Learning How to Program: A Guide. Part III

What's the best way to get started?

(Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 of this series if you haven't already).

Okay, you think you may be a good candidate for programming, and now you want to know where to start.

Your first thought might be to enroll in a class somewhere. That's logical enough; courses teach things and you want to learn. But it is probably not the right choice.

The first problem is the cost. College courses vary widely in price, but none are exactly what I would call cheap. At this stage you are primarily trying to discover your inner programmer -- or discover whether or not an inner programmer dwells within you. If it turns out the answer to that question is "no," there's no shame in that, but you would like to get that answer as inexpensively as possible.

The second problem is that choosing a good school is a difficult and time-consuming process. You might have to go through this process eventually, and I'll discuss some tips about this later, but it's a lot of effort when you just want to get your feet wet.

The third problem is that it may take several courses before you find out for sure whether or not you really enjoy programming. Depending on your prior educational experience, and where you enroll, you might not be allowed to start with a programming course, or even a computer science or information systems course at all. And depending on how the first programming course is structured, it may not be a good yardstick to measure yourself against. Lots of undergraduate computer science curriculum start with an "easy" course that gently introduces programming concepts, requiring mostly mechanical operations from the students' brains with very little demands on their problem-solving ability. Ultimately, though, problem-solving ability is what programming is all about, which is why it's the subject of my book. So what happens is that the student sails through the first course with ease, because it's really a using-the-software course, like an Excel course, and doesn't discover the kind of thinking programming ultimately requires until a later course. By that time, the student has made a substantial investment of time and money, and is reluctant to stop even if things go poorly. This situation isn't good for anybody.

Or you could run into the reverse situation, a course that's very hard for you, but is it the material or the instructor that's not clicking for you?

I want to be clear about what I am saying here. Enrolling in a course or program, whether at a college or some independent training outfit, is an excellent idea for programmers. It's just not how I would recommend you find out if you are a programmer. (I feel the same way about any field. I wouldn't suggest enrolling in law school, for example, without doing everything possible to find out if you enjoy the law first).

Instead, I would suggest trying to learn the basics of programming on your own. Wait, I hear some of you saying: "That's crazy. Programming is tough. I need someone to show me the way." You probably will need some help, but not as much as you think, and you can get the help you need without resorting to a formal class.

So, to sum up, the best way to get started is to scoop up some resources (like books or compilers, that kind of thing) and start playing around with code. Before we get down to specifics, though, we need to answer another question: what programming language should you start with? And that's another article.

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Learning How to Program: A Guide. Part II

How I know if programming is for me?

(Be sure to check out part 1 of this series if you haven't already).

Maybe you've already gone far enough into programming that you know the answer to this question. But I've found many fledgling programmers, or people considering taking a programming, who aren't sure if they are heading down the right path.

People learn programming for a variety of reasons. Most people get into it for career reasons, but even so, the attraction of a programming career varies. For some, they see the figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics explaining how many programmers will be needed in the future, and how much money they make, and think: here's a good job. Others might see the results of programming, such as a video game, and think, the result of the programming looks like fun, I'll bet the programming is fun, too.

Some people get into programming out of a sense of curiosity about how computers work. Others might have no expectation of a full-time career in programming, but think that learning a little programming will help them in their other tasks. As the use of computers has grown in medicine, for example, I've had many students who are also doctors or otherwise employed in the medical community who want to learn enough about programming to write database applications or macros to assist them in the management of their practice.

Of course, having a good reason for wanting to be a programmer doesn't mean that you will be a good programmer. So what are the indicators that programming is something you should pursue? Unfortunately, there's no way to know for sure until you actually get into it. In all my years of teaching beginning programming, the best indicator for long-term success I've seen is the student's level of enjoyment. A good programmer enjoys programming. I don't mean that every act of coding will bring unbridled joy, or that programming is fun in the same way that playing a favorite sport or video game is fun. But there should be a real pleasure in seeing one's program working, even if the program is a pitiable little thing that accomplishes almost nothing.

When I finish the term of a first programming course, I sometimes have students who are asking me to evaluate them on their long-term chances. The truth is that the best indication of long-term success isn't a student's grade in the course, although of course a high grade is a good sign. The best indication isn't how good those first programs are, although again, well-written programs at that stage are another good sign. No, the best indication is whether or not the student is looking forward to taking more programming courses. Often, at the end of that first programming course, I'll have a student that is battered but eager, looking forward to the next challenge. That's a student I feel good about going forward. It's when a student tells me, "I really want to take a break from programming next term," that I get concerned.

Or let me put it another way. Probably just about anybody could become a pretty good programmer if they work hard enough to become one. But make no mistake about it, programming is tough mental work. If, on some level, you're not enjoying the work, you're never going to be able to focus on it long enough to master it.

The moral of this story is, if you've never programmed before, and you think you might enjoy it, you should give it a try and find out if you're right.

Here are a list of things some might think would have some impact on the chances of a particular person's success as a programmer, but that in my experience, don't count for much of anything:

Demographic background. You may or may not think you resemble the stereotypical image of a programmer, but that has no bearing on your potential for success. I've taught Americans of every stripe, as well as students from countries all over the world. Although I sometimes notice trends in terms of learning styles, or the way they communicated with me as a teacher, I've never seen any trends in terms of ability. Good programmers can come from anywhere.

Let me also say something specifically about women programmers. As I said above, the best indication for programming success is genuine enjoyment in the task. It may be that men, taken as a group, enjoy programming more than women. But this makes no difference for a woman (or girl!--never too early to start) who wants to try her hand at it. Women who enjoy programming are just as good at programming as men who enjoy programming. So if you're a woman who is interested in programming, you are exactly the sort of person who should try it out. And there are lots of other women in programming already, so you don't have to worry that you'd be alone.

Mathematics. Computers are just machines that do things with numbers, so it's natural to think that programming skill and mathematical skill must be closely related, but that's not really the case. There are lots of excellent programmers who aren't particularly good at math. Also, there are lots of people who genuinely enjoy programming who do not enjoy math at all. In my own case, although I learned to program at an early age, and programming has always seemed natural to me, math was typically my worst subject in school, and my lowest score on standardized tests. I remember the exact moment, explaining a tricky concept in discrete mathematics, when I suddenly realized that I actually enjoyed math -- I think I was about thirty years old.

Computer Use. Unfortunately, just because a person really enjoys working with computers doesn't mean he or she will enjoy programming. I guess the reverse is true, though; if you don't like technology, you probably shouldn't try to learn programming. But I don't know that this ever comes up!

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Learning How to Program: A Guide. Part I

There are a lot of people who are starting to learn how to program, or considering learning how to program, who have come to me with questions about the best way to go about that. I'm going to create a series of articles to give my best answers to the kind of questions that are typically asked:

(I'll connect these questions to other articles as I write them.)

Since I've just written a book, Think Like a Programmer, that encapsulates my best ideas on problem-solving, which I think is the most important skill a new programmer can have, you might expect me just to recommend buying my book and call it a day. But there's a lot more to it than that. I'll be talking about how my book fits into the overall picture later on, but it's just one piece of the puzzle.

So let's get started. I'm going to tag all of these posts with "learning how to program" to make them easy to follow.

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All Is Well?

Hmm. It would be nice to have received an e-mail from my hosting service--"The fire's out in the boiler room"--but the site seems to be back to normal, minus the missing content. I've put up pages for the new book, but I'm not sure I'll put up everything else that got hosed. Please note that for now guest account registering is disabled.

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"We will rebuild him."

Well, this is great. Something or someone hosed my site. Obviously, it's back up, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this, but I've lost all my content prior to about April. I guess "lost" isn't the right word. The content exists in other formats, but it will take time to get it back here. On the upside, this also foils the work of more recent spammers.

Anyway, rather than put everything back the way it was, I may start over with a new design, or at least rethink the content I want to feature here. We'll see. If you're curious, check back soon.

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