TECHCITYINSIDER100: Decoded aims to teach complete novices how to write code in just one day. From a standing start last year, the idea is fast gaining pace. Kathryn Parsons talks to Clive Whittingham about her rapidly expanding business.
Kathryn Parsons doesn’t hang about.
So far she has read Classics at Cambridge, spent her spare time learning Mandarin and Japanese, worked in the fashion departments at Tatler and Vogue, risen through the ranks at Ogilvy to become head of channel planning and co-founded The Scarlett Mark, which takes on innovative branding projects for big business. She has worked on projects for Ford, Kodak and WWF while with Ogilvy and Save The Children, MTV and Transport for London with The Scarlett Mark. She is 31 years old.
And really she’s only just started. In January 2011 a conversation over pizza with Scarlett Mark co-founder Richard Peters revealed a gap in the market.
Websites, mobile phone apps, social networks and dual screens are taking over the world. Every business is involved (or should be) and everybody seems permanently attached to a screen of some sort be it smartphone, tablet, laptop or (and there are still some traditionalists around) a television.
The language that makes this all go round is coded – HTML, CSS, Java Script – and to most it’s a murky, geeky world they know nothing about. Your phone, your tablet, your app, your website – they work somehow, and most feel they don’t really need to know how. Leave that to the boys with bad hair and grey pants, frantically coding away in their basements, coming out occasionally to buy more Pot Noodle and blink in the sunlight.
But, as Parsons puts it, while you may not expect an architect to mix the cement himself, would you not want them to know a bit about the material they’re designing with? “It’s like asking ‘why does it rain?’,” Parsons says. “It’s not that you’re going to do anything about it, but it’s pretty good to know why.”
And from that principal, forged around the table in Shoreditch’s Pizza East that January, was born Decoded, a company taking on the task of teaching people “coding in a day.” That’s right; Parsons and her team believe that complete novices can learn enough about code to programme their own working app in a single day. One day. Like I say, she’s not one for hanging about.
The first challenge is to get people past the stereotype. Coding is not for geeks in basements any more, it’s part of everybody’s lives. Parsons describes the first part of Decoded’s intensive ‘Code in A Day’ sessions as almost therapeutic.
“It’s like a therapy session in the morning. You don’t even start coding until about 11am because we need to get through the issues,” she says. “People say ‘I’m a creative,’ or ‘I’m a MD, I’m a strategic person, I don’t get this stuff, I’m not going to be able to do it today, I’m not that kind of person.’
“It’s because of these films, these images – they’re very male as well – about Mark Zuckerberg in his basement. If you think of coding as boys sitting in a basement, in their pants, on their computer, then imagine it’s women doing it and suddenly it becomes a totally different image.”
Image problem solved. So how can you teach a complete novice to code in a day? The answer lies in an intensive eight-month development programme that took place last year after the idea was born.
“Eight months is a long time to do development,” says Parsons. “You need to test on people who are non-techie and accept what the learning experience is like. There is a discipline needed to believe you can do it in a day. You can spread it out over 10 weeks but we think you can do it in a single day if you teach it in the right way.
“It was about us being brutal with ourselves, going back and perfecting and making sure we have broken down the concepts and introduced them in the right order, the learning experience is enjoyable and intuitive and fun.”
The results speak for themselves – by the end of this year Decoded will have had 1,500 people through the door for its sessions, charged at £6,000 for a class of ten or £650 for individual bookings. They’ve had everything from a block booking of 50 Microsoft staff, to a builder from Manchester.
“Nobody gets left behind, everybody has succeeded. People leave feeling digitally enlightened, they see the world differently, no more smoke and mirrors – like they’ve been let into the magic circle,” says Parsons.
She adds – only half joking – that a feedback mark of less than four out of five from a participant would see a board meeting called.
So, Decoded would appear to work. What next? Well, the company is in development with ‘Social Network in a Day’ along the same principle, where novices arrive in the morning and leave in the evening able to write code for their own social network. The first session is due in a few weeks and Parsons says it will “blow people’s minds.”
But perhaps the bigger picture here is why so many people in this digital age come out of school with little technological ability beyond creating a Word document. Decoded has its eye on tackling the problem at source and early in November one of the team, Alasdair Blackwell, led a coding session for 250 school kids at the O2 Arena. The aim is to provide coding education to 100,000 teachers and pupils in the UK through a free app and online resource.
“This idea that you can teach anything in a day and demystifying the digital dark arts is really key for us,” Parsons says.
“The ambition is to reach 100,000 kids in the UK, getting them to take their first steps behind the screen, start interacting with the screen that’s in front of them and feel inspired. Show them there’s more to it than using a PowerPoint document.
“People are not being taught this at all. Between companies like ourselves and Code Academy, education secretary Michael Gove, NextGen Skills and Ian Livingstone there is a real agenda to shake up ICT and get kids coding in schools.
“Most IT teachers can’t code. Hopefully we’ll be teaching teachers as well.”
The original Code in a Day sessions go from strength to strength. The company was recently hired to train 200 employees at bookmarker Paddy Power in Ireland and has similar pop-up sessions pencilled in for Hong Kong and elsewhere in the Far East. Request forms are flooding in from all over the world but the main sessions remain here in the heart of Shoreditch, in rented penthouses because, Parsons says, training is usually held in “disgusting environments” and she wanted to buck that trend.
“It’s been a really fascinating journey,” she says from the company’s office off Shepherdess Walk. “There is evidently a lack of skills within the industry. Those hybrid creative-technologist skills are missing.
“The audience we have had, you couldn’t have guessed it. We should have guessed it because digital is affecting absolutely everything.”
You sense they had a bit of an inkling.
Kathryn Parsons – CV
Since August 2011
Co-founder Decoded – teaching anyone code in a day.
Co-founder, The Scarlett Mark – product innovation for brands and media
Channel planner, Ogilvy
Cambridge, Downing College, BA, Classics and classical languages, literatures and linguistics.