Learning to Code: Eight Steps to Master for Beginners

Remember your first glance at a screenful of computer code? It probably felt like reading another language. Some words may have looked familiar, such as “print” and “input,” but they were surrounded by symbols and numbers that looked completely new.

You’re not alone. Many programmers felt lost when first viewing Python, C++, and other leading coding languages. However, they quickly learned how to turn that language into an elegant website, an exciting video game, or a valuable phone app.

But, the question is, how did they start learning to code? In this article, we’ll outline a path for beginning coders which includes the following steps: What questions should you ask before beginning your coding journey? What languages should you learn? Can you learn to code online, and what are the best places to learn to code?

Coding can be a rewarding venture for everyone — from hobbyists to aspiring computer programmers. Since a future in coding has to start somewhere, let’s begin here:

print(‘Let’s learn to code’)

There — your first Python program! Let’s keep it going with the following 8 steps for beginning coders.

Learn Coding Fundamentals in These 8 Steps

Step 1: Ask Yourself, “Why Should I Learn to Code?”

Everyone has different reasons for learning to code. Some consider it a hobby while others may have a great idea for an app but lack applicable coding experience. Meanwhile, professionals working in industries that value coding prowess may want to gain the skills needed to further their careers.

Regardless of context, programming skills can open doors to countless professional possibilities — from business and finance, to healthcare, to education, and beyond. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects computer-related occupations to grow by 13 percent through 2030, with demand for software developers to grow by 22 percent, and web developers to grow by 13 percent. With a strong foundation in coding, professionals can explore the in-demand world of machine learning and artificial intelligence, robotics, and smart mobile devices, among others.

A bar graph that highlights projected employment growth through 2030 for Web Developers, Software Developers and Digital Designers.

There are many effective ways to learn coding, including coding bootcamps, which can help you learn industry fundamentals efficiently. However, before embarking on your coding education, determining your “why” is critical. If you have a hobbyist’s interest, your approach to studying and your educational needs will differ from someone interested in coding for a specific career track.

Step 2: Choose the Right Coding Tools and Software to Get Started

Being prepared to code means having the right equipment. This not only includes computing power, but also the right software tools as well. Since laptops and desktop models are updated regularly, consider buying the latest version of your chosen device. Mac or Windows? Entirely up to you. Regardless of your choice, you may want to invest in a high-resolution monitor (e.g.,1920 x 1080 or better) since you’ll be reading or debugging lines of code.

Text editors are also essential. They’ve become the primary writing environment for coders because they handle plain text files while word processing software does not. As you gain more experience, you will likely discover your preferred text editor. However, a great place to start is with your operating system’s free version — for Windows, it’s Notepad and for Mac, it’s TextEdit.

Consider downloading a code editor as well. Code editors are like word processors for programmers to write and store code. Some include debuggers and other features. For example, if you’re getting started with JavaScript, a popular coding language, you may want to go with Visual Studio Code.

And don’t forget about your web browser! Since developers and coders have different demands of their browsers, this is another personal preference decision. Most browsers come equipped with developer tools, code inspectors, or debuggers. Among the most popular browsers are Microsoft Edge, Safari, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera.

Step 3: Pick the Right Programming Language to Start Learning

There are literally hundreds of programming languages available — from the widely known to the obscure — and each has its own benefits, range of use, and learning curve. Fortunately, most coders do not need to learn every language, just the ones applicable to their unique goals or professional tasks. To start, consider a language that meets your programming goals and is also beginner friendly.

According to HackerRank, about 40 percent of Millennials and 30 percent of Generation Z programmers learned C as their first language. Meanwhile, 57 percent of hiring managers in the Americas cite JavaScript as the top language for prospective employers, with Python (52 percent) coming in second. Of course, beginning coders shouldn’t pick a language based solely on generational or hiring-manager preferences. Choose the best fit for you. Here are some of the top coding languages for beginners:

HyperText Markup Language is the chief scripting language in web design and a must for developers. HTML is considered relatively easy to learn and a good language for newcomers.

A companion language to HTML, JavaScript gives websites their interactive qualities, such as dropdown menus and videos. Those who start with HTML likely will move on to JavaScript as a next step.

As a multi-purpose, object-oriented language, Python has a variety of uses. Programmers employ Python to develop computer and mobile applications, create games, and perform data analysis. With a syntax similar to English, Python has a reputation for being easy to learn and understand.

As the HackerRank survey noted, C is a popular first language for many programmers. Like Python, C is a general-purpose language with a relatively small base of keywords. But it’s powerful enough to be used in developing operating systems, web browsers, and photo and graphic design tools.

Step 4: Start Your First Coding Project

Coding is a learn-by-doing pursuit. When your first program works, the sense of accomplishment drives you to the next. When it doesn’t, you enter a key stage of the coding process: debugging.

Beginners should embrace starting from, well, the beginning. Remember our Python coding example above? It merely prints, “Let’s learn to code” on the screen. From there, you can write lines of code to perform simple math, generate random numbers, and create basic algorithms using the if/else commands.

Don’t wade into the deep end too quickly, though. Coding terminology requires time to understand and precision to perform correctly. Being a sharp editor also helps. Coders often get frustrated with what they perceive to be properly written code, only to find a misplaced parentheses or an extra space is causing errors.

Before beginning a program, outline its goals. If you’re building a website, will it feature interactive buttons, dropdown menus, or video? And if you’re starting with a game, what features will make it unique or enhance its playability?

After considering your project’s goals, it’s time to select the language that is the best fit. For example, prospective web developers build or redesign websites using HTML or JavaScript. Aspiring software developers often start with a Python project, even if it’s a simple Madlib or game of Hangman. Remember: Start small.

Step 5: Write Comments in Your Code

Programming languages provide a means for writing comments and explanations within lines of code that don’t interfere with the program itself. These comments can help the programmer describe their code and its algorithms so code users can understand the mechanics behind a program.

The coding community has different opinions on the subject. Some feel coding comments are useful (particularly in open-source environments) to explain parts of a project. Others believe comments are distracting or even disruptive; especially if they’re unclear.

As you progress in coding, you’ll probably develop your own opinion regarding comments. But, as a beginner, consider adding comments to your code. They’ll help you understand sections of your program, when returning to it after a break. They will also help others you may enlist for guidance.

In addition, when you study the coding work of others, pay attention to their comments. You can learn a great deal by reading fellow coders describe their thought process.

Step 6: Join the Coding Community

Coding, for the most part, is an open-source venture. What does that mean? Software developers permit users to view, study, and even change their source code. This makes coding a collaborative pursuit which extends to the community surrounding it.

Coders have built communities around career paths, projects, specific languages, and regions of the world. They share tips, best practices, even sections of code with like-minded explorers. If you’re new, stuck in a loop, looking for inspiration, or want feedback on a project, these can be helpful spaces.

Here are a few coding communities to consider:

Facebook offers Developer Circles in which experts provide coaching and insight to aspiring developers.

Have a question? Stack Overflow is one great place to ask questions. Developers have asked more than 21 million questions on the site, meaning yours likely has already been answered.

Mozilla’s Developer Network takes a communal approach to teaching Firefox coding. The network offers opportunities to learn about debugging, website creation and optimization, and other coding-related matters tied to the Firefox browser.

CodeGuru offers subforums for a variety of languages (with an emphasis on C++), as well as discussions about Java, databases, algorithms and data structures, and code-testing.

Women Who Code is a nonprofit whose mission is to “inspire women to excel in technology careers.” It sponsors a worldwide chain of networks, hosts virtual and in-person events, and offers a jobs board and scholarship opportunities.

Step 7: Hack Some Code

Once you’ve gained some experience, test yourself by digging into someone else’s code. On GitHub, the software-development platform, millions of developers have uploaded projects to be explored. The site also has an open-source guide that walks you through the steps of becoming a contributor.

Diving into other programs is a great way to learn. You see how programmers write their code and can find inspiration for your own projects. As you become more confident, you can edit and upload your improvements to their code. It’s another way to join the conversation, trade best practices, and sharpen your skills.

Step 8: Continue Your Education

The best painters, musicians, athletes, and coders share a common character trait — they’re always practicing and learning to improve their craft.

If you want to be a coder, then code every day. The website 100daysofCode challenges and supports people to write code daily. It has a variety of resources, including a podcast, devoted to encouraging coders.

Further, aspiring coders may want to seek out more means of inspiration. Plenty of tutorials, webinars, and podcasts are available. Those seeking a structured, comprehensive, and intense coding education might consider enrolling in a coding bootcamp or traditional undergraduate education, while others may prefer an independent learning approach.

Whichever you choose, just keep learning.

Learning Options for Coding Beginners

So you’ve explored coding, found a penchant (and maybe even passion) for it, and want to immerse yourself. Uncertain about how to do that? We’re here with some options.

Bootcamps are accelerated learning courses that focus on the essential, in-demand skills required to pursue careers in coding, data analytics, project management, and other tech fields. They can provide opportunities for newcomers looking for their first technical roles or professionals who want to upskill or make a career transition.

In a coding bootcamp, learners embark on 12- or 24-week courses that provide a career track into web development. The bootcamp covers the key disciplines required of full stack developers: HTML/CSS and JavaScript, working with servers and databases, and creating and optimizing web applications. An optional online phase helps learners build fluency in popular languages such as Python and Java, and helps develop additional portfolio projects as well.

More young coders are turning to bootcamps. According to HackerRank’s 2020 developers survey, 16 percent of Gen Z developers have leveraged bootcamps to develop new skills. Are boot camp learners ready for the workforce? HackerRank reported that 72 percent of hiring managers said yes, with 33 percent ranking bootcamp learners as better equipped for their jobs than other hires.

Bootcamps operate at a challenging pace, which might not be the best fit for everyone. And some might question whether bootcamps are worth it. But if the curriculum and approach are right for you, consider enrolling at Columbia Engineering Coding Boot Camp.

College remains the most popular route to a computer programming career. Stack Overflow’s 2020 survey of professional developers found that nearly 75 percent have at least a Bachelor’s degree and 25.5 percent hold a Master’s degree.

A four-year degree in computer science offers a valuable springboard into a variety of programming and developer careers. And, advancing in careers in computer and information science typically requires a Master’s, according to the BLS.

Colleges offer plenty of advantages, from the tested curricula to their additional resources: internship placements, career services, corporate recruiting opportunities, and vibrant academic communities. But not everyone is positioned to make the time and financial commitments required for a four-year undergraduate degree program, particularly those who want to learn while working. Anyone considering a college program must weigh these factors to decide what best fits their goals, resources, and timeframe.

Many coders are self-taught. For instance, the most-used method to learn coding skills among Gen Z and Millennials, according to HackerRank, is YouTube.

Aspiring coders can start to learn Python or JavaScript without taking a formal class. Online tutorials, educational videos, and coding apps walk learners through the stages of coding; often with helpful, step-by-step visuals. For those who want to learn one language, or even a specific process within that language, the independent learning path can be very helpful.

Those seeking a more structured learning environment can take advantage of free online courses, offered on platforms such as edX. Independent learners benefit from focusing their education on specific needs and going at their own pace. They also must be self-starters who are prudent about vetting the sources of their learning sites.

FAQs from Coding Beginners

Anyone can learn to code armed only with their ambition and curiosity. Coding is an open-source educational environment that offers free online classes and tutorials, educational videos, and even apps devoted to coding. Of course, how-to coding manuals have been available for decades and still provide a valuable learning platform.

Though many people can learn the basics of a particular language within a few months, they’ll always be learning. Give yourself several months to become familiar with a language, especially if you’re starting from scratch. In a coding bootcamp, 12 weeks of immersive full-time study will have you writing programs in HTML/CSS and JavaScript.

Companies do hire the self-taught, if they can prove their skills. HackerRank’s survey found that small companies are more likely to hire developers who don’t have degrees. And some tech companies have training programs for those with limited experience. A strong portfolio of coding projects can help open doors in your job search.

Online coding resources are abundant and can include everything from tutorials to educational videos to sites with free coding courses. Finding these resources can require a bit of research, and sources should be scrutinized to ensure the information is current and relevant, but they make a fine starting point for coding beginners.

Pick a coding project that interests you and write a section of code for it daily. Games are a good place to start. Write a simple program for a Madlib or a game of “rock, paper, scissors.” Build a portfolio website using JavaScript to host your coding projects. Access open-source projects, downloading the sourcecode to see how you might change or improve it.

Ready to take on a rewarding career in coding? Then consider enrolling in Columbia Engineering Coding Boot Camp, offering the in-demand, real-world skills needed to become a full stack developer in as little as 12 weeks.

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