July 3, 2017

How I learned to code (and you should too)

Way back in the late 1990s, I learned HTML on a whim. Inspired by my travels through webrings, I wanted my own place to share my budding activism and earnest poetry. I had no idea the effect it would have on my career, and how it would eventually change my life.

Back then, we were willing to spend hours downloading AOL on our 2800 (yes, 28-hundred) baud modems and websites were mostly just for big companies or discussion forums. Then GeoCities hit the scene and suddenly anyone could have a website, dedicated to pretty much anything at all.

I immediately planned to make my own site in the West Hollywood neighborhood (I know it was for gay men, but there was no neighborhood for lesbian/bi/queer women, so…). I was working for a small computer consulting firm as an office manager, and I asked our newest technician if he would help me set it up.

In many ways, he embodied the worst stereotypes of computer nerds: he was often rude and condescending, and personal hygiene wasn’t high on his list of priorities. But he knew his stuff. He said he’d help me, but on one condition: I had to learn HTML, so I could do it myself.

He probably set that condition so I wouldn’t keep bothering him with changes and fixes after his initial help getting my page going, but it stuck with me.

After I moved on from that first office job, I found small ways to use my newfound proficiency at other jobs. I made copious use of Webmonkey (RIP) and their wealth of HTML glossary and tutorials, and I kept playing around with various free web platforms like Blogger and WordPress. With enough practice, the code became familiar to me, like a fluent second language.

I’m no developer, not by a long shot, but having a good grasp of HTML (as well as some basic CSS) has helped me be able to:

  • fix weird formatting issues in emails,
  • update one nonprofit’s website for several months after the server crashed (taking with it the custom-built content management system) and all updates had to be hand-coded,
  • save another nonprofit thousands of dollars by bringing email creation in-house, and
  • learn CSS more easily, since there are some similarities.

Most importantly, it helped me eventually transition into doing work that I love and which engages and challenges me every day. In my current role with NTEN, I create and code all of our emails and format our blog posts and web pages (among numerous other communications-related duties). I use my knowledge daily, from basic creation to solving bigger issues like making our emails more mobile-friendly, as well as looking under the hood at other emails or websites to see if I can adapt their code for our purposes.

So how much HTML should you learn? At a minimum, it’s helpful to know how to make text look pretty: bolding, starting new paragraphs, making bullet point lists, etc. Cultivating your attention to detail and nitpicky-ness is also important: precision is key in coding.

Here are just a few of my favorite resources:

  • Lynda.com: an inexpensive way to start learning
  • Treehouse: great beginner and advanced tutorials
  • W3.org: look up HTML codes for just about anything
  • Litmus: resources & forums for advanced email designers
  • WebAIM: tips and tools to improve accessibility

While GeoCities has since shuttered and taken my site with it (though a few intrepid souls have created some archives), today there are myriad options for creating your own site—too many to list, in fact. And though many of the platforms feature easy-to-use drag and drop systems, it’s still quite handy to to be able to understand the underlying coding so you can easily customize templates to your liking.

It’s easier than you think—go forth and code!

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Erin Doherty
Erin has over 15 years' experience providing communications, development, and administrative support to community arts, queer health, and anti-domestic violence nonprofit organizations. Working in digital communications sits perfectly at the intersections of her nerdy excitement for writing, editing, and futzing around coding. Other interests include: knitting and thinking about knitting, eating cheese, sci-fi/fantasy books, shows, and movies, and loving dogs, particularly her ridiculous Chihuahua mix, Aoife.