6 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?” If you don’t know what skills you need and don’t know where to look, jumping into coding can be difficult and time consuming.

So in recognition of this problem, I’ve compiled a list of 6 steps that an MBA can take to become code-savvy. I’m an MBA myself that has been on this journey off and on for the last two years. 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 & web development

Don’t waste time trying to learn a little bit of everything and dabble. Instead, I recommend focusing on web development because a) all the “front-end” code is easily testable in your browser and b) there are lots of excellent learning materials out there. This means learning “front-end” or browser interpreted languages like HTML, CSS and JavaScript. It also means learning a “back-end / server-side” language like PHP or Ruby. Other languages you see like C and Visual Basic are for different development environments, i.e. desktop, mobile, proprietary, etc., and are harder to test and learn.

2. Start by learning web design

Coding is less important for most MBAs than being able to nail down exactly what you want in a product and communicating those specs to others. For this reason, start learning web design first as it deals with the broad brush-strokes of a site, not the complex details. I recommend skimming “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug to get a better sense of how designers visualize web pages. I then recommend doing 2-3 mock-up designs 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 if you want a document to email around. You can also read up on Adobe Photoshop and Fireworks, but I don’t recommend spending time learning these programs. They’re slow, expensive and there’s a steep learning curve. In fact, despite people warning me not to use it, I still prefer Powerpoint in “portrait” mode over anything else. I use a tool called Snagit to pull graphics I like from the web. I then lay them out in Powerpoint and save the final product as a pdf. Done.

If you prefer an even easier route, just take your Balsamiq wireframe to oDesk.com or 99Designs and outsource the creation of a full-color mock-up.

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

Now pick a good training site and dive into coding. I use w3schools and really like it for learning front-end code like HTML, CSS and JavaScript. 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 actual coding exercises to get familiar with the basic syntax and logic of each language.

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 doing this it really boosted my confidence and the whole process was a lot of fun. It also gets you familiar with how web hosting works and with how sites 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 your code to a server but Dreamweaver makes things much 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, buy a url and sign up for a web host like GoDaddy. The url is $10 and the hosting costs around $60 per year. I prefer to actually publish something on the web because it’s a fun confidence boost. However, you can just as easily store the files on your desktop and view them in your browser from there. This gets more complicated when you have “back-end” code like PHP on your site but we’ll get to that next.

 5. Start learning PHP at w3schools

I choose to learn PHP as my “back-end” language of choice after researching a) which language is most widely used today and b) which language will be most widely used in the future. There’s plenty of debate out there but PHP, Ruby and Python all seem like fine choices with good online training materials. My main tip here is to quickly pick a language and go with it.

Next, go to w3schools.com and take the PHP lessons. These aren’t great but they’re free and it will only take you a few hours to get the general idea. I recommend the lessons on forms, $_GET, $_POST, includes, cookies and sessions. You can also take a few of the lessons that touch on databases such as the first few on MySQL (pronounced “my sequel”). I set up a small database on my web server and created a basic signup form that stored information on it – this was good practice. If you don’t have a web hosting plan, you can practice PHP on your computer by setting up a “local host” (just google “install PHP on my PC/Mac”).

6. Wrap-up your PHP lessons at Treehouse

The purpose of experimenting with PHP is to learn some basic lessons on coding and get more comfortable in a “web” environment. Don’t overdo it. Given this, I recommend you take one final set of lessons on Treehouse.com, experiment with their exercise files and then call it a day. I viewed the “Basics” and “Authentication” videos – 9 in total – and downloaded the exercise files. I then analyzed the exercise files, added a few custom tweaks to the code as practice, and published these files onto my web server. If you’ve completed steps 5 - 6 and understand the following PHP-related terms: mySQL, GET, POST, Session, Cookie, and Include – you’re done.


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

This post was updated on May 4, 2012.  The original title was "5 Steps for MBAs Learning to Code."


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