How I Overcame my Fear of Coding as a Journalist

I am planning to post photos and stories from my work on the refugee crisis last fall. Until I find the time to do so, I am re-posting my blog post about journalism and coding here, written in November 2014. Since I wrote this, I overcame even more fears and took a data journalism class where I learned how I can use sql and Excel for journalism!

We journalists have all learned our lessons by now. We know that we have to embrace the most recent technology, that the online world demands that we learn new skills. Tweeting, taking photos and videos with our smartphones, writing and editing blogs, keeping in touch with our readers and building a following on social media… and the big one: we have to learn some coding.

I have known for years now that I should learn coding. I have been working as an editor for Hungarian newspaper Népszabadság’s website for three years, and I noticed that the very little knowledge of HTML I picked up during that time helped me in my work tremendously. With only a very little knowledge, I was able to fix all the everyday problems for others who needed help with the Content Management System (CMS). Also, I knew that if I wanted to go into data journalism, programming was unavoidable.

I know, I know. HTML is not code but a markup language, but it’s just as complicated as coding for beginners, trust me. And that was my problem: I just could not overcome my fear of programming! It seemed like something mythical. I was thinking that only special people with special skills can learn it and I felt that I was not one of them. Or, I was thinking, if I were able to learn programming, it might take years of full-time learning, which I could obviously not do while holding down a 12-hour-a-day job as a reporter.

Also, it was hard to comprehend how those lines of code could lead to shiny stuff like Facebook, Twitter or complex games like my beloved Civilization 3. It must be magic, right? I definitely felt like a Muggle who would never be able to understand the classes taught at Hogwarts.

But then I remembered something. I was six years old, in first grade. It was in Hungary, in 1989, the year of transition from communism to democracy. This meant more freedom for schools, too, and the school that was just next to my parent’s house in rural Kiskunfélegyháza decided to start a class that would specialize in math and computer sciences. Teachers visited all the nursery schools in the town and picked 28 kids that they though would fit in there.

So, a young and eager teacher started to teach these 28 six-year-old kids basics of programming, to be precise, Turbo Pascal. The school had six or seven Commodore 64 computers, so they split us into two groups, and two kids were sitting at one computer during class.

And we wrote programs! Simple ones, but they were programs. I remember starting with basic commands, with which we could draw teddy bears. I remember commands like gotoxy, circle, rectangle. I remember that some time later we wrote a horse racing game! The horses were signified by four rectangles, numbered from 1 to 4. They lined up behind a line, and when you hit enter they would start ‘running’ towards the finish line. It was randomized, so you never knew which one would ‘win.’ We also added a betting option – you would place your bet and after the race it would tell you if you won or not.

Obviously, I can’t do these programs anymore. I even forgot about this whole experience for almost two decades. But now that I remember, what that teacher, Mr. János Árvai accomplished, amazes me. I don’t remember anything about Pascal or programming any more, but he might have given me the confidence that I have when using computers and technology. He exposed us to the latest technology available for us at the time, and ever since then I have been an early adopter of new technology in general.

And remembering my adventures in programming at the age of six helped me overcome my fear of it eventually. After a great deal of encouragement from my Humphrey director and deputy director I registered on Codecademy. I’m already done with my basic HTML & CSS courses. Since then, I have also started learning real programming, too: I’m learning Python on Coursera from the wonderful Dr. Chuck at the University of Michigan.

And I am loving it!

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