I Never Learned How To Code

albertc44 profile image Al Chen ・3 min read

Partly inspired by Arik's post about how to make the most of dev.to, I decided to write my first post about how I never learned how to code.

I don't belong here

I never thought of myself as a coder. I had always thought that coding was too "hard" and problems involving software and web apps should be relegated to those who studied computer science. Whenever I came across coders IRL, I never felt I belonged and that I would always be looking from the outside. I had the same reservations about dev.to, until I came across Arik's post.

I still feel on the outside when seeing discussions on GitHub and HN, and assumed I didn't belong since I couldn't contribute anything technically relevant. I always thought: "what could a business analyst or marketing person contribute to one of these communities?"

Diving into Excel

As a business analyst, I was stuck in Excel all day. I became the person on every team I joined where questions about Excel were thrown to me. I became a master of the tool, and for the first time I felt like this is what coders must feel like when they master Java or Python. But Excel is not a coding language. At best, it is a declarative language.

I dug deeper into automating repetitive workflows, and started scripting macros in VBA. Was this "coding?" I was copying and pasting cells and formats, cycling through worksheets, and running custom functions using a 3rd-party API for connecting with our Oracle database. The output was still something that went inside Excel, a tool for "business" users. I felt that this was the most technical I would get in terms of coding.

Doing things that you're good at

Perhaps the biggest reason I didn't learn how to code was that it would take me 1 hour to create something that would take a "real" coder or programmer 5 minutes. Thinking back to Adam Smith's theories about comparative advantages, I should just focus on the tools I'm most productive in and delegate the code to coders.

Unfortunately, there's a part of me that always wants to dig deeper and understand how things work. Part of the reason I'm joining dev.to is to learn in an environment where I don't think I'll be criticized for not knowing how to code. Dev.to seems like the place where someone who has an analyst mindset can feel at home and develop his or her skills.

Current work

I think people like me straddle both worlds and have a hard time finding a community that fits. After a few years of working on a startup, I luckily found a place where I can flourish at my current company. Instead of building in Excel and spreadsheets, I'm building actual apps for our users. In the words of one of our users: "I'm not a software engineer, but this is the most software engineering I've done without writing any code."

There are still amazing software engineers who are building the engine room behind Coda, but the platform has unlocked a creative side of me that I haven't been able to unlock with Excel. I still want to contribute to the engine room behind Coda and have tried submitting PRs here and there, but still have a long way to go until my commits make it into production.

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Al Chen


Former Googler. Live and die in spreadsheets. Building solutions at Coda.io.


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