Breaking the code

A friend flew in from South America the other day. He’d come to Shoreditch with entrepreneurial ambition and the first thing he did was to go on a three-month course to brush up his coding skills. He’s not a programmer by training but, as you do these days, he’s learnt a bit here and there in the process of tinkering, setting up, maintaining and enhancing websites and databases. He picked up this know-how in the same way most people learnt to work with Microsoft Office programs.

Working with spreadsheets, word processing and photo-editing programs are for most of us a classic illustration of Pareto’s 80:20 rule — understanding 20 per cent of MS-Excel’s functionality lets you do 80 per cent of what you want to do with it. And, just as one generation learnt to use such work tools of the personal computer age at a basic level with little or no formal training, so a younger generation has been learning basic level coding skills.

The question is whether today’s entrepreneurial population can get by without going the full hard disk (as it were) and enrolling on a full-time coding course or studying computer science during formal education. And, needless to say, most entrepreneurs want to do more than ‘get by’. They want to excel.

So can you excel as an entrepreneur without being a coding whizz? I have a vested interest in this question. Despite a longstanding intention to get to grips with computer programming, I haven’t done what my friend is doing. If my acquaintances are representative, then there’s a large number of us non-programmer folk on the loose, all of whom feel a similar sense of inadequacy.

My secret hope is that the usability of technology will evolve so fast that it will overtake the need to sharpen my Palaeolithic coding skills. But for this to happen, technology will have to become so sophisticated that it creates its own wormhole through which its own extreme cleverness makes it beguilingly intuitive to use. I’m not talking about the everyday simplicity of the end-user experience — something that was conquered a long time ago — but about the possibility that company founders will be able to use technology to create businesses without being a Navy SEALS-level programmer. To be straight up about it, I’m clawing the air forlornly for technology- building-blocks-for-dummies.

Except that it’s not forlorn. Happily, I see possibilities in various mega-growth areas. In data there’s the company The data-scraping startup, based in San Francisco and London, enables anyone to convert a website into its raw data as easily as you use a Google search bar. Just type a URL into its website and it will convert the website into rows and columns. This makes it a breeze to build big data sets to produce insights, competitor information, lead generation forms, market research without writing a line of code.

The same trend can be seen in the Internet of Things. Almost endless permutations of businesses can be constructed from the concept. For example, you might wear a bracelet that communicates with your connected house and ensures that lights are turned on or off, heating on or off and doors unlocked, all based on your own proximity.

And a company called SAMlabs has created technology that enables such functionality to be implemented without writing code. SAMlabs, based about a mile from Silicon Roundabout, has created a set of intelligent blocks about the size of a Lego brick. Some are sensors (eg light, heat, pressure) and others do things (eg motors, lights, sounds). The critical thing for programming refuseniks like me is that the controlling interface for the technology is a drag-and-drop, screen-based solution.

Even in the ubiquitous world of smartphone apps there are moves to make things easier. Last year Apple introduced Swift, a new coding language that is designed to simplify learning how to program on iPhones and iPads. It also launched an app, Swifty, full of simple tutorials and videos to encourage curious would-be coders to take the plunge. These examples suggest that a growing number of businesses — young and established — are betting on lots of startups creating value by using their technology in a way that doesn’t require coding medals of bravery.

Meanwhile my friend from South America is, without doubt, right to be deepening his skill base. But there’s still a place for those entrepreneurs whose core flair may be something other than coding. Phew.