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Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a contentious phrase used on social media that has really annoyed me.
Because of it, there’s now a new feature I’ve just added to DullesDistrict.Com
The phrase is “learn to code.” Twitter views it as a personal attack and will suspend you for merely saying it, mainly because a while back, there were some immature journalists who decided to tell coal miners who had lost their jobs they should just reinvent themselves and “learn to code.” They said it in such a snobbish way that it almost sounded like “die off dinosaurs,” so when journalists started losing their jobs and others returned their words with an equal harshness, I can’t say I had a tremendous amount of sympathy.
But the irony in all this is if you work in a field where you have to communicate, and you asked me what’s the one thing you HAVE to do these days, my answer would be “learn to code.”
Allow me to explain.
20 years ago, when the web was exploding, I went out and bought a book on HTML programming. Playing with computers was always a hobby of mine, and HTML wasn’t that difficult. The commands and tags were somewhat intuitive, and in the infancy of the web, websites were essentially billboards. Get some art, put up a banner, keep your copy in nice, neat tables, and you’d have a decent website.
It’s gotten more and more complicated, but the average person could keep up if you knew basic HTML. Sites went from simple to complex pages you customized in content management systems. CMS’s are kind of like a race car where they give you the engine, roll cage, steering wheel, etc. You have to figure out what the paint scheme will be (unless you want your site to look like everyone else’s) and you have to decide in what direction you want to drive it. But if you spend minimal time keeping up, that’s not all that difficult.
But why, you ask, does that matter? Why do you want to be able to write a website?
Well, consider this situation that happened about 10 years ago. A good friend was getting crushed by editorials in the local paper over a particular incident. There’s an old story about never getting in a fight with people who buy their ink by the barrel, and in this case, it was true. There was nowhere for him to tell his side of the story, so I went to my site – the one you’re reading that has been online in some form since 2006 – and told it. Included in the story were emails documenting he was being treated unfairly.
Because there was now a story in print online SOMEWHERE, and there was a link to take people to the story, his side quickly became known. This became particularly true when the link was posted multiple times in rebuttal comments on that newspaper’s own site.
Due to that experience, I always keep at least one website going and keep up with the technology that goes with maintaining it just to be able to have a voice if I need it. I never have since, but writing is fun for me, and it’s nice to have a place I can post what I write without worrying about some boss telling me what I should or shouldn’t say.
But knowing how to code can be more than that. You know how some journalists woke up one day and didn’t have a job? That happened to my friend Jerry last year. Long time sports editor, won a mountain of awards, and woke up one day to being unemployed. We got together soon afterward and he said he wanted to have his own business and keep writing. He didn’t know how to handle any of the technology end of it, so he wasn’t quite sure how his hopes and plans were going to turn out.
Since I did, we were able to quickly put one together in a matter of a week. Most of it involved things I’d experimented with over the years (his site looked remarkably similar to this one because of that) but he was able to stay engaged with his audience, the business took off, and after 4 months I was able to hand it over to him and go back to being retired.
Only reason we could do it was I’d learned to code. If we had to pay someone to provide outside technology help, we’d never have gotten things off the ground.
Heck, it even helps when you complain. In the old days, if the athletic director at your favorite school was doing things that annoyed you, you’d write a letter to him. And never hear back.
Earlier this season, I went to the Virginia Tech-Notre Dame game. While it was fun, I found the prices extraordinary and the corresponding creature comforts far short of being considered a value. Instead of writing a letter to complain however, I wrote a post on this site that ended up being seen by a few thousand people. I then emailed the link to Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock, and got a nice reply, including wording indicating that he and members of his staff had seen the story. Several times.
Without a link to the story online, that never happens.
So to me, what was my generation’s rotary dial telephone is this generation’s digital presence. To not be fluent in that language strikes me as a risk no one need take because it’s not that hard and it doesn’t take that much time.
Some do crossword puzzles. Some play online games. I grab a piece of free software and try to make it do what I want it to do.
The latest I’m now working on you can see up on the menu bar that says “Forums”. It’s a bulletin board (and you need to register for it separately from the registration for this site by clicking either on "Forums" or just click here) and I’m going down the road of learning everything there is to know about that type of product. Is it going to be like Twitter? No. Facebook? No. Is it something I hope thousands participate in?
But no one knows the future and those products may not be here in 5 years. As a result, the ability to group maybe 100 people with like interests who may even be friends in real life seems to me to be something worth learning more about. It may be a waste of time. But if I learn something and get to interact with some interesting people, it will be a fun waste of time.
I can’t fix a car. I’m not good with tools. When it comes to plumbing, electrical, or any kind of skill a talented tradesman has, I’m a waste of space. But I do know how to tell a story, I do know how to write, and even at the ripe old age of 62, I know I will always have a place where I can keep writing, keep telling stories, and maybe even make someone think, learn something, or best of all, smile.
All because I “learned to code.”