5 Steps for MBAs Learning to Code

by Matt Thurmond

Hang out around tech-oriented MBAs and you inevitably hear questions like “I want to learn to code but don’t know where to start” or “what language do I need to learn...Ruby, Python or PHP?” Jumping into coding cold is difficult, you don’t know what skills you need and you don’t know where to start.

So in recognition of this problem, I’ve compiled a list of 5 steps that an MBA can take to become code-savvy. I am an MBA myself that has been on this journey off and on for the last 18 months. I’ve learned a good deal and most of the time has been spent productively. However, if I had it to do all over again, I’d streamline the process and do it like this:

1. Narrow the scope to web design/development

Don’t waste time trying to learn a little bit of everything and dabble. Instead, focus on code that is easily testable, has lots of good learning materials and is in line with where everything is headed: the web. This means learning languages that web browsers interpret: HTML, CSS, JavaScript. It also means learning a back-end language like PHP or Ruby. Other languages you see like C and Visual Basic are for different development environments, i.e. desktop, mobile, proprietary, and are harder to learn and test.

2. Learn the basics of web design

Coding is less important for most MBAs than being able to nail down exactly what you want in a product and communicate the specs to others. For this reason, start learning web design first. I recommend skimming “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug to get a better sense of how designers think and how they visualize web pages. I then recommend doing 2-3 mock-ups of your own. Do them on paper first and then go sign up for a trial of Balsamiq and mock them up with that tool. You can also read up on Adobe Photoshop and Fireworks if interested, but I don’t recommend spending time learning these programs. They are slow, expensive and there is a steep learning curve.

Instead, take your pencil-sketch Balsamiq wireframe to oDesk.com or 99Designs and outsource the creation of a full-color mock-up. I wasted too much time trying to learn Adobe Fireworks and would have skipped this in hindsight.

3. Go to w3schools and learn CSS, HTML and JavaScript

Now pick a good site and dive into coding. I use w3schools and really like it. It’s free, simple and you can run the coding exercises right in your browser. If you really push, you could get the basics of all three of these web languages down in a single weekend. I recommend speeding through lessons that seem like corner cases and focusing more on the exercises to get familiar with the basic syntax and logic of each language.

Other friends of mine prefer sites like Code Academy or Treehouse so feel free to try those too. But quickly pick one and stick with it.

4. Publish a website with Dreamweaver

Now you need to publish a website. When I finished this exercise it really boosted my confidence and the whole process was a lot of fun. It also gets you familiar with how hosting works and with how websites are organized on a server.

First, download a 30-day trial of Adobe Dreamweaver. You could also download shareware programs like Notepad++ for writing the code and Filezilla for transferring it to the server but Dreamweaver is easier. Next, go to Lynda.com and take a video lesson on creating a website with Dreamweaver. They even have sample website files if you need them. Finally, you’ll need to buy a url and sign up for a web host like GoDaddy. The url is $10 and the hosting costs around $60 per year. There might be a cheaper way to do this, so check around if these costs are a problem. 

5. Learn PHP

This is the hard part. Since I am currently at step 5 and am learning PHP myself I’ll only give limited tips. My first tip is to just pick a language and go with it. Languages like PHP, Ruby and Python are all fine but you should pick one that has a lot of online training materials, preferably at w3schools. Second, realize why you are learning this. You will probably not ever do a lot of back-end coding yourself. It is more likely that you will be reading the code, helping with bug fixes or using your knowledge here to spec projects and/or determine what is technically feasible. So don’t go overboard. Take the online lessons at w3schools, do a few basic projects and wrap it up.


That’s it! If you have any suggestions or helpful resources please comment below. Thanks!