JavaScript training for every employee? One company says yes

Software firm FreeCause mandates that everyone learn JavaScript -- and they mean everyone.

tech employees learning to code

Coding is all the rage these days, as everyone from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to urban teenaged girls tries a hand at computer programming.

But few organizations have taken the trend quite as seriously as FreeCause, a Boston-based developer of loyalty management software for retailers and affinity groups. Every FreeCause employee, from CEO Mike Jaconi on down, is learning JavaScript. Inspired by the dictate within its Japanese parent company Rakuten to have all its employees become fluent in English, Jaconi decided to have everyone, from himself down to the interns, learn to code.

Given that edict, it would only be natural to assume Jaconi is a geek, eager to imprint his culture on the 7-year-old company. In fact, he has a degree in political science from the University of Southern California and spent some time working on John McCain's presidential campaign. Nevertheless, he is passionate about the benefits of group coding.

FreeCause CEO Mike Jaconi
FreeCause CEO Mike Jaconi: Having everyone learn JavaScript helps to "raise the level of intelligent dialogue and improve collaboration between the various teams within the company."

"I felt it would only raise the level of intelligent dialogue and improve collaboration between the various teams within the company," Jaconi says. And so he announced in January that any of the 60 employees who didn't already know JavaScript, the language of its software development team, would take programming lessons, whether their job required it or not.

"Our employees' livelihood is based on a complex technology," says Jaconi. "We wanted them to know more about the technology our customers are touching. Our 'codinization' program was important for both client dialogue and cross-departmental communication."

Jaconi's announcement was met with both enthusiasm and skepticism, but the results -- even among the skeptics -- have been encouraging and enlightening, he says, and in at least one case, the gamble has paid off in ways that improve the bottom line.

Could such an approach produce similar results at other companies? Josh Bersin, CEO of Bersin & Associates, an Oakland, Calif.-based analyst firm focusing on training and talent management, has never heard of a company training all its employees to program. He does cite tech firms like IBM and EDS (now part of Hewlett-Packard) that have trained large swaths of customer-facing employees on specific technologies in order to ensure a common level of institutionalized knowledge.

"If you're in product support or a customer advocate, and you know how the product works because you've learned how it's coded, you can answer questions in a more valuable way," says Bersin. "And when clients ask for configuration and customization, everyone understands the implications. I've just never seen it done to this extent."

At first, pushback is part of the package

FreeCause uses online training from Codecademy to teach the basic levels of coding, asking each employee to spend two hours a week with it. Those online lessons are augmented with two weekly one-hour meetings with a lead programmer, who acts as a mentor, and a team of three or four others, during which lessons are reviewed. A monthly "boot camp" is designed to impart more general programming lessons.

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