In the past few years, coding has gone from being a confusing garble of letters and solely the domain of the highly-technical to a key skill that is useful for a wide range of different roles and industries. Everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Clinton, and even Ashton Kutcher and Will.i.am, agree on the importance of learning to code.

Take the example of Janine Holsinger. After only 30 days of learning programming language Ruby on Rails from a specialist learn-to-code learning management systems (LMS) called Treehouse she was able to launch her company website. The success of Treehouse and fellow learn-to-code website Codecademy shows just how important a skill coding is today, not just for developers but for anyone who wants to boost their career in today’s tech-oriented world.

Coding for everyone

While schools and colleges are placing more importance on programming, if you’re already in the workplace, you probably don’t have much time to dedicate to learning new skills. Developers and engineers may have spent years attending classes mastering different programming languages, but this isn’t an option for most non-technical staff. As a result, a wide range of LMS now offer online courses that allow users to study the basics at their own pace. The question is, are these courses really effective, and how useful is coding for employees working in non-technical roles?

Alex Moher, Digital Marketing Specialist at Versique, believes that everyone who interacts with digital content should make an effort to learn some form of coding, whether it is PHP, HTML, JavaScript, or something entirely different.

“This helps employees understand what is going wrong or how they can fix an issue quickly without waiting for a developer,” says Moher. “That being said, don’t mess with code unless you know what it does! I also believe that every person who uses Microsoft Excel should learn basic Excel VBA. This can help anyone create tools that make their jobs faster and easier.”

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Learning to code can help improve communication between technical and non-technical staff

Job Brown, head of Digital at Roman Blinds Direct has found that improving coding and general technical understanding has increasing communication between technical and non-technical staff. “When I try and tutor a non-technical member of staff, it isn’t to give them the ability to do my job, it’s to teach the underlying skills such as computational thinking and problem decomposition,” he says. “This allows others to bring further developed briefs to the technical team.”

With the rise in importance of so-called ‘big data’, gaining a better understanding of programming languages can also help non-technical staff in departments such as marketing more easily understand the often-complex information being pulled from business intelligence solutions.

“Any company that collects large amounts of data can see the benefit,” says Moher. “As so much data is being generated, companies need to see the concentrated version. For example, I work on a team of digital marketing specialists who deal with many thousands of rows of data on a daily basis. We are able to clean up our data to show certain trends and action points in a relatively short time.”

Practice makes perfect

While the benefits of learning to code are clear, is a subject as complex as programming really something people can learn through a LMS? Moher learned PHP from Codecademy, an online learning platform dedicated to helping people of all abilities learn to code.

“Codecademy helps teach you step-by-step basics, and rolls past lessons into new material to keep everything in perspective,” he says. “This is a great resource, as it also physically has the user practice and successfully code in each lesson before they continue to the next lesson.”

Job Brown, on the other hand, taught himself to code as a child and learnt through failure. “It took a lot of dedication and persistance and if I hadn’t had such a desire for the market, I wouldn’t have gotten through it,” he says. “I think that using an LMS makes it easier to learn, and will likely result in people getting up to speed much quicker than I did it alone. The benefit of learning how I did is that I’ve become very good at dealing with things when they went wrong – some of my proudest moments of writing code have been solving problems that have bugged me for hours. You don’t come across these sorts of issues as the LMS holds your hand all the way.”

Moyer believes that LMS software needs to allow people to practice themselves and learn to recognize when code is incorrect. “That way, employees are understanding what went wrong and are correctly learning the new skill,” he says. “Some employees are not as analytically-oriented as others, making the logical breakdown of coding a possible hurdle. It can also take time to recognize when and how code can be used and how much time should be allocated to it.”

Another drawback is staff motivation, especially when the going gets tough and a line of code is proving particularly difficult to manage. “Learning to code isn’t as easy as some make out,” says Brown. “Teaching yourself the skills is a timely (and costly) process. If an employee isn’t willing to go the whole nine yards, it can be a huge money sink for no distinguishable benefit. Finding employees that are motivated to learn can be difficult.”

Making learning to code fun

One way to overcome this problem and encourage engagement is through incorporating gamification into the LMS course on coding. Gamification takes elements of video games and applies it to business processes. Think gaining rewards and badges when you answer a certain number of customer service enquiries, or creating a quest that promises a chocolate chip cookie to the first agent to finish revamping five FAQs. This approach doesn’t just work for customer service, it’s just as useful when used for training.

Hour of Code is designed to be an easy and fun way to learn to code using gamification

Hour of Code is designed to be an easy and fun way to learn to code using gamification | flickr photo by kjarrett http://flickr.com/photos/kjarrett/11338340195 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Hour of Code is a great example of using gamification as an introduction to coding. The idea here is to connect puzzle pieces to get from one end of a maze to another, with each piece representing a line of code. The mazes get more complicated the more you complete, and you can see the coding that makes up each move at every step.

Khan Academy, which is a nonprofit e-learning company funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, has embedded gamification in its classes from the very start. As well as offering badges for completing classes, it organizes subjects on Google Maps in a way that makes them look like a RPG skill tree, and awards energy points according to how much time you’ve spent watching instructional videos or completing tasks.

The practical benefits of using a LMS to learn coding is that fun elements from video games are applicable across so many different sectors. Pamela Fox, a Khan Academy teacher and former Google employee, neatly summed up the benefits in some interesting use cases that all businesses can learn from: “It’s the kind of skill that people across many industries can benefit from, because programming helps us automate and speed up tasks. I know of a firefighter who programmed an Android app to help his team fight fires faster, and of a psychologist that’s using programming to study how little kids learn about the world.”

While there may be many practical benefits, learning to code is still a tricky skill for you and your staff, especially when there is no teacher breathing down your neck to complete assignments like at school. It takes perseverance and dedication, but you also need to choose the right LMS for your needs. If you’re ready to buy or even if you’re looking for  free/freemium software, check out GetRank, our quarterly independent ranking system of the top B2B cloud software by category.