Learn to Code

Tips & Tricks for Getting Started

Anyone can learn to code. Like any skill, it just takes time and practice. That said, teaching oneself to code can be daunting. There are so many places one can start and an infinite number of paths from there.

This guide is a starting point for anyone interested in learning. It consists of tips and tricks for getting started, as well as the free resources that I used as I taught myself to code.

The Basics

What Equipment Do I Need?

  • 💻 Computer - Any computer will work to get started. My computer at the time was a 3-year-old Dell laptop with minimal specs. Any Operating System will work, although some languages are more accessible on MacOS.
  • 🧰 Code Editor/IDE - I personally recommend Microsoft Visual Studio Code for writing code. It has syntax extensions for every language that make writing code much easier. It is completely free and works on Windows/MacOS. It also has cool themes and extensions.
  • 😺 GitHub Account - GitHub is a version control platform that enables you to store your code for free. It’s an industry standard for maintaining projects (more on version control later).
  • ✏️ Design Software (optional) - If you want to work on web design, it helps to have a no-code platform for sketching up ideas. I highly recommend Figma, as it’s free and cloud-based. They have incredible user guides as well.

What Do I Learn First?

There are tons of languages and frameworks out there and it can be nerve-wracking to try and choose the right one. First, I think it’s helpful to know your options. Programming languages tend to be helpful for specific things, and most fall into one or more of these categories:

  • 👉 Front-end - All of the interactive/visual things you see on a website/application. This includes design work and making sure the user can interact with a page’s elements.
  • 👈 Back-end - The database that stores a website’s data, as well as the way data is passed between the frontend and the database.
  • 📱 Mobile Development - Like frontend/backend, but for phones.
  • 📈 Data Science - How data is used to drive business decisions.

How Do I Choose?

Here are a few questions that should help guide you to a good fit.

  1. 🎢 What is fun for you?
  2. Choosing a language that helps you build a project you enjoy makes the experience of learning to code so much better. You’ll also find it easier to push through when you’re frustrated.

  3. ✅ What are your goals?
  4. If your goal is a career change, I highly recommend searching for jobs you would enjoy at companies you’re interested in and see what qualifications are listed. Finding the commonalities among a few positions and starting there will save you a lot of guess-work.

  5. 🙈 Still can’t decide?
  6. Most people tend to find front-end development more intuitive and approachable when getting started. I would recommend starting with HTML, CSS, Javascript and React. Once you have learned the basics of those, I would add in Express and any of SQL/MySQL/PostgreSQL. This group of languages, or ‘tech-stack’ is fully accessible on any operating system and should be good enough to learn any skills necessary for a full project.

What Languages Match My Interests?

Here's a list of popular languages/libararies by category:

  1. 👉 Front-end
    1. HTML
    2. CSS
    3. Javascript
    4. React
    5. Bootstrap
    6. Django (if learning Python)
  2. 👈 Back-end
    1. Python
    2. Java
    3. C++
    4. Javascript (kind of)
    5. SQL
    6. PostgreSQL
    7. MongoDB
  3. 📱 Mobile Development
    1. Swift (iOS)
    2. Kotlin (Android)
    3. React Native (Both)
  4. 📈 Data Science
    1. Python
    2. R
    3. SQL
    4. Scala

Getting Started

Basic Strategy

  1. Learn the Basics - By basics, I mean have a general understanding of the building blocks of the language. Anything past that is Google-able. I work full-time with Javascript and I still Google the syntax at least once per week.
  2. Explore - Build projects and do your best to problem-solve along the way. The debugging guide later in this document will help you figure out what’s going wrong.
  3. Repeat.

Tips & Tricks

Consistency is Key 🔑

I would encourage you to find a rhythm that works for you and stick with it, taking blocks of time at least three days a week. I used to think that these needed to be huge blocks of time, but just an hour or so every few days is plenty - especially when starting out. Over time, you will be shocked at how your skill develops.

One tip here is to take some notes about what you’re doing/learning along the way. Then, when you finish for the day, just briefly review the notes from this session and your previous session. I have found this helps to keep knowledge fresh.

Tutorials vs. Exploration 🧪

Tutorials can be valuable, but they have limits as well. For example, when I was learning Python, I followed a tutorial to build a basic blog on Youtube. After about 10 hours, I finished the tutorial and realized that I had a blog, but I did not know Python any better than I did when I started.

Exploration, on the other hand, forces you to learn the language and apply the fundamental concepts of the language in new situations. Through exploration, you learn when to use what you’ve learned, which is much more helpful.

It may be slower, but I would encourage as much exploration as possible when learning. There are plenty of resources for project ideas below, but try to build the projects with as little instruction as possible. You will find that the concepts stick much better.

Pick a Paradigm 🖼

In my experience, using metaphors in the learning process speeds up the learning curve and improves comprehension. Ironically, this works even better if the metaphor is a bad one. Some metaphors that I have used in the past include: language (grammar/syntax), lego bricks, algebra, and Hot Wheels.

Essentially, the goal is to try to explain what you are learning within the context of another subject. For instance, the popular framework React utilizes reusable ‘components’, which are comparable to Lego bricks. Within the paradigm of Lego bricks, these ‘components’ are stacked together to form more complex ‘components’, etc.

Resources

Courses & Tutorials 🙋

The following websites have excellent resources for learning the basics of most popular languages. Each of these resources is free, although they may offer some additional exercises through paid access.

  1. Codecademy - Basic courses are all free with optional premium exercises. Some advanced courses/learning paths are available with a subscription, but they are not necessary. They have an intuitive web-based development environment, so you can learn the language in the browser without switching to/from a code editor. Codecademy offers courses in HTML/CSS, React, React Native, Javascript, Python, Java, SQL, and more.
  2. W3Schools - Courses are more focused on the language rather than application and therefore have less structured examples. However, it is easy to navigate through the lesson to find the specific information you need. W3Schools is also good for design because they offer an extensive Bootstrap tutorial. They offer many of the same languages as Codecademy and courses are entirely free.
  3. FreeCodeCamp - The only place (as far as I know) that offers free certification upon completion of a learning path, FreeCodeCamp’s structured courses are based on learning specific skills rather than languages (i.e., web development rather than Javascript). The courses are longer, but they use multiple languages in building applicable skills.
  4. The Odin Project - Skill-based paths are less structured than FreeCodeCamp. They point to the resources necessary for completing the projects rather than guiding you directly. They often offer a reading list and guidelines, then leave it to you to figure out the rest. The Odin Project has excellent soft-skills lessons and a ton of additional resources. That said, the Odin Project is not a traditional tutorial site in the sense that all learning is largely self-guided. As such, it may be less approachable for some people.

Projects & Practice Problems 👷‍♂️

So you have learned the basics of a language, but where do you go from there? These resources offer ways to practice and improve your understanding of the language, including inspiration for projects and challenge problems.

  1. FreeCodeCamp - As a part of the learning paths mentioned above, FreeCodeCamp requires projects to be completed. FreeCodeCamp provides a list of requirements, but their projects give ample freedom to make the project your own.
  2. The Odin Project - As mentioned above, the Odin Project takes a completely project-based approach to learning. It may be beneficial to learn the basics in a more traditional tutorial and use the Odin Project as a guide for reinforcing that knowledge through practical application.
  3. HackerRank / LeetCode - These sites offer practice word problems sorted by language, difficulty, and data structures. While they don’t offer projects to build, I do find them useful for practicing things that you’re finding difficult. For instance, I struggled with learning lists in Python, so I practiced here until I was more comfortable with that skill. I would advise you to pick whichever you prefer and use it sparingly when you find you’re struggling with particular concepts.

Documentation 📖

Documentation, in this case, refers to the reference guides for languages, frameworks, and libraries that are put together by the people/teams who create or maintain the language. It is my opinion that documentation is the worst way to learn a language, especially for beginners. In most cases, it’s like trying to learn a human language by reading a dictionary. That said, dictionaries are essential as a reference for learning a language. In the same way, learning to use documentation can prove invaluable for learning a programming language.

You will certainly find that some documentation is better than others, but most documentation can be found with a quick Google search. As with a dictionary, I have found documentation to be most useful when you approach it with a specific question in mind. Just be sure that the documentation you’re reading matches the version of the language or framework you are using.

Appendix

Debugging: Printing vs. Debugging Tools

Printing 🖨

Most programming languages offer some form of printing, or logging information to the console. For instance, if you have a Javascript variable called exampleData, you can log/print that variable to the console to understand the data it contains. This can be helpful for troubleshooting because you can see what data is being passed, how that data is being transformed, or which code is being run.

That said, printing is not interactive in the sense that it either runs or it doesn’t. There is not much information about why it was executed or not, nor can you access any information around your print command. Printing can be extremely useful, but it takes a while to learn what to print in order to get the information you need.

Debugging 🐛

Debugging refers to the process of interrupting your code at specific points to learn more about the way it is functioning. It is one of the most helpful skills you can learn, especially early on, in the sense that it is more interactive than printing. When debugging, the code is stopped in the middle of its execution and you can walk through line by line to make sure you understand what’s happening. For this reason, it saves a tremendous amount of time. I don’t like to think about the amount of time I could have saved myself had I just learned to debug my code early on.

Google Chrome has excellent debugging tools built into the browser. If you are doing any web development work, I would highly encourage you to watch a video like this one to familiarize yourself with using Chrome developer tools. A 30-50 minute video could help save endless hours of trying to figure out what’s going wrong.

If your code is not running in a web browser like Chrome, most code editors have built in debugging tools that are just as helpful. There are great guides on YouTube for setting up those tools in almost any code editor that you choose.

Terminal vs. IDE

Terminal

The terminal can be an intimidating place because, for most people, it’s a complete unknown. I don’t think I used the terminal on any computer in the first twenty-four years of my life. That said, it is an essential part of learning to code. My advice for learning the terminal is to focus on specific skills. The most common skills that require the terminal are:

  1. Git - This is how you manage versions of your code. Git allows you to revert to a previous version if you make a mistake, as well as to build out features without worrying about breaking your main code.
  2. Package Management - Most languages require additional tools, known as packages, to accomplish tasks. These packages can be installed or updated through the terminal. Executing Code - Any script or application you write will require an execution command to start it. This command is often executed in the terminal.

IDE/Code Editor

Your code editor is your most crucial tool for writing code. But why use one at all? Well, imagine writing an essay in the Notes app. You could do it, but tools like Google Docs or Microsoft Word offer ways to simplify the process dramatically. The same is true for code editors.

Most editors come with language-specific tools that help you write code in a particular language while checking your syntax. They also offer extensions to help you format and test your code. I would highly recommend taking some time to familiarize yourself with the IDE that you choose and to customize it in a way that helps your work-flow. Plus, they have some sick themes to customize your aesthetic 🔥.