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Jessica Ballance

Coding for publishers: taster course

SYP member Jessica Ballance combines her work as a bookseller and manager of Daunt Books in North London with the role of associate editor at Dodo Ink, an independent publisher of daring and diverse literary fiction. In September she attended the first Coding for publishers: taster course – here is her review.

For a long time now, I have wanted to code. Like, seriously code. Yet I’ve been continually procrastinating or chickening out or never “finding the time”, as though time were that bit of loose change you find in the pocket of your winter coat when you dust it off again in mid-October. I am drawn to languages you never have to actually speak, and the structural logic minus the performance anxiety of actually speaking it are reasons why I studied Latin into University. Zero performance anxiety.

I have been wanting to attend classes, learn the whims of the different languages, manipulate data and write my own code and programmes and do all sorts of clever things that would make me a more flexible and diverse publisher, not to mention a better human. I looked around, admittedly exhaustively, and spoke to a few friends and friends of friends, and a quick bash of key terms into a search found a few groups on MeetUp, WomenWhoCode for example. I cannot big this group up enough – they host events in association and in the offices of Twitter, ASOS, Sky etc. and have built a community of such strength that their events book up ridiculously quickly and there are sizeable waiting lists of hopeful would-be attendees hoping that some early bird drops out last minute. But many of these women work in tech industries or use programmer languages and deal with data and other such analytics-y things (can you tell I don’t yet?) and glancing over the summaries for each event, as it pings into my inbox (you can opt in for email updates, don’t cha know), there is often a scary amount of jargon for my layman brain to handle.

I am probably hooked up and plugged in to the internet for more hours in a day than I would care to mention, lest any prospective employers are reading this, and through my work with independent publisher, DodoInk, I have had the privilege of working with the wonderfully savvy people at PigeonHole. I read the posts from FutureBook as they land in my inbox and my mind expands and broadens as I take in all the innovative and creative ways people are redefining what it means to be a publisher and how we share, access, and experience books. But like a puckered old balloon, after the excitable expansion, an inevitable deflation ultimately sets in.

If any of you reading this are getting sick of my overuse of the past pluperfect: NO LONGER. Emma Barnes has supplied me with the training wheels to make coding far less intimidating. In her intensive workshop we spent the afternoon getting to grips with four basic (ish) programming languages: HTML, CSS, Java and finally, and youngest of all, Ruby. The way Barnes evangelises about Ruby I think this may be her favourite of the bunch. Just a hunch.

I learnt the jist of when and where to use the different languages, and what they were responsible for in terms in the make-up of a finished, functioning, and hopefully stylish, webpage.

  1. HTML, or Hyper Text Markup Language if we’re being formal, is basically your bread and butter. From my limited understanding it seems to be the main structural element of the four, expressing the information you want on your page — and what’s a webpage with no information? Pretty useless, that’s what.
  2. Probably among the most fun and easiest to play around with was CSS which essentially controls the look of your page allowing you to customise and make it feel even more like your own. Tinkering with this you can alter the font, font colour and size, background colours, etc. Once you find a Hex code database your palette becomes pretty endless.
  3. Java script seems like the most complex of the bunch, and also the most dynamic, enabling your static pages to come to life with smoothly collapsing dropdown information and far more interactive movement elements. Java script also executes within the page as opposed to sending out a request.
  4. Finally: Ruby. To quote Barnes, Ruby is “like poetry”, beautiful and elegant and spare and an extremely coder-friendly language. It also allows you to dynamically find the information you want by utilising a wealth of open-source data resources such as APIs (or Application Programming Interfaces).

As we progressed we applied each stage of our new-found knowledge to build a functioning website, that would be able to mine GoogleBooks’ API data to create our own user-friendly search engine (not too dissimilar from Barnes’ own Bibliocloud). The project based ‘learning by doing’ suited me down to the ground and I didn’t quite realise how quickly I was accruing my new skills — though, don’t get me wrong, I still have a ways to go!

Barnes was backed by an immensely helpful team who were on hand to answer any question, no matter how silly, and help us spot the seemingly indiscoverable errors in our script within seconds of glancing at our screen. They are an impressive bunch, and hugely supportive. In fact, the whole day lacked the often parodied frustration of rage-bashed keyboards and technological tantrums, and was buoyed along by Barnes’ clear enthusiasm and passion for her work, finding joy in the possibilities that code offers, and giving us a glimpse of her curiosity-driven mind.

Barnes eyes would flit over passages of code that were, to me, largely unintelligible and exclaim: ‘oh now THAT’S cool’, or ‘Hmm, THAT’S interesting! I wonder what else I could make that do’. At the end of the day, thanks to Emma Barnes and her team, BookMachine, and FaberAcademy, I think we all left wondering a similar thing: That was cool. Now, I wonder what else I can do…

If you would like to take part in the next Coding for publishers course, sign up to the BookMachine mailing list and we will let you know when tickets are available.

 

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