I have seen a lot of questions being constantly repeated by people that just started learning programming, or by some that are considering starting. Those questions are all valid and they should be asked, but it’s not always easy to get a personalized answer when asking something that has already been asked countless times before. In this post, I want to address a few of the questions that are the most frequently asked by beginner programmers, by using my own experience as an example.
What programming language should I learn?
This one is definitely the most common, and it is also the one that has the least straightforward answer. I will dedicate a full article to it in the future, but to answer it here quickly: it depends.
It’s not a very satisfying answer, but the reason for that is that while most “mainstream” programming languages are valid choices, not all of them serve the same purpose. Some are more adapted for mobile applications, some for websites, games, etc. So here’s an answer, depending on what you want to create:
- For small scripts to automatize your work, learn Python. People claim that it is one of the easiest programming languages to learn, and it will allow you to make scripts that manipulate files, read from website, etc. in a small amount of time. It also has a large amount of libraries made by the open-source community that you can leverage in a lot of situations, for example to manipule Excel files or images, read the source code of a webpage, and much more.
- For AI / data science, once again Python is probably the best choice. It is the most used language for those use cases and will let you focus on analyzing your dataset rather than having to write code.
To conclude this section, just know that any language on this list will be a good choice, and, in the long run, it won’t matter which was the first language that you learnt.
What is the best way to learn programming?
For most skills, some people learn better by doing, some by watching others, some by listening to podcasts, etc. This doesn’t apply to programming. There is only one way to learn programming and it is to learn by doing.
I already wrote a dedicated article called about what is the best way to learn programming for a beginner, but it was more theoretical recommendations rather than an actionable list of things to do. Once you are done reading the article that I just mentioned, here is what I would do if I had to start learning programming again from scratch:
- Read or watch a good tutorial for the language that you want to learn (a list for some languages is available in this article). Make sure that you never copy code, but always follow any example or exercise offered by the tutorial and replicate it to make sure you understand every concept.
- As soon as you know the basics and have advanced enough in your tutorial, start doing small personal projects while still learning through the tutorial that you chose.
- When you are done with it, put any tutorial aside and focus on building real projects, with multiple feature and a good complexity level. At that point, you should completely stop following any tutorial, especially the ones like “how to build a todo list step-by-step”.
If you need to learn a new concept, like “how to communicate between two programs on internet”, then look that up, and follow a small tutorial that will take you no more than 15 minutes to go through, just to present the concepts quickly.
This step will be the most important in your whole learning journey, and it is extremely important that you do your own projects, and struggle while learning on them. I made a list of projects ideas to practice programming that you can check out, and then start working.
- Learn about data structures & algorithms. Maybe you should learn about them before the point 3, but I think you’ll get discouraged and bored of exercising them. I would recommend learning about their existence and try to be conscious about them during your projects.
- At that point (or maybe before, again), you want to learn about higher level concepts, like good software architecture, automated testing, maybe continuous deployment, etc. Those are skills that will elevate the quality of your personal projects, and that will be infinitely valuable in the workplace.
The points one and two should be done in that order, but I think the rest can be mixed together because the concepts that you will learn will help you get a better experience during your practice. And practice really is key. I think there is a good way to know when you move beyond beginner programmer, it is when you don’t have to think about the keywords or the syntax, and can focus exclusively on the algorithm and building the features.
Do I need to be good at maths to be good at programming?
Computer science degrees are somewhat recent, and back a few decades ago, most programmers were recruited amongst physicists, mathematicians and the like. I imagine this contributes to the belief that programming is very heavily tied to maths. Add to that a vocabulary that shares a lot of terms with mathematics, like “functions”, and the fact that it’s part of STEM.
It is easy to understand why some would believe that you need to be good at maths to be good at programming, but it is far from the truth. Both mathematics and programming are tools, ways to reach a goal, they are not themselves the goal. You will need to use maths if you are developing applications that require mathematics, like simulations or some parts of video game development, but in the very large majority of the cases it will not be used.
I have had to use basic mathematics during my studies, for graphics related projects. One of them is to use the concept of ray tracing, which has been popularized in the past couple of years by companies like Nvidia, that promises life-like graphics. In essence, ray tracing is using mathematical formulas to simulate the properties of light, which defines how we see things in the real world. All the pictures are 100% generated by mathematical formulas.
My experience is that the simple formulas that you will sometimes need can be learnt on the job, and I never felt like I needed to be better at maths to be able to develop software. Now, for my work, I literally never need anything related to maths, and while programming is all about logic, it is far from how mathematics work in my experience.
Just to make it very clear: no, you don’t need to be good at maths to be good at programming. In fact, you will probably never need any maths during your programming learning / career. The only cases where you will is when you will develop mathematical applications, or video games (to some extent).
Do I need a degree to learn programming?
No, definitely not. If you are reading this article you have already done the first step to learning programming and you are probably not following a Computer Science degree in a university. If I was able to start learning about HTML & CSS at 10 years old to make my first website, so can you!
You can learn online very easily, from an absolute beginner level, without any limits. There are plenty of free tutorials online that will give you all the basis you need to make any kind of software you want. There are only few requirements, namely having a computer (I wouldn’t recommend writing code on a phone or tablet), and a lot of time to invest. Programming takes time to learn and practice, and there are no shortcuts.
That said, some things are hard to learn without attending school, because you won’t even know that those concepts exist. I will dedicate some articles to those in the future, but for example it is hard to know if you’re doing a good job with the architecture of your software without having a more experienced teacher tell you what you are doing right or wrong. Software engineering is also not limited to writing code, and concepts like networking can be hard to learn without a good structure around you.
When learning programming alone it will be extremely hard to be self-critical and know what you are doing wrong, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good level without going to school. I learnt programming on my own, before going to a computer science school, and while I was able to write the code I needed to write to create the feature I wanted to create, it wasn’t good code.
There is a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect in which people that have a low level of skill in a specific field tend to highly overestimate their ability. You just don’t know that you’re not good. I think this is particularly true in programming, and the longer I work in a professional environment, the more I notice that the least experienced programmers are often the most opinionated (my friends and I all were back in school). I think it might be hard to break this cycle when you are learning on your own without anyone having an input on the quality of the code you write. Be self-critical and try to disconfirm your beliefs, always.
Do I need a degree to get a software developer job?
To continue on the previous question, you might wonder if you can get a job as a software developer without having a degree, solely by learning online.
I mentioned in the previous response that not going to school will make it hard for you to learn some of the aspects of software engineering. Another major one that you can simply not acquire without university, is team work. Very often in jobs you will have to work with multiple people on the same project, or even collaborate with other non-technical teams. Learning on your own will make this first experience challenging, and you might lack a lot of technical knowledge that is tied to working in groups, like using Git to share code.
Another thing to consider, way beyond your technical skills, is the competition with other software engineers. Sure, there is more demand than supply for programming jobs in most countries, but it isn’t necessarily the same when it comes to good programming jobs.
When you will want to get a job, you will be in competition with other junior programmers, but they will have a degree to vouch for a minimal set of skills. Sure, you might have a lot of personal projects to prove your skills, but so will they. There is almost no incentive for an employer to choose an autodidact over someone that went through school, and it will always be a risky move.
To conclude, I think you will have a hard time getting a job without a degree. That said, I have heard countless times about people that got a job after learning on their own, but you should always keep in mind that it might be an example of survivor bias. I’ve see quite a few transitioning from quality analysis jobs to programming for example, and I think it’s definitely a potential strategy to work yourself “up the ladder”.
Sometimes I get stuck on a basic problem for hours, is it normal?
Just today I spent 3 hours trying to make something work because when starting a new project I forgot to copy 3 lines from the configuration file that I took from a previous project, which prevented me from building but didn’t print any error. I only figured out the problem when I compared line by line with my reference, after trying everything for hours. Does this sound like a basic problem to you?
It happens to everyone to sometimes be stuck on something very basic for a long period of time, even after 15 years of programming. I actually wrote a “stupid check” list where I write down all the very basic mistakes that I made at some point and that took me hours to fix at some point. I guarantee you that you will never make those twice.
Anyway, my point is that it is totally normal to be stuck for a long time on a simple problem. It might be a bug that you struggle to fix, or it might be a concept that you have a hard time understanding, but it’s normal, programming is hard. What you should keep in mind however, is to take this as an opportunity for you to learn how to solve problems.
You should dive-deep in the problem, and leverage the tools that are available such as Google and StackOverflow. I would also encourage you to invest hours in searching for a solution, before asking for one on a forum. Doing this consistently has 3 benefits:
- You will probably get the answer faster. People might not be interested in your question and you might never receive an answer. Out of the 27 questions that I asked on StackOverflow over 6 years, I either received no answer, or answered them myself, in 10 cases (37%). Sometimes it’s hard to find an answer and it will take you hours, but it’s most of the time faster than waiting for someone to answer you.
- You might learn things along the way. You will have to look into articles, documentations, tutorials, and more to try to find your answer, and while solving your issue you might also learn about new concepts related to what you’re looking for.
- You will learn how to properly search. I already talked about it in my article on the top things to learn, knowing how to properly search on Google is extremely important, and it will only come with time.
Some other questions…
I’ll finish by mentioning a few other questions, that either have an answer too short to deserve a full section or that I answered in other articles:
- Is programming hard to learn? Yes, especially at the start. I think programming becomes easier to learn as you get more experience. It is extremely easy for someone with years of professional experience to pick up a new language and be work-ready in a matter of weeks or even days.
- What tools should I use? It doesn’t matter. I started programming with Notepad++, which is barely anything more than the Windows notepad with colors. However, if you want some recommendations, I wrote an article about my favorite tools as a professional software engineer which might give you tools to improve your productivity.
- I use Google a lot and I feel like I’m cheating, is it bad? No, it’s totally normal. I use Google, check out code on StackOverflow and read articles all the time, it’s just a normal part of software programming. Google is actually the first thing that I mentioned in my article about the top things to learn for beginners.
We reach the end of this article where I presented a bunch of the questions I have seen being asked the most online by beginner programmers. If you have any other question and cannot find the answer online (as I said, Google is part of the job!), feel free to ask it in the comments of the article and I will either answer you directly or add it to the article!
If you want to read more about my advice for new programmers, check out the section Learn Programming of the blog!