Stop talking, start making — my journey to code

WhatWe'veBuiltAt the beginning of 2012, I made a New Year’s resolution to learn to code. It was all the rage. I didn’t really know what learning to code meant, but learning it seemed like the right thing to do.

I signed up for CodeYear and did the first four lessons. And for the next 48 weeks I got an email in my inbox urging me to start my fifth lesson, “Functions in Javascript.” I never did.

Instead, from February to October, I stuck to what I knew: design and illustration. But in early October, I saw a posting for a full-time, nine-week course at a place called General Assembly. General Assembly’s tag line was “Stop talking. Start making.” The course promised to take total code n00bs like me and turn us into junior level, full-stack web developers (HTML/CSS, JS/jQuery, Ruby/Rails). I was intrigued, but skeptical.

I went through all the typical excuses in my head.

I’m a visual person. I don’t have time. I know nothing about computer science. My brain doesn’t work that way. It looks so boring. The class is expensive. There’s so much to learn, I don’t know where to start. Coders are weird. I don’t know if I want to be a coder.

Stop talking. Start making.

I jumped in and started coding. And all those excuses went out the window.

And nine weeks later, I can build things — things that move and respond, things that update and inform. Having that power is an amazing feeling.

Are the things that I’ve built perfect? No, but the core functionality is there and they do what they say they’ll do. Was it easy? No, it was hard. When you immerse yourself in code, you start to realize how much information is out there. How many different libraries, languages, and frameworks there are. You learn how much you still have to learn. And it’s overwhelming. But being overwhelmed is better than not knowing anything.

Designers are makers. We’re creative and curious. So take that natural curiosity and learn to code because it’s empowering. Because you can make things that respond to users and solves problems. Because it makes you a better print designer. Because it gives you a fresh perspective. Because it gives you an amazing set of tools to be creative with. (Also, coding in the terminal with others watching over your shoulder is like matrix-level badass.)

Believe me, when you get that first Twilio script to work and your phone buzzes from code that you wrote, you’ll be hooked.

We built this site to showcase what we learned.

LB_SubwayFor my final project, I wanted to build something I would use. So, I built a little web app called Subway alert that will text you when your train (MTA, NYC) goes down, then text you when your train comes back up. You can sign up here. It’s a work in progress, my first run at a real app, so let me know what I can do to make it better.

This post is the first in a series about learning to code. The next few posts will discuss resources coders use that everyone should, how learning to code makes you more efficient, and how you can start learning.

It took me a while to jump in, but now that I have, I can’t imagine going back. Stop talking, start making.

(Larry Buchanan is an illustrator, designer and columnist living in Brooklyn, NY. Some of his work lives here.)

About Larry Buchanan

is a freelance designer and developer living in Brooklyn, NY.


I hope more designers take up the challenge of learning how to code. Just the basics of HTML/CSS are great to know. They are the gateway languages into exploring further.

I shifted my career from news photography into web design, as I have been programming since being a teenager and know those skills are far more essential to bringing health back into the industry than my photos ever could. Now I’m redefining the digital products for Canada’s largest newspaper chain.

Larry – congrats and great job. It’s definitely not easy learning to code, especially when your brain is normally in “artistic mode”. Glad you found a program that works for you (General Assembly is awesome!). My background is in communications and I’ve been slowly improving my programming knowledge over the past year through various workshops but without the ‘immersion’ type of deal it’s really ad hoc.

Your app looks super cool, are you still using Twilio to power the SMS? Full disclosure I’m the community manager at Twilio – it would be really cool to have you guest blog for our company blog about building the app and learning to code! Feel free to send a note: murphy [at] twilio

Leave a Reply