s nothing quite like the reaction when someone figures out how to solve a problem with code that they previously couldn’t imagine doing.”

“It’s sometimes interesting to reflect on how many everyday words we use in very precise and abstract ways,” said another mentor, Daniel Bhugon. “For example, when trying to describe the difference between a class and an object.”

Hirst and Greenaway are keen to stress during the interview that they are constantly looking for new mentors. (Those interested can sign up at skillab.co.uk/#!mentors/cfvg.)

The outcome

When asked whether Skillab is a charity or a business, the pair don’t have a simple answer.

“We’re definitely not a charity,” says Hirst. “I think at the moment, we are covering our costs, no more. My personal take on this is that there’s no reason it shouldn’t be [for-profit] if that is helping you to grow the impact.”

Indeed, the entire scheme appears driven not by a desire to wring cash out of a lucrative target market, but a sincere belief that coding is an essential life skill.

“There’s a massive lack of web developers, there’s a massive lack of people who understand what the hell happens inside your computer, basically. Like, people really are very afraid of it,” says Hirst. “And even people who have worked within industries associated with it, with computing or anything to do with the web – most of them tend to be a bit afraid of it.”

McHugh goes further, arguing that the ability to code “should be viewed in the same light as literacy and numeracy”.

“It’s still possible to get by without understanding code, but doing so is an increasing liability in a world where a large proportion of our daily interactions are now mediated by software. In the long term we either learn to program our machines to our own tastes or else we hand that privilege over to a self-selecting high priesthood. I really dislike that idea.”

Skillab’s answer to the problem is (perhaps ironically) people, not software. They may use Codecademy for homework and a Google+ group for out-of-class communication, but the scheme’s real success comes from the team of mentors sharing in person their years of knowledge, ability and – crucially – confidence.

“Skillab taught me the thought processes behind coding”

By Ellen May

Working in tech conferences and publications, I spend a decent amount of time talking to developers. Before Skillab, I “got” how a lot of technologies work, had a decent enough understanding of languages’ capabilities, understood some of the jargon. But, honestly, when it surpassed the conceptual and got down to actual coding, conversations may as well have been in Latin. So, when the opportunity arose to learn to code with professional programmers helping me along the way, I jumped at the chance.

What did I think I was going to get out of it? My hopes were high, maybe a little too much so. I had visions of coding a basic program and then parading around the office, babbling about it to anyone who would listen…

Okay. Mark Zuckerberg need not worry yet, and there’s a lot I’m still far from sure about, but I’ve learnt a hell of a lot in six weeks.

I think the most valuable thing Skillab taught me was thought processes behind coding – approaching a brief sequentially and breaking it down into its composite, practical parts. For someone from a humanities background who’s used to thinking of tasks conceptually – as interrelated ideas you splash on a page and then tease out relations – this was not immediately obvious (and I’m sure the same applies for many people from non-scientific backgrounds who being this journey). This coupled with some initial tasks demonstrating the importance of writing very specific and literal code as computers do not “fill-in-the-gaps” or make educated guesses, helped us go from “Oh my God, where do I begin!?” with attached wide eyes and sharp intake of breath to, “Maybe I should start with this.”

Having mentors to help you in your struggle was amazing. Most of our homework came from Codecademy – a great resource and initiative but also something which doesn’t appear to understand how alien programming is to those who’ve never seen code before. Errors such as “TypeError: cannot call method of ‘substring’ of undefined” or “Expected an assignment or function and instead saw an expression” will leave most novices scratching their heads and swearing at a screen after trying a number of iterations with the bloody thing still not working.

And, no offence guys and gals, but online programming glossaries such W3 Schools and forums can still be inaccessible to beginners. For example, when an error would pop up on Codecademy, I’d stick it into Google, find some answers, and then Google those terms. I’d get stuck in an infinite loop of programming error terminology hell. Being able to take this to a pro, either at class or via our Google+ forum, was a great help and kept pennies in the beer fund rather than the swear jar.

One thing I will say, is that although Skillab surpassed Codecademy in its ability to understand how basic things need to be for novices, at times, it did feel like we were whizzing though concepts. A bit longer to play around would have been nicer. A deeper understanding of how confusing the world of programming can be to a beginner would certainly help encourage more to start.

Perhaps one of the coolest things about Skillab was that it taught me a starting point; where to find resources. Not just glossaries or recommended JavaScript textbooks, but things like documentation to integrate an API. This was fascinating. Hunting through Google’s documentation and figuring out which bits were relevant for our project open my eyes to a world of possibilities. It’s pretty cool and I’m not going to lie how excited I got.

Most of us Skillab students weren’t looking to become professional developers (although it is a good test run for those considering it) but were hoping to understand how to better communicate with our development teams. How to speak (and understand) at least some of the lingo and have more of an empathetic understanding of problems that arise rather than a confused, frustrated sympathy. I’ve now got a very good idea of what crappy briefs send devs bonkers and make your life (and mine) infinitely harder.

So, am I coding exceptional programs and about to take London’s start-up scene by storm? Not just yet, but I can sure as hell hold a meaningful conversation with those who are. Skillab’s strength lies in its ability foster better communication between the entrepreneurial side of the space and those who will develop the technology, whilst casually pushing some of those who thought the opportunity for a career in programming was long gone in the right direction.

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