These days, even just understanding the basics of programming can get you quite far. That’s because just about everything now uses some form of digital software which, in turn, is nothing more than proprietary code behind the scenes.
Smart home devices, IoT, machine learning, voice assistant technologies, online communication tools, driverless vehicles, advanced farming equipment, the list goes on and on. All of these things require some form of software to control or operate them, and that means there are developers building the necessary applications before the products are released to the market.
Programming is so instrumental to today’s world that schools are now adding coding classes to their curriculums, allowing children to learn the basics at young ages. It also shows that anyone can learn to code, at any age, and should be encouraged to do so.
Whether you’re looking to build software or applications, learn a new language, or just dip your toes in the waters of programming as a hobby, there’s a wide variety of resources at your disposal. Teaching yourself how to code is more accessible than ever, if only because there are so many ways to do it. That said, the task itself can be quite daunting, and if you don’t know where to start, it’s easy to get lost.
Before you go any further, the first thing you’ll want to do is decide why you want to learn how to code. What is it you wish to achieve?
Why Learn to Code?
Understanding why you want to learn programming will help you make a few initial decisions.
For instance, there are several different programming languages to learn and use, and just as many Integrated Development Environments (IDEs). Choosing how to invest your time is best done by considering what you’re going to be coding and, ultimately, what you wish to achieve.
A programming language like C++ is generally used for data structure, algorithms, memory allocation, and sometimes game development. Other game development languages include C#, Unity, Java, and HTML5.
The rise of artificial intelligence, big data, and machine learning is a huge driver for new coders. Languages like Scala, Python, R, Haskell, and Lisp dominate the field and certainly require proficient programmers to understand and use.
Notice how each task has a different language associated with it? Furthermore, each of those languages or platforms has its development environment.
Practically or Professionally?
The scope of your project can also help determine how much training you’ll need. If you’re a hobbyist who’s going to spend a few minutes per day learning to code, you can stick with some of the free online courses and interactive tutorials. But if you want to launch a career in a STEM or programming field, you might be better off going with a more substantial course or form of training.
There are different tasks involved in each focus group, too. A hobbyist might code a personal robot, arcade machine, or even a smart home device. The wildly popular IFTTT (If This Then That) service uses an incredibly basic form of programming to set up device triggers for smart home systems. Coding experience might also help a hobbyist fix or repair certain devices.
Professionally, coders work on any number of digital, computer-operated systems, from manufacturing and industrial machinery to driverless vehicles. You could end up working on the next Photoshop, too. It just depends on what you want to achieve as a developer.
How to Choose a Programming Language?
Once you’ve chosen a goal, you can more accurately determine the language you will be using. Of course, there are always a few options, even within a single discipline. Using mobile application development as an example, you could go with Swift, Java, Python, or even something like BuildFire.js, which includes development framework support.
The point is, there are many languages at your disposal, which means there are many to select. There are many different types and classifications, and some languages even fall under multiple categories, so it’s better to choose a language based on how you plan to use it.
Some languages are more user-friendly than others, so they’re much easier to pick up as a novice. The tradeoff is that, often, the languages most natural to learn are only useful for basic development or simple functions. They’re an excellent place to start, especially when you’re teaching yourself how to code, but you’ll eventually want to aim your sights higher.
That evolution of your talent is another aspect to consider when choosing a language. You’ll want something that provides ample opportunity to grow. While most programming languages are similar in primary use and design, they have enough differences that you’ll want to stick within the same family.
Apple’s Swift, for example, is built upon Objective-C, which means experience with the C-family of programming languages can undoubtedly help, and it’s an excellent place to move to if you’ve had enough of the former.
Just to give you a frame of reference, here are some of the most popular programming languages for IT careers:
- C and C++.
What Is the Best Programming Language?
Strictly speaking, there is no “best” language or definitive answer to which one you should learn and use. Some developers might argue for or against different languages depending on personal preference. Coding is very much an art, similar to writing, drawing or even music production. It takes a lot of skill, know-how, and experience, but it also takes creativity. That means each language has a certain amount of subjectivity to it. You might find that you enjoy working with one language over another, and that’s okay.
That’s precisely why you should choose a language or path based on what you wish to achieve.
Teaching Yourself a Programming Language: Where to Start?
Once you’ve chosen a language to focus on — don’t worry, you can always move on to another later — the real fun begins. Just as there are many languages and development environments out there, there are many different ways to learn and teach yourself how to code.
You can always use the traditional method and dive right in, which is admittedly more complicated. Or, you can turn to interactive tutorials, online courses, and other educational materials.
Step 1 — Choose Your Learning Source
If you want to teach yourself conventionally, that’s fine. You can always use books, reference materials, and quick tutorials. Many of the languages have these kinds of support materials in their official documentation.
It’s much more convenient, however, to follow visual aids like YouTube videos, interactive guides, and online courses. A majority of the more substantial online courses will provide you with all the necessary materials and files you’ll need to get working. For instance, they might include sample code snippets that you can copy or reference. The beauty of choice is that you can work at your own pace and choose what works best for you. It might also cause you a little confusion if you don’t know which would be the best place to start.
It’s always recommended that you go with an online course — particularly a free one to kick-start things. You can find courses on YouTube and other media sites. You can also find them on educational portals.
You can choose the learning source based on your level of interaction. If you want to have a little fun while you’re learning, you might choose something like CodeCombat over an online video course. That’s also a great place to start for kids and younger coders. They might also benefit from the same learning materials as adults, however. Many younger children are learning to code in school, starting with Python for middle schoolers and then Java for high schoolers and beyond.
People of all ages can learn to code over time with enough dedication, and the best part is that you can do it precisely how you want and at your own pace. Here are some of the best places to learn code online for free:
Step 2 — Install and Setup Your Development Environment
The IDE, or integrated development environment, is an application that enables you to consolidate different activities in coding into one interface. It’s where you’ll be spending most of your time when coding. The exception, of course, is when you’re working with languages that can be written in simpler applications like notepad. HTML and CSS, for instance, are usually written in a text editor, although there are development environments for them, as well.
For the most part, the learning avenue you choose will walk you through the onboarding and setup process. Each language will require the installation and setup of a development environment, and all are relatively different. You have so many IDEs to choose from, including:
- Visual Studio Code
- Android Studio
- Anjuta DevStudio
- And dozens more
If you’re not sure where to start, a resource list of streamlined IDEs can help you select the best tool for your individual needs.
Step 3 — Create a Simple Project
For virtually every course you take or participate in, you’ll be starting with the infamous “hello world” coding project. It teaches you to output the words “hello world” within a small application that prints the content after runtime. It’s a quick introduction to coding and helps beginners feel a small amount of success that will undoubtedly be needed.
Once you’re more comfortable with the language you’re learning, try to create a small project of your own. Keep in mind that you should be setting the bar a little lower than you might as a full-blown developer. In other words, don’t go into the project thinking you’re going to build the next big application immediately. Start small and experiment by working with the same concepts and commands you’re learning in your training.
For example, you might change the “hello world” project to output different text and information, and you might even include a problem or equation that the application solves.
Need help finding beginner coding project ideas? Here are some quick starting tips for inspiration:
- Stick to text-based programs at first, as that’s the most achievable software.
- Try making something that would be useful to you at work or school.
- Try your hand at making a game.
Step 4 — Grow
Finally, it’s important to remember that, over time, you’ll make mistakes, you’ll fail at certain things and you’re going to run into frustrating moments and aspects of coding. It’s all part of growing your skillset and learning the ins and outs of programming, coding, and development.
Realize, above all, that you should allow yourself to experience these things without becoming discouraged or giving up. Even the best coders in the world still make mistakes, sometimes put together messy code snippets, or also run into development problems long after a program or application has been “finished.”
Just look at how often the Windows operating system receives updates. Sure, many of them are designed to fix security issues and patch emerging vulnerabilities. Still, the updates you see labeled as “stability”-focused are meant to fix bugs, problems, and mistakes in the code.
To advance from a beginner to an intermediate and eventually an advanced program developer, try your hand at more challenging projects like:
- Adding features to apps and project-based tutorials
- Collaborating on a project with a fellow coding friend
- Building out Google Chrome extensions of your own
- Engaging in constant learning and taking advantage of learning resources
Is It Okay to Swap Languages?
Of course, it’s okay to change programming languages and development environments. If you’re working with C# but feel that you might benefit more from swapping to Unity, go for it! In a lot of cases, you can seamlessly swap between languages, especially when they’re from the same family.
That said, there will be certain limitations that you should consider before changing. It’s not always as easy as transitioning directly from one language to another and realizing equal proficiency with the new language immediately. In other words, you might take a step back or two when swapping languages, meaning you could even have to start your training again.
It’s crucial, however, that you don’t see this as a negative. It’s an opportunity to further your talent, experience, and training, which is a positive thing in the world of development. Don’t be afraid to make a change or try something new — that’s precisely how we grow as individuals!
You should now be feeling good and ready to start your training, whether you’re going to teach yourself how to code using a more traditional method — like books and official documentation — or you’re looking to start an online or interactive course.
Good luck, future coders!