Last year I’ve decided to learn how to program in order to change my career path, and by this I don’t mean going to school to get a degree, but learning by myself, at home. With only basic programming knowledge, which I’ve learned in high school (close to zero, now that I look back), I’ve started the long and difficult road towards success.
Because the beginning of anything is very difficult, and you might get mixed feelings about your decision, not knowing what to do and who to turn to, I want to share a few thoughts on this, with examples from my own journey, hoping that I will provide guidance to those of you who find themselves in the same situation.
And I will start with a friendly advice / warning: If you don’t have the passion for this, DON’T DO IT! If you plan to get yourself into programming only for the material benefits, you’re going to have a hard time. After learning intensively for a while now, I can tell you it’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle, and it takes a lot of dedication, study and self-discipline. It might look easy at a first glance, but in order to become really good at what you do (where the real money come from), you need more than this. You need passion! And if you think the beginning is hard, wait until you pass the beginner’s level. This is only the start, and it will only get worse, before it will get better. If you don’t have the drive to learn, you will simply quit, as you can’t make any more progress. There are enough programmers out there who don’t really understand the concepts, and spend their whole careers copy-pasting code from different resources, bringing entire companies to the ground, when things start picking up, and the websites they built can’t support the traffic anymore. Don’t become one of them!
Beginner – Set. Goal. Wings to fly!
Still, not being aware of those, I wrote the pretty HTML and CSS code and after threatening my PC a few times with flying lessons, it all looked gorgeous, but … yeah, things were missing, others were working without me actually understanding why, and others were working but not doing what I wanted them to do, but what I told them to do (Yes, computers have this annoying habit to do what you tell them to, and not what you actually have in mind 🙂 ). Those links and tabs did nothing! Hmm …No magical leprechaun took on the responsibility to make them work after I wrote the code. Darn! Someone is going to get fired… Someone, anyone?
After realizing I’m the only man on the ship and I can’t fire myself, I went back to the drawing board. How do you code the sign up and log in? And, how does the website know who you are in order to show your profile page? And … how do you show a profile page, when it pops in the menu bar only when the user is logged in? How do I hash the password? How do I connect files? Where do I insert a chunk of code in another programming language? And how do I …? And where … ? Oh wait … Oh no … Oh my … And that’s how getting lost in the programming world starts…
Medium Level Knowledge – What … ? Where from … ? Panic!
The more you look for answers, the more you realize how much you DON’T KNOW, and you start to doubt even the knowledge you have. Random code and notions pop from every website you click on, in your quest for guidance. You want to get it, you think you did, but you have no idea what to do with the information. Where do you even start when there are so many things that don’t work, and you don’t know what to do first?
Well, first of all, don’t panic. I know, too late. Still, don’t do it. It’s normal to not know everything from the beginning. Also, there’s no way you can ever build something of the size an online community, when you have only basic knowledge of programming. We all went through the ‘going up really fast’ faze, feeling like we just got our cool set of wings to fly, when you think you can get to the moon and back with them, and then hit the ‘brick wall of reality’. And, it hurts badly, but it’s a good wake up call, making you realize what your level really is.
Going through online sources you will find information mainly for beginners or advanced programmers. Nothing for you, past beginner’s level knowledge person, but without enough experience to keep at it. Once you pass the beginner’s faze, and you do have some knowledge here and there, you will be clueless about what to do next. And you search desperately for answers, and the more you read, the harder it gets, and the more confused you become.
Ok, I did learn a lot. I did some reading, I know more stuff. But what do I do with the information? Where do I put the PHP / Javascipt code now? How … what do I do with the Database? How should I structure the website? What goes in which folder? What file should have what extension? Very hard to figure out, on your own.
This is the point where you have to keep at it, and don’t quit! Also, this is also the point where most beginners who got themselves into this only for the money, or for the wrong reasons, will quit. It’s a good faze of learning programming, even if it looks like the worse you’ve been through, so far.
The Solution To Your Problems
Sorry, no easy way out, no shortcuts. If there were such an option, I would have found it by now, as I looked for any possible way to learn faster, skip steps as I can clue in by myself as I go, get better with less reading and more practice with the code. If you are looking for the secret of getting there, I can’t give you the recipe, as there is none, but I can give you the method: WORK. Yes, a lot of work. Again, it doesn’t come easy, but when it finally clicks, it’s very much worth it!
From my own experience, here are a few steps I followed, which actually helped though the journey, by keeping me on the right track. They might not work for everyone, as we all learn in a different way and at a different rhythm, but they sure worked for me:
1. Don’t give up! So, it doesn’t work. So, what? No room for ‘Lie down. Try not to cry. Cry a lot‘ type of attitude! If you feel like this is your passion, and you have a call for it, remind yourself daily, as many times as needed, that you made it so far, you know a lot, even if it doesn’t feel like it, so it pays to focus a bit longer. I know you must go though a ‘I can’t do it‘ faze, but, with a lot of work and dedication, you can do it.
2. Get organized (after you get out from the previous panic moment 🙂 ). If you decide on a specific field / programming language, work on finding a structure, a content of the information you should know, and you want to / have to learn. You can find it in a book, or from a ‘learn how to program’ website. Regardless of your source, keep building on top every single point of the list, going from simple notions to the most complex ones.
3. Read from multiple sources. Websites like Codeacademy are great, but once you passed the rookie faze, you can’t rely only on the information you got from one source, as that will never be enough for you to reach your goal. I combined the structure previously created (see point 2) and built on top of it, by reading from beginner’s websites, one book (whichever one works better for you – find it and use it – start with ONE only, then move to a new one) and video tutorials on how to whatever you are currently learning. From everything, what I’ve found most useful were the video tutorials, as they gave me the visual and audio part of learning, which I was missing by focusing only on the reading. This also clarified a few questions I had related to the structure of a website.
4. Go small! Take you goal, break it into as many pieces as possible, and work only with those pieces until they work. When one piece doesn’t work, tackle one issue at a time. When you figure it out, then you can move to the next one. One by one, you will get them done, and you will put the puzzle pieces back together, to form the desired result. Don’t ever bite more than you can chew, or you will end up disappointed and discouraged, which slows down or puts an end to the progress made so far.
5. Practice, practice, practice. Once you read something, make sure you take the knowledge and apply it. This is the only way in which it will stick. You can’t memorize programming, you have to feel it and understand it. No other way. What really worked for me, was using a programming language to solve small programming challenges. Project Euler was probably my best teacher in the past few months, when it came to solidifying and testing my knowledge.
6. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! I know it might sound weird but mistakes are good, actually they are great! It took me sooooo long to figure this out, but every time you make a mistake, you learn. I know it must be hard to see, but believe me, you do. Fixing your own mistakes, will make the knowledge stick. Debugging has its advantages! Remember that the only people who make no mistakes are the ones who don’t try to do anything. If you want to learn, make as many mistakes as possible. You will get there!
7. Don’t expect immediate results. Yep, I am one of those persons who study for a while and then wants to move mountains. If I don’t see things happening, I feel down, and doubtful. If this is how you are as well, and you want to see the work pay off NOW, you can forget about it. When it comes to programming, there are only baby steps. If you set your mind on ‘going big or going home’, in the first months of learning, you will go home. You fill fail, repetitively, but it’s all about how you train yourself to keep on moving. Get up, and try again.
8. Trust in yourself, stay motivated! This is the hardest part, once things get hairy, but you are the only one who can decide to stay motivated or quit. Nothing can stop a motivated person with a positive attitude. It’s your choice entirely, which type of person you will be. With every new piece of information, and every new day of study, you can make a choice. Choose right!
Once it gets worse, it will also get better, as long as you hang in there, stick to your goal and don’t give up. No one said it will be easy, but if programming is what you really feel like you want to do in life, for sure you can get there! With the right amount of work and dedication, you can become a very skilled programmer. No overnight success though, but only a lot of dedication, reading, practicing, debugging, all for that moment when your code works perfectly, in one go.
Remember, it pays to be patient. Get busy coding!