Message from a Digital Native

Giving advice and taking it to heart oneself as well!

In my last blog about the topic of digital natives, I encouraged young lawyers to take an interest in information technology and to have the courage to acquire some knowledge in this field. But then, anyone can talk big. This is why I took my own advice to heart and registered for a programming course for beginners. My goal was to acquire fundamental knowledge of coding, programming languages and the necessary software. What follows is a brief field report.

Slightly nervous and not knowing what was awaiting me, I was therefore sitting behind the computer assigned to me in the classroom one Wednesday evening. Gradually, other students also settled behind their screens and were busy with their mobiles. The bespectacled teacher was also silent and was starting at his computer. He embodied some clichés about information technicians which were rooted in my subconscious, which made me smile. Fortunately, another woman barged into the room just before the lesson started and broke the ice by asking whether the place beside me was still free. Now we could start to take everything in a more relaxed fashion.

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At six o’clock sharp the teacher welcomed us in a pleasant Austrian dialect and explained how he ended up in his job and in programming. Also, he distributed a script but said that we would not be following it since the theoretical disquisitions it contained were hardly practice-oriented. It would be best to try it all – he meant programming – ourselves: learning by doing. And off we went.

Hansjörg – this was our teacher’s name – was sitting at his computer again, nimbly working on the keyboard and commenting on his instructions. He actually had the nerve to get cracking without any further explanations! Everyone was somewhat overtaxed and somehow tried to keep pace.

The very first thing we learnt was to program a message box (“msgbox”) in Excel. This sounds more difficult than it is, since we merely told the program to open a new small window and to display the word “Hello” in it. The window could then be closed again with the OK key. Although this was not particularly challenging, we were fascinated, and driven by the play instinct that had been stimulated, we opened several windows with different texts.

The language in which we provided Excel with our instructions was called VBA, Hansjörg explained in passing, and he started a small theoretical lesson. A programming language serves communication between people and machines. There are hundreds of different programming languages, which differ from each other by their proximity to the machine code (0 and 1). The language that is closest to the machine code is called Assembler and is therefore also the most difficult programming language. It is followed by various more or less well-known languages such as C, C+, C#, Java, JavaScript, VBA, etc. However, a computer still only knows the values 0 and 1, which is why we need a writing program for each language, which then converts the source code that we have written for the machine into 0 and 1 (machine code).

After some further explanations of which language was suitable for which activity – Java, for example, is suitable for programming a website – Hansjörg returned to his computer. Now it was about developing a feel for the language. Like with every foreign language, we first have to acquire some vocabulary and some grammar in order to be able to formulate a sentence – or in our case, an instruction.

Besides number or value ranges, data types and operators, we also became acquainted with concrete instructions such as the above-mentioned message box. Often we also defined variables before the instruction, which were then used in the instruction. This resulted in texts becoming shorter and more compact. Furthermore, it is very important not to make any typing errors, and this point, in particular, made things very difficult! Apart from the fact that we only partially understood the language and that the words and word sequences made little sense, punctuation marks were also of enormous significance. A missing comma, a semicolon or a quotation mark resulted in an immediate reply from the machine: ERROR.

In the course of time, however, we began to spot our mistakes ourselves without Hansjörg having to search each and every one of our individual screens. It was also helpful that our writing program had a kind of spelling check and that we were able to recheck passages which the program did not agree with. Ultimately, the machine checked the instructor in order to ensure that he or she would provide the machine with the right instructions!

Initially, the course was not exactly simple, and it was also a bit frustrating. But as we continued to work on it, we started to derive some pleasure from it – particularly when it came to program decisions. We were asked to create an interdependence between the weather and our favourite spare-time activity. If the weather was bad, the program decided to stay at home. If the weather was fine, though, the program decided to go hiking. Depending on the weather conditions we input into the program, the result was different.

We were able to extend these if / then / else / and / or / not decisions at will and also recommend alternative activities. Thus we programmed, for instance, «if (alcohol level < limit) = you may drive; else = you must call a taxi».

These examples seem simple. But as we programmed them ourselves, as the instructions led from input to output and worked properly, we had a great deal of fun. And although I am still unable to program an app or something similar, I now at least understand the fundamental principles of the languages VBA and JavaScript. Also, I have lost my reservations although I am still a raw beginner and still have to learn lots of vocabulary.

Finally, I come to the conclusion that I would attend this course again at any time and can recommend that everyone should do the same. In a way, you learn what happens «behind the scenes» and how the computer that you use extensively every day basically works. Needless to say, I will never mutate into a professional programmer, but amazingly I find it great fun to learn something so completely different. I am still not of the opinion that lawyers must be able to program, but a fundamental knowledge is definitely required. In the meantime, I have also attended a one-week machine learning course at the University of St.Gallen, in which we programmed models from spam filters to identification systems for toxic mushrooms ourselves. But more about this in my next blog – «I’ll keep you posted!»


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About the author
Sabrina Weiss Sabrina Weiss has been a research assistant at the Executive School of Management, Technology and Law (ES-HSG) since April 2017. In her function, she is responsible for establishing the Competence Center Law & Management and supports various projects of Prof. Dr. Leo Staub and Prof. Dr. Bruno Mascello.