Let’s Change How We Think About Learning to Code

Before I ever had my first paid job as a programmer, I spent a lot of time contemplating what it means to get paid as a programmer. I was a hobbyist, teaching myself to code in grade school and high school.

When I became a freshman in college studying Computer Science, I began thinking about the future. I was being asked to commit to being a programmer for the rest of my life. I had no idea what it meant to work with programmers or even work as one on a team.

I’m sure anyone looking to dive into software will have the same questions.

  • How do I start learning to code?
  • What language should I use?
  • What kind of computer should I have?
  • What operating system do I need?
  • What books should I read?
  • Should I go to a bootcamp?

The trouble is that all these are surface level questions. You feel frustrated because every time you ask these questions, you don’t feel like the answers satisfy you. Someone can write a post telling you the differences between Ruby vs Python and yet at the end you still can’t make a decision between the two.

That’s because there is a laundry list of meta-questions you might not even be aware of yet. What you’re really trying to answer are questions like these:

  • Why do we have so many programming languages?
  • How do I know if I’m on the right path, using the right technologies, and working with the right people?
  • What is the difference between a bad programmer and a good one?
  • How can I tell if other people are good or bad programmers?
  • How will I know when I’m a good programmer?

These are just scratching the surface of the underlying questions you probably have.

You will have this intense feeling of discomfort for a while. You know there are lots of important questions you should be asking, but you don’t know what they are yet or how to articulate them.

This experience shouldn’t be unfamiliar to you. Remember in high school when they tried to prepare you for college? You took these career quizzes, teachers gave you advice, your parents pushed you in different directions. It was a huge decision to make and you didn’t even know where to begin.

It’s the same thing when you start programming. The fundamentals of computers have always been the same.

It is called a programming *language* for a reason.

The most obvious purpose of a programming language is to tell the computer to do what you want. I type some code, it reads it, and adds two numbers together and gives me the result just like I expected it to. Perfect.

The hidden purpose of a programming language is to talk with other human beings.

The hidden purpose of a programming language is to talk with other human beings. We have many natural languages like English, Spanish, German, Chinese, the list goes on. There are many ways we can communicate with other human beings. The same thing applies to programming and this is why we have so many different programming languages.

There are a thousand ways to explain an idea. The computer can understand all of them, but humans can’t. When you write code, you have to express your ideas in the clearest ways. Code that you wrote six months ago looks like gibberish because you think differently now. There is so much difference in human thinking due to learning, culture, and experience. That means that great code emphasizes human understanding first and computers second.

Great code emphasizes human understanding first and computers second.

There is a broad spectrum here and each programming language falls somewhere on it.

Some programming languages are designed more for computers than they are for humans. In fact, the most computer-focused programming language would actually be 1s and 0s. Something that, as humans, we wouldn’t even consider a language at all.

As you move up the chain, you can see things shift more towards humans.

Assembly is introduced to make the 1s and 0s more memorable for us.

C is designed to be an easier level than assembly but you still have to heavily think about how the internals of a computer works.

C++ begins to introduce some human concepts into the language so we can represent ideas better in code.

Java builds upon the ideas of C++ but abstracts away the internals of the computer as best it can. You don’t need to care about how things inside your computer like RAM is used as much.

Python takes another step towards humans and focuses on a syntax that’s more readable for humans but still has a lot of the structure inside it.

Ruby is focused on flexibility. They want your code to be like writing a story or a poem. Sure, you still have to worry about how the computer works somewhat, but even less so than Python.

Every programming language fits on this scale somewhere.

The trouble is that it’s hard to even understand what this means as a beginner programmer. If you don’t know how the computer works, then Assembly is going to sound scary. At the same time, if you only ever learn Python then you will feel something is missing because you’ve never learned how the internals of the computer actually work.

The trouble is that it’s hard to even understand what this means as a beginner programmer.

The internals of the computer are the building blocks of programming that you’re taught in college. The problem is that college is on one end of a spectrum that we didn’t realize existed until recently.

In a college computer science degree, you’re put in a world of heavy theory and concepts. There is little practical application of these ideas, but you dive deep into these topics. You learn about algorithms and data structures and how the electricity flows through the computer to make it work. Yet, you learn all this without seeing its value applied to problems that make money in the business world. At the end of the day it feels very disconnected.

Bootcamps tend to be the opposite end of the spectrum. You learn how to type code without ever learning how a computer works. The stuff you learn is built upon a fragile foundation because you’ve been quickly pushed through a system designed to get you a job after just three months (or less).

Until the recent rise of bootcamps and online learning, I don’t think it has been obvious this spectrum even existed in education. As you read this, 5 more bootcamps are getting started and 5 more colleges are committing to teaching old technology for another year (not really, but basically).

The value of programming and tech is becoming apparent to the entire world and it’s becoming cool.

The value of programming and tech is becoming apparent to the entire world and it’s becoming cool. Being a programmer used to be considered unattainable if you weren’t trained in it. With the rise of popularity in startups and the financial success of tech companies, learning programming and investing in technology is becoming the cool thing to do. The barrier to entry isn’t as high as it has been in the past and the average person is able to hop online and start learning Rails in 30 seconds.

The value of having skills in tech are becoming increasingly obvious as well. Being a programmer means you can work from home, remotely, and still take home a six figure salary. Print designers are looking to add web design to their skill set because they know they can advance their careers that way. Corporate managers are looking to start a startup because they feel like they would get more value out of it. The list goes on and on.

The important piece of all this is that these are all people without a technical background.

They come from careers where software was not a large part of their job. The need for learning software from a more human focused vantage point is clear.

It is likely that college will persist as the place to learn deeply technical things and bootcamps will be the place to dip your toes in the water.

There is a middle ground though that is largely unfulfilled — and what online education startups are beginning to address. A place where you can go to dip your toes in, but shows you that going deeper isn’t scary.

The reality is that everything about computers that exists today was created by humans. It’s all a product of our imaginations and hard work. We have the tools for anyone to learn it.

The path to becoming a programmer is simple. You start at a point on the spectrum where you feel most comfortable and you work your way towards the middle.

The path to becoming a programmer is simple. You start at a point on the spectrum where you feel most comfortable and you work your way towards the middle. The middle ground is a place where people are equally comfortable with people and computers. It’s the future we’ve dreamed about where most people are able to write their own software to solve their problems.

If you start on the deeply technical side of the spectrum, you’ll be best served by figuring out how to apply your technical skills to solve human problems. All the hard work and innovative software you create can be used by thousands of people to solve their problems in unique ways.

If you start on the human side, learning technical skills and programming will give you a tremendous advantage in solving those human problems you work on every day. Maybe that nagging issue you can’t seem to fix is solvable by writing your own tool to improve communication.

The important thing to realize is that there’s no one way to start and no one direction to go. If there were, everyone would be doing this and it would be easy. But you should keep trying because coding is one of the most valuable and creative things you could ever do. You can literally build things out of thin air that don’t exist yet.

And one day you’ll step back from the computer and realize you finally get it. There’s no feeling like it. As Neil Gaiman says, “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

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