Yes, we can code

Yes, we can code

Programming used to be a foreign concept to me – in fact, I was doing so badly with anything tech-related that it was sort of a running joke among my friends. Various devices would mysteriously break in my presence, and I assumed that ‘computers just weren’t for me’. In my mind, a computer programmer was someone who started learning how to code from a very young age and who then went through formal education; real-life Elliot’s (Mr Robot), Moss’s, Roy’s (The IT Crowd) and Neo’s (The Matrix).

A bit later this perception slowly started changing, when I was able to secure an internship at the University of California Irvine, where I serendipitously walked into a talk by Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit. He changed my mind about what hackers looked like, encouraged the audience to take advantage of free online resources and to start coding ourselves. I was intrigued. Was it really possible for me (and really anyone) to learn how to code?

A few more years down the line, I can confidently say, yes, it is absolutely possible. With our recent student-led programming workshop, we debunked the myth of the ‘genius hacker’, once and for all. Coding is for everyone, can be picked up later in life and can add creativity and serious data skills to any postgraduate degree.

Picture credit: Lisa DeBruine

Picture credit: Lisa DeBruine

So how did it happen that someone like me, with no formal training in computer science, got to share the joys (and, let’s keep it real, sorrows) of coding with fellow PhD students? Let me tell you the story of how a small but mighty team of postgraduates from various backgrounds and with different levels of programming experience got other PhD students (and Twitter) excited for ‘Hack Your Data Beautiful’, a two and a half-day, SGSSS and SGSAH funded coding course. Supported by the #PsyTeachR team and informed by Professor Niamh Stack’s vision, we put together a curriculum and a website, to make the resources available beyond the end of the physical workshop that took place at the University of Glasgow in April 2019.

Brand new coders at work.

Brand new coders at work.

Coincidentally, fellow workshop organizer Steph Allan had written about coding skills on this very blog, focusing on how empowering it can be to design your own website. I caught up with Steph to ask about what changed since she wrote her PGR blog post “To code or not to code” exactly one year ago.

Towards the end of her post she reflects upon having not really started using the skills she gained through the Code First Girls course she attended, so my first question is, if this is still the case. She laughs and says: “That has completely changed – I use code all the time! I think the Code First Girls course was really successful in giving me confidence. It was about HTML, JavaScript, CSS, which now I don’t use as much, because I mainly need R. But they taught us fundamentals, broke it down into little parts, the theory, where to get help, and the course just increased my confidence. Now with R, I’m like, ‘cool, it’s just another language’.”

Stephanie sharing her favorite R tools for    qualitative research   .

Stephanie sharing her favorite R tools for qualitative research.

Because it was only a short while ago since she actually started out on her programming journey, I asked her about what helped her overcome the barrier of thinking ‘this is not for me’: “By making a lot of rubbish code and by realising that every time I was making code it got a bit better, a bit neater, produced less errors and did more of what I wanted it to do. Eventually I was able to make more advanced things, not just the statistical analysis I needed to run. Now I can create an app just to manage my own data, so it’s not just a copy and paste struggle, I can actually use it to create something new.”

Steph then goes on to explain that in the beginning it helps to code something that is fun, maybe even a bit unrelated to your degree and personally meaningful to you. It can motivate you to get over initial hurdles.

Hack Your Data Beautiful attendees experiencing a ‘coding win’ – the feeling when your code finally does what you want it to do.

Hack Your Data Beautiful attendees experiencing a ‘coding win’ – the feeling when your code finally does what you want it to do.

Conveying this message was also one of the aims of our workshop, “Hack Your Data Beautiful”. In a relatively short amount of time, attendees were able to take advantage of the beautiful visualisations the R programming language has to offer and started applying their new skills to their own areas of research, such as feminist history, and the DIY maker movement.  

Steph concludes that organising the workshop was “an incredible experience. I’ve never taught coding before. All that was new. Just thinking about it, like, ‘how would you explain this to someone else?’ It made me very aware of having clean code and writing a comment every step along the way. I also feel like I learned a lot from the whole Hack Your Data Beautiful team – for example, my skills in RMarkdown really improved. I’ve learned as much from all of you­­­­ as the attendees learned from us.”

One of our attendees    reflecting on the first day of the workshop. Next stop, the Matrix.

One of our attendees reflecting on the first day of the workshop. Next stop, the Matrix.

If you are curious about the materials we produced, or want to listen to our podcast, head over to the Hack Your Data Beautiful website. You can tweet us at @beautiful_hack or use the hashtag #HackYourDataBeautiful to share your own coding wins!

Stephanie Allan is a second year PhD student in the Institute of Health & Wellbeing looking at process evaluations of digital interventions for psychosis. She is particularly enthusiastic about the meaningful involvement of people who have experienced psychosis within research. The SGSSS/ SGSAH funded Hack Your Data Beautiful workshop was taught by Stephanie Allan, Carolyn Saund, Shannon McNee, Rebecca Lai, Jack Taylor, Lovisa Sundin, Anna Henschel, Lisa DeBruine and Dale Barr in April 2019 at the University of Glasgow.

Picture credit: Anna Henschel

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