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Is coding a boardroom-level skill?

Why dabbling in the digital dark arts could be the best thing for your company.

One of the challenges of being a CEO today is wrestling with the impact, both good and bad, of new technologies. Slip up, and miss an opportunity. Ignore it, and become irrelevant. “Being able to communicate and tell narratives around technology – having human skills as well as technology skills – is essential,” says Kathryn Parsons, CEO and co-founder of Decoded. Put simply, how can you expect to meet those challenges and lead a company into the future if you’re essentially digitally illiterate?

“When you look at the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – which is what many boards and governments are forming their strategies around today – I believe, quite passionately, that education is the answer,” she says.

Linguist Parsons sees coding as another language to master, and one that’s essential to surviving and thriving in the future. Decoded’s philosophy since its beginning in 2012 has been to create digital enlightenment through hands-on, accelerated learning models for anyone. It was created in part because Parsons herself wanted to learn code and didn’t have the time or finances to return to university for three years.

Kathryn Parsons, CEO and co-founder of Decoded
Kathryn Parsons, CEO and co-founder of Decoded

“I wanted to get my hands dirty. I wanted to learn code, and I wanted to learn it in a single day,” Parsons says. It was ambitious thinking but it was possible, and the inaugural Decoded offering, Code in a Day, has been a hit.

The interest in the course was extensive from day one. Tech company execs sat beside women returning to the workforce, 18-year-olds and mining company CEOs – evidence of the broad reach of the topic.

Decoded’s first year saw 5,000 businesses attend Code in a Day. Fast forward to 2017 and the company has offices in London, New York and Sydney, and has taught in more than 85 cities worldwide. It has branched out into decoding all the digital dark arts, from data to cybersecurity to AI. In that time, Parsons has been hailed an inspiration, not only as a female in the tech industry but as a pioneer in demystifying digital for anyone and everyone.

In 2014, she successfully campaigned to get coding added to the UK school curriculum and, today she sits on the London Mayor’s Business Advisory Panel and on UK’s Minister for Digital and Culture Matt Hancock’s Cyber Security Board. Parsons is also a non-executive board member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Why executives?

Nobody is suggesting an executive attends Code in a Day and gives up their corner office to become a programmer. It’s about digital literacy, leading your company in today’s digital age and working effectively with your CIO. Having this base knowledge is key for executives to be able to communicate their business’s narrative around technology. These skills are about being future-proof.

“Essentially, what we’re doing is creating digital literacy, giving people full literacy, vocabulary and confidence,” says Parsons. And while seeking advice from an external professional is an option, having someone on the inside creates a more dynamic and informed leadership for your business.

“Bringing the experts in to speak at your board meeting is quite different to having an expert on your board.” In fact, Parsons argues, bringing in experts can exacerbate problems for the company; the expert can feel frustration if they’re talking in a language that the people around them don’t understand, or it may be a situation where people on the board feel stupid asking a question, which may inhibit raising of what may be an important point. Essentially, it can be counterintuitive.

Don’t hinder your potential

Using technology to your advantage means that new ideas in your company can be proved or disproved quickly because you’re surrounded by people who are technically literate.
“The communications gap is a real thing, and it’s a dangerous thing that is grinding a lot
of businesses to a halt – particularly if you have developer teams and non-developer teams unable to communicate with each other.”

According to a McKinsey report, a staggering 83% of US businesses are not realising the full potential of technology. One company that is certainly at odds with this figure is GE. Working with Decoded, this global business has made a bold statement for digital transformation.

Show that you are not afraid to learn and it will set an example for the entire business. It will teach you the art of what is possible and help you implement a concrete and confident digital transformation strategy.

Last year, GE’s then-CEO, Jeff Immelt, announced the upskilling of its workforce and compulsory requirement of coding as a skill for all future hires, mandated right up to board level. “GE has put learning and upskilling on centre stage for that journey to digital transformation,” says Parsons.

“Executives are probably technically the most experienced and the most knowledgeable people. They’re driving companies. But because technology has changed so quickly, they may find themselves in a situation where an 18-year-old might know more about the technologies radically impacting their business.”

One of the best things leaders can do is focus on education. “The best boards are leading by example; they’re aware that they need to get their hands dirty too, and that they need to understand these new technologies – whether it’s code, cybersecurity or AI,” says Parsons.

“Show that you are not afraid to learn and it will set an example for the entire business. It will teach you the art of what is possible and help you implement a concrete and confident digital transformation strategy.”

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