Why I'm learning to code

@CNNMoneyTech March 5, 2012: 11:01 AM ET

Tech companies say they can't find enough skilled programmers to hire, a gap that training programs like San Francisco's Dev Bootcamp and Codecademy's "Code Year" aim to help fill. What's the immersive experience like? Programmer Danielle Sucher wrote this dispatch for us from New York's Hacker School.

I left my law practice to do a three-month, full-time coding retreat called Hacker School this winter. Not entirely, I suppose -- I'm still in the middle of motion practice representing a few of the Occupy Wall Street arrestees -- but other than that, my career is on hiatus for the moment.

Why? I caught the bug.

Last November, I wanted a Chrome extension that would swap gendered language on the web -- "he" for "she," "woman" for "man," that sort of thing. No one was going to write it for me, so I took the time to poke around in Chrome's developer guide and StackOverflow and build it myself. I started out simply wanting the end product to exist, but along the way I realized how much I loved the process of coding it myself.

I want more of this -- that sense of flow where time slips away, the satisfying line of green dots across the screen as my tests pass, the thrill of seeing other people use my code and adapt it to create their own projects. So when I heard about Hacker School from a friend, it seemed like the perfect chance to follow up on the fun I'd had writing that Chrome extension and see how far my interest and ability to soak up skills can take me.

Unlike the other innovative coding programs you hear about lately, Hacker School is focused on helping programmers improve, not on teaching non-programmers from scratch. As their site says: "Hacker School is currently only for people who already know how to code. Think of it like a writers' workshop. We're here to help people become great novelists, but you have to already know English and be comfortable writing essays."

When they accepted my application, I ran off to polish up my coding skills more in advance to celebrate and prepare. And now here I am, sitting next to people who have run startups and written popular iPhone games, people who quit their jobs at software companies and neuroimaging labs and walked away from their normal lives to go on this learning adventure. The skill range is tremendous and fascinating, and I feel like we all have so much to learn from and teach each other!

Hacker School is a self-directed process, where we work on whatever excites us and focus on completing useful projects instead of going through rote exercises. There's a strong sense of social pressure to focus and make progress, and we're especially encouraged to pair program and concentrate on technical challenges rather than product design. We check in with each other every morning on what we accomplished the day before and what we intend to do next. At just a bit over a week in, the room still buzzes with excitement and creative energy all day.

I've felt ready for a change for a while now, and have been slowly shutting down my law practice while exploring where to go next. I'm loving having the chance to focus full-time on coding so far, and of course I think about how it could open doors for me when I move on to my next career phase -- and having a few months of sheer joy in learning with others is a pretty awesome way to be able to spend some time. To top of page

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