print “Hello, World!”
We’re going to talk today a little bit about coding. Specifically we’ll answer the question, What is Coding? and also cover a little of what happens when we code. Before you begin, though, I want you to right click on your browser window and choose the View Page Source option. What you just got was a view of that web page’s code. Which is to say, you got a glimpse of the language that tells your computer how to make that webpage look the way it looks.
The first time I actually looked at the code in a browser window was a revelation to me. Here was the internet in the internet’s own voice. Sure I didn’t understand most of it, but I could pick out snippets of words and phrases I understood. I knew a font name or two, understood pixel sizes more or less. It was alien to me, but I could understand how it worked. Here was the language that my computer spoke. Or so I thought.
If you’re planning on learning to code at all, it’s worthwhile thinking through what exactly is happening when you code, what exactly it means when we say someone is coding, what the difference is between coding vs. programming, what languages you might end up coding in, and how to get started coding.
So let’s start briefly with what coding isn’t. I mentioned above that when I first saw the source code of a web page, I thought that I was looking at the language my computer spoke. This is one of the common ways of talking about what coding is. It’s not exactly true, though.
Your computer doesn’t really understand the nuances of language. In fact, the only terms your computer understands well at all are “Yes” or “No.” Imagine talking to a group of engineers, but your phone has gone out and your radio only works one way. You can only communicate with a flashlight. One flash for yes, two for no. It might take a while, but eventually, the bridge will get built and all will be happy.
This is how a computer communicates with people. The language the computer speaks is binary code, a mathematical language that looks like a line of ones and zeros. Essentially the computer understands “Turn this function on. Turn this other one off,” and nothing else. So unless you’re typing strings of ones and zeros into your text editor (which, you’re not…just no), you’re not really writing code in a computer language.
OK, so if writing code doesn’t amount to writing in the computer’s own language, what are you doing?
Well, think about it like this. You don’t speak binary and the machine can’t come close to understanding human languages. So in order for you to tell the machine what to do, you have to have a translator who can act as an intermediary. This is code. It’s a form of writing that isn’t binary, but that the computer can understand.
For most of the programs you’re likely to write, the code is actually several steps removed from the binary code. You write in a high-level code that’s closer to human language, and programs built into your computer translate them down into binary. It’s like if you needed to speak to someone who knew Mandarin, but the only translator you could find spoke only French. You would need another translator to translate from English to French and then they can translate to Mandarin.
What sort of blows my mind about all of this is that it works somehow. We have programs translating programs to a machine that only speaks binary, which is an insanely complicated prospect. Yet here I am typing human words on my binary speaking computer.
Luckily, when you start coding, it’s not really important to understand how this all works as long as you understand what programming is you’re headed in the right direction. The important takeaway is that coding is writing in an intermediary language that both you and your computer can communicate in.
When I was growing up, my dad was a computer programmer and all the people he worked with were programmers. This was how I understood people who wrote for computers for a long time. They were programmers.
Then it seemed like there was a shift in either terminology or industry, and suddenly people who wrote for computers were coders. Which has prompted me to wonder whether there is a difference between the two activities.
A little research shows me that it depends greatly on what school of thought you subscribe to. Several forums I have looked through say that there really isn’t a difference between a coder and a programmer. It’s a difference in terminology rather than activity.
The egalitarian in me likes this way of looking at things. However, Jonah Bitautas makes an interesting argument that there is a real difference that amounts to a matter of scale. Essentially, a coder is someone who writes language for computers. A programmer is someone who oversees the writing of a whole program — that is to say, a whole project’s worth of code writing.
It’s the difference, I think, between calling someone literate and calling someone a writer. A literate person can write and read words, but doesn’t necessarily see how they work together into elegant paragraphs and sentences. A writer, on the other hand, understands how those words work together in a larger, more complex structure and can maneuver through that structure with intelligence and choice.
Like I said, I love the egalitarian quality of the first definition, but I’m all for preserving a sense of difference between the activities, if for no other reason than it gives people something to reach for. I have written code, but I am not yet a coder. When I am a coder, I think I’d love to be able to look forward to the day when I can call myself a programmer.
When I asked you a minute ago to open the source code for this web page a minute ago, it took you to lines of code written in HTML. Short for Hypertext Markup Language, HTML works as sort of the bones of the Internet. It tells web pages what should be displayed where and how they’ll fit within a given style sheet. It also tells your browser where to look for content like images and videos that you might want to include, as well as where to find the style sheet you’re working off of.
CSS is the stylesheet. If you open up a CSS file, you’ll see a lot of references to font families, colors, bold or not, etc. When your browser loads a page, the HTML tells it “Hey. Make this part of the page look like a header. OK?” It also says “Here’s where to look to understand what a header should look like.” This will always be a CSS file.
Ruby on Rails and Python with Django
We actually already have a baller post on the differences between these two framework languages, which is worth ducking away to read when you’re done here. The short version is that Ruby on Rails (Rails to its friends) and Python (named for Monty Python) are both programs that are used to develop web applications. Which is to say they create programs that allow web pages to do things at a high level of interactivity. If you want to, for example, build a bot to automatically create an automatic payment system for your clients, you’ll probably use one of these. They’re great programs to learn to work with because they are extraordinarily versatile and there is a lot of extant code for you on the web to begin playing with this.
Learning to Code
There are actually a lot of parallels between learning to code and learning to write well (as there should be, since coding is just writing in computer languages). I think the most frustrating of these is that, as with learning any language, you have to be willing to spend time practicing it and doing it poorly.
There are some people who are just natural coders, sure, just as there are people who can speak Italian after listening to a couple of operas. For the vast majority of us, though, learning to code is a process that involves trying to tell the computer to do something, having the computer come back with an error message (which is its way of shrugging its shoulders and saying “Qua?”), and then trying a new way of doing the same thing.
The most successful self-taught coders I know are people who regularly take on coding challenges just to see what they can make. I know a guy who writes Python bots for Twitter as a sort of hobby. He’s made some things that are pretty awesome to behold.
Coding languages now are dynamic and complex enough that often times if you can conceive of a thing you want to have happen on the web, you can do, and probably there’s a web site that can help you work out how.
There are also many ways to find classes that can get you started on the basics of whatever program you want to make. That means there’s really no reason to not start playing a bit. There’s no risk to trying something (you can’t break the web; Kim Kardashian already did that), and the gains are huge. So go for it. Conceive a bot, conceive a web page, conceive a font family, and get started.