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Computer coding now seen as vital job skill

Elizabeth Long gave a 60-second pitch to prospective employers. She just graduated from a coding bootcamp run by Startup Institute, where she hugged director Allan Telio.
Elizabeth Long gave a 60-second pitch to prospective employers. She just graduated from a coding bootcamp run by Startup Institute, where she hugged director Allan Telio.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Elizabeth Long hardly fit the profile of a technology geek. She had a degree in recreation, wrote newsletters for nonprofits, and later worked as a legal assistant.

But she wanted to code. She began taking coding classes at the nonprofit Girl Develop It, then in April completed an intensive, two-month program at the Startup Institute, a firm providing technology training in Boston. The result: a new job, a raise of more than $10,000 a year, and a new career.

“When you understand how things work, it changes your perception of the world,” said Long, 29, an application specialist at MOCA Innovation, a construction management firm in Newton. “The Internet is not this thing that’s separate from you any more. You can be part of it.”


Coding is becoming the must-have job skill of the 21st century, and, as Long shows, it’s not just for computer science majors and other byte heads. Groups like Girl Develop It and Startup Institute, as well as a growing list of educational startups are teaching programming languages such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to people without technical backgrounds.

Universities, colleges, and continuing education programs are getting into the act, too. MassBay Community College in Wellesley, for example, offers courses that teach the Scripting programming language and Web design.

Talia Whyte, a journalism major who planned to write for newspapers and magazines, is studying Web design at MassBay, learning to build interactive e-commerce websites. Before enrolling, Whyte, 34, of Roslindale, taught herself basic programming languages through the free, online tutorial offered by Codecademy, an educational technology startup in New York.

“You have to stay on top of the technology because it’s very competitive in the job market,” said Whyte, who has launched her own e-book publishing and media consulting businesses. “That’s the future. Many creative professionals need to know how to do the technical stuff.”


Based on data from the US Labor Department, College Board, and National Science Foundation, the educational nonprofit Code.org estimates that there will be 1 million more computing jobs than graduates in computer science by 2020. Two-thirds of open computing jobs, Code.org says, fall outside of the tech sector in fields such as journalism, finance, medicine, and entertainment.

Even if you’re not planning to become a programmer or developer, knowing and understanding computer code can enhance resumes and help careers. At WGBH, the public broadcasting station, producers and designers recently took classes in HTML to get a better understanding of how the programming end of their projects work.

Long just graduated from a coding bootcamp run by Startup Institute, where she hugged director Allan Telio.
Long just graduated from a coding bootcamp run by Startup Institute, where she hugged director Allan Telio.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Such training helps to create not only “higher quality products for our audiences” but also “a stronger, happier, more inspired, and collaborative culture,” said Alexis Rapo, vice president of WGBH digital.

Which computer languages you learn depends on your goals, said Zach Sims, the 23-year-old cofounder of Codecademy. As a general rule of thumb, he said, learn HTML and CSS for the Web; JavaScript for games or apps; and Ruby or Python if you want to process data or explore databases.

“We think of programming as literacy for the 21st century,” said Sims, a onetime political science major.

So how do you become literate? Learning computer languages has been compared to studying foreign languages, so a lot depends on your style of learning. Some people prefer working independently at their own speed, so online programs such as Codecademy, Codagogy, or Code Avengers work best. Others may learn better in traditional classroom settings.


An array of meetup groups can also help newbies get coding. Some groups, such as RailsBridge Boston, focus on one programming language like Ruby on Rails. Others, such as Code Mentors Boston, offer several languages, connecting coding beginners with willing experts.

Girl Develop It, an international organization with chapters around the country, organizes monthly “Code & Coffee” nights in Boston. The group also offers affordable classes, such as Introduction to HTML and CSS ($90 for four Wednesday night sessions)

The Women’s Coding Collective, was founded in 2011 by Nicole Noll, 33, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard and Susan Buck, 29, a Web programmer, designer, and educator, to cultivate a “supportive, no-stupid-questions environment where women can learn, build, and code together.” The group offers classes such as “Wrangling HTML” (Two-class series, $50).

“For the college graduate,” said Buck, “having the ability to put HTML and CSS on a resume is a real perk.”

Another option: coding bootcamps. Although unaccredited, these two- to three-month programs, ranging in price from $4,750 to $12,500, offer a more hands-on, real-world experience than traditional classrooms. Admission is competitive, but open to people from nontechnical backgrounds.

None of the coding bootcamps can promise a job at the end, but they all tout career support and networks of companies that hire their students. Among the bootcamps with campuses in Boston: General Assembly, Launch Academy, Metis, and Startup Institute.


Jamie Connor, 26, of Newburyport, who has a degree in graphic design from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, was working as a print designer for a large consulting firm when she decided to learn to code. She started by studying on her own, then enrolled in classes at General Assembly in Boston last year. The classes met two evenings a week for about three months

It wasn’t always easy, she said. Learning JavaScript, a more complex language that makes Web pages interactive and demands higher logic and problem-solving skills proved particularly challenging. “I wish I had more of a math background,” she said.

The General Assembly classes helped Connor get a job as a web developer at Consumer Focus Marketing, a Portsmouth, N.H.-based marketing and design firm for the fuel industry.

“Learning to code is hard,” she said, “but once you get past the initial learning phase, and you start to enjoy coding, you’re excited about what you can build. It’s awesome.”

Frank Olito contributed to this story. Joan Axelrod-Contrada can be reached at joanaxelrodcontrada@gmail