Etsy workers get a chance to craft code

The popular online marketplace for handcrafted goods has a program to expose their non-tech employees to the engineering end of the business

A handcrafted-looking sign that says Welcome to Etsy
Credit: flickr/AIGA/NY

As the movement to teach everyone to learn how to code gathers steam, one well-known company is making an effort to give every worker an exposure to programming. Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade items, now offers every employee a chance to participate in an engineering rotation. The rotation gives participants the chance to learn about the software and processes that power the site, as well as a chance to interact with their more techy coworkers.

Etsy engineer Dan Miller wrote about the program recently on his group's Code as Craft blog. According to Miller. the idea was inspired by the success of a program Etsy introduced in 2010 to have all employees, including CEO Chad Dickerson, take a regular turn doing customer support. They found that the support rotation did such a good job fostering communication and understanding across departments, that they felt offering a similar chance for everyone to (briefly) work in engineering (the engine behind the business, after all), would be a good idea.

The engineering rotation they’ve devised is fairly short (about three hours worth of training and actual coding) and fairly simple. The goal is to have the employee add his or her picture to the company’s Team page, by deploying changes to production code. The rotation is a three-step process: homework (learning HTML basics via Code Academy and some reading), training (about Etsy’s architecture and deployment systems) and pairing with an engineer to make and deploy the code change.

So far, according to Miller’s post, about 70 people have completed the rotation. Not surprisingly, they’ve found that having employees take part in the engineering rotation helps demystify the whole coding process and, as with the support rotation, helps to build empathy and communications across departments.

I reached out to Miller to learn a little more about the program. He told me via email that the engineering rotation is entirely voluntary and that there are no current plans to change how it works (for example, to make it more in depth). However, Miller did tell me that some of the participants in the engineering rotation have gone on to participate in what they call “doubles development.” That program is mainly for developers on different teams to work together on engineering problems, but non-technical people will sometimes work with an engineer on issues around their internal tools. “For example, an engineer could pair with a member of our customer support team on improvements to our email support tool,” Miller wrote.

I think programs like these are great. While I’m not generally a fan of forcing everyone to learn how to code, I think Etsy is doing it right: giving non-programmers exposure to what programming is all about, without forcing anyone to go deep into coding and ultimately still leaving that work to the professional developers. Anything that makes the black box of tech less opaque is a good thing, as is anything that increases communication and understanding between tech and non-tech folks.

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