The Best Way to Learn Coding From Scratch (For Beginners)
We get it — coding can feel intimidating. It’s hard to know the best way to learn coding when the Hollywood-cool portrayal of the profession can seem so daunting.
You know the scenes, with hands practically flying over the keyboard, a skilled programmer churns out lines of indecipherable code and crafts a flawless application by the end of a three-minute montage. There’s a certain mystique to the process, a suggestion that only rare, brilliant people can learn how to code.
So before we go any further, let’s shatter that myth right now. Here’s the not-so-secret truth: you don’t need a genius-level IQ or a savant’s aptitude for coding to be a brilliant programmer. With enough interest and dedication, anyone can learn how to code including when starting from scratch. If you have enough drive and passion, you can even build a career out of it.
In this comprehensive guide, we will cover three simple steps aimed at beginners to help you determine the best way to learn coding for you:
- Pick Your Career Path
- Figure Out Your Timeline
- Choose the Best Way to Learn Coding For You
1. Pick Your Career Path
Which programming language should I learn first?
It’s one of the most commonly asked questions among beginners, and for a good reason. The development sector is so chock-full of unique libraries, frameworks, development environments, and languages that it can feel downright impossible to narrow in on a starting point.
Newcomers who don’t know how to get into coding might be tempted to gravitate towards the flashiest, most popular languages — and immediately feel overwhelmed. As TechRepublic’s Alison DeNisco Rayome made clear in an article on the matter, the programming market is bound to shift every few years, so your pick should never come down to what the trendiest acronym might be.
Instead of choosing a starting language based on popularity or apparent appeal, aspiring programmers should consider their interests.
- What types of challenges excite me?
- Do I have an eye for design, animations, and user experience?
- Do I prefer to focus on logic puzzles and figuring out how programs function over aesthetics?
With the answers to these questions, you can chart your educational journey in coding via three prospective industry paths:
- Front End Development
- Back End Development
- Mobile App Development.
These are by no means the only career paths for coders, but they are three of the most popular and serve as a solid jumping-off point for most beginners.
Keep in mind that countless industries and positions value job-seekers with programming know-how; these skills are highly transferable and will likely be useful even if you don’t know exactly where you want to take your career. The paths outlined below offer a broad-strokes map of what your professional journey might look like — but never forget that you have the agency to determine your own unique path!
Here’s what you need to know about each of the three primary paths.
Front End Development
Front end developers make everything you can see and interact with on the web. Considered part designer and part programmer, a front end developer bears the brunt of the responsibility — and credit — for making the Internet accessible, interactive, and (at times) beautiful.
Front end professionals are equally at-home in freelance, team-based, and corporate environments, making entry into the field much more accessible for a variety of individual working styles and preferences. These developers are responsible for maintaining web application user interfaces, creating tools that enhance user interactions with the web, adhering to SEO best practices, and testing their work for usability issues during day-to-day operations.
The profession often mandates close communication with clients, companies, and other teams. After front end developers prototype their site idea with other design specialists, they may make a detailed mock-up representation of the site’s functionality to illustrate their concepts to the client. Finally, they apply client feedback to align their product with the intended vision. It’s a development-based project, but it also demands a fair bit of creativity.
HTML, or HyperText Markup Language, is not technically a language at all. Instead, it is a tagging system that defines the underlying structure of most web pages on the Internet.
HTML has two significant capabilities that are stated outright in its name. First, it can hyperlink (i.e., connect) separate documents together with embedded URL links, which allows users to navigate between web pages quickly. Second, developers can mark up (or tag) sections of a web document, structuring it into paragraphs, images, headers, tables, blockquotes, and more.
Though you’ll rarely see an unstyled page nowadays, they were all too common in the early nineties. Characterized by plain text, bland design, and buttons so small as to be nearly un-clickable, these pages were notoriously user-unfriendly. CSS serves to improve accessibility and make it easy for a reader to explore site content.
CSS, short for Cascading Style Sheets, is a syntactically simple language that allows developers to style their HTML documents. By linking an external CSS document inside an HTML page, front end developers can present carefully curated color palettes, font choices, and content margins within a given web page.
CSS is also used to make sites responsive to differently sized viewports, allowing for site content to be appropriately sized for tablets, smartphones, and desktops alike.
Want to know more? Here are a few insider insights.
- Owning the Role of the Front-End Developer (A List Apart) — This retrospective provides a firsthand assessment of what front end developers are expected to do in the workplace. It also offers a few tips on how beginning front end developers can make their voices heard within a development team.
- Why front-end development may be the new frontier (Tech Republic) — This article explains why interest in front end development is on the rise.
- Do You Have What It Takes To Be a Front-End Developer? (Learn to Code With Me) — This article cuts through conflicting job listings to identify the key front end developer skills you should focus on based on your personal goals.
Back End Development
While front end developers deal with everything the end-user can see, back end developers concern themselves with how data is manipulated and stored behind the scenes. These coders are responsible for linking sites to databases, managing user connections, and designing complex web applications.
Back end development is sometimes called server-side development because the practice primarily relates to how a browser communicates with a database. These developers ensure that sites and apps can receive and respond to client requests appropriately.
Back end developers use a plethora of programming languages and libraries, choosing whichever best suits a given project or task at hand. However, there are a few staple languages that all back end developers should know; these include R, Python, and specialized database languages.
Its rampant popularity is well-earned. Python is an object-oriented programming language; its dynamic binding and typing options allow for the rapid development of back end applications. In layman’s terms, that means Python is useful since it’s quicker to read and allows for functions to be executed in various flexible contexts.
R is an open-source, highly extensible language that allows for complex data analysis and command-line scripting. Though mainly used by data analysts, R is useful because it empowers developers to use different data sets, tools, and software packages in tandem.
Back end developers use R because it offers a robust package ecosystem that encompasses a host of statistical techniques, machine learning tools, and graphics capabilities.
All back end developers must be able to navigate databases. Databases are structured sets of data that contain information that can be accessed, edited, deleted, or manipulated through queries. Common website databases hold logs of user-profiles, transactions, news items, and more.
In contrast with servers, databases store permanent information that can be restored even after the web page is closed. Nearly all sites and companies rely on accurate tracking and organization of data through databases.
SQL (Structured Query Language) is the standard method through which data is manipulated in relational databases. In a relational database, information is stored in a tabular way that requires data to adhere to strict structure rules.
For instance, a relational database storing cats might necessitate each cat to have a name, age, and eye color. This structure is accessible and allows users to access information quickly, but is often ill-equipped to handle massive data loads.
As the name suggests NoSQL deals with databases that structure information outside of SQL confines and in non-relational ways. NoSQL languages allow for more flexible data storage and are thus especially well-suited for organizing distributed data.
NoSQL databases are primarily used for managing business intelligence, CRM, and library card catalogs. Back end developers often rely on NoSQL because it scales well with immense databases.
Want to know more? Here are a few insider insights.
- The 2020 Beginner’s Guide to Backend Development (Learn to Code With Me) — A detailed overview of what back end developers are and do.
- So you want to be a great developer? 30 inspiring stories (Tech Beacon) — Thirty short profiles that prove that there is no “right” way to get into development.
- Backend Developer Skills You need to Know (Squareboat) — A thorough explanation of where back end developers fit within a team and an overview of the skills you’ll need to succeed in a back end development role.
Mobile App Development
Mobile app development is an up-and-coming field for savvy developers. Since the mid-2000s, the number of mobile app downloads has steadily increased each year. Researchers from Statista reported that 204 billion app downloads took place in 2019, up from 178 billion in 2017.
If you’re interested in capitalizing on this trend and developing mobile apps, there are three different coding languages you should focus on learning:
Swift is a fast, scalable programming language that lets developers test their code in a playground execution environment — in other words, without requiring the creation of a formal project. In contrast with older languages, Swift is optimized to work well on modern hardware through powerful type inference and a built-in pattern matching syntax.
Developed in 1972, C is a procedural programming language that has stood the test of time. Given its simple keywords, minimalist style, and low-level access provision — i.e., the ability to write hardware-level code without navigating intermediate software layers — this language is ideal for writing an operating system or programming a game.
Though Java rose to prominence in the nineties, it remains one of the most popular object-oriented programming languages. Today, it is often used to develop applications across a wide range of platforms including web, desktop, and mobile.
Want to know more? Here are a few insider insights.
- Is Mobile App Development a Good Career? (MobileForming) — This article provides fantastic insights into the day-to-day life and career progression of a mobile app developer.
- Trending now: the state of mobile app development jobs (Be Seen) — An overview of the mobile app job market and current career prospects.
- How to Become a Mobile App Developer (Business News Daily) — A comprehensive look into the opportunities available to mobile app developers and the skills needed to succeed in the role.
2. Figure Out Your Timeline
Once you’ve dialed in on your ideal career focus, you’ll need to make a realistic timeline for how quickly you can master the content. This process will take some thought, so it may be beneficial to set aside an hour or so to consider the obligations, resources, and hopes that shape your situation.
Let’s break down a few of the questions that you will need to ask yourself:
- Where am I in my educational journey?
- What is the most I can see myself spending on education?
- Do I have the bandwidth to take on a full-time education, or do I have work or family obligations that would mandate a part-time schedule?
- What resources are available to me?
- Have I previously taken courses, dabbled in tutorials, or embarked on practical projects that gave me valuable experience?
Remember that not all useful knowledge necessitates a traditional college education. Reflect on your previous learning experiences and identify which ones worked best for you and why. For example, some people learn best in high-intensity, short-duration educational environments like a coding boot camp, while others prefer the relaxed and flexible pace of self-guided programs. Some work well online while others prefer the structure that in-person classes provide.
Make a list that highlights all of the skills you already have that could benefit you as a student. Once you understand which formats suit you as a learner, you will be better able to home in on educational opportunities that will give you as much or as little structure, flexibility, and support as you need to succeed.
With these insights, you’ll gain a clearer picture of not only where you are in your educational journey, but also where you want to go and how you want to get there.
Note that the options readily available to a recent high school grad may be different from those available to a post-college professional. While a four-year degree in computer science may be helpful for those who want to make a career in development, someone who already invested time and money in a different major may not have the resources to return to campus full-time.
Gaining a definitive idea of how much money and time you have available will help you better identify programs that align with your timeline, price point, and availability.
Choose the Best Way to Learn Coding For You
Perhaps the most traditional path into learning coding is to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree. According to the BLS, computer programmers typically have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or the equivalent, which goes beyond the practical skills of coding and encompasses “the theory and techniques by which information is encoded, stored, communicated, transformed and analyzed”.
However, in practice computer programmers focus on writing and testing code, while specializing in a few programming languages. It needs to be said that if your goal is to become a highly specialized computer and information research scientist, a master’s degree in computer science is often required.
If your goal is to develop technical skills rather than to immerse yourself in theory, and if you find that you don’t have the time and financial resources to invest in a degree program, fear not; there are other educational options available at shorter timeframes and a range of costs.
According to a 2018 survey published by Course Report, the average boot camp student has six years of work experience, a Bachelor’s degree, and no previous roles in programming. These short and intense skills-based programs present ideal learning opportunities for professionals who need to gain marketable skills and return to the working world quickly.
Most coding boot camps are designed to finish after three to six months of intensive, daily class schedules. Considering that the average Bachelor’s degree takes four years, the turnaround on gaining valuable industry experience from boot camps is exceedingly quick. They are excellent options for those who don’t want to sacrifice their income for an extended period of time.
Better yet, researchers for Indeed suggest that a full 72 percent of employers see boot camp students as being on equal par with degree holders. Almost 80 percent of surveyed employers have hired individuals who have completed a boot camp, and nearly all of those say they would do it again. Given this data, it’s clear that boot camp programs offer one of the best ways to learn coding in relatively little time and at a minimal cost.
Want to find out more about your boot camp options? Check out the University of Denver Coding Boot Camp.
Self-guided courses are often more affordable and flexible than formal college programs or intensive boot camp classes. Countless free and low-cost self-guided programs exist online, making it easier than ever for self-directed learners to structure their education on their own terms. Most of these courses are designed to last eight to nine weeks, depending on the pace with which you progress through the material.
That said, students should always make sure to thoroughly vet a course before taking it. Some classes lack the guidance, support, and resources you’d find in boot camp training courses, for example. Though self-guided or free courses are enticing, you may need to take several of them to achieve the same level of knowledge that a more conventional or hands-on program provides.
Some of the best places to learn to code in a self-guided way include Khan Academy and FreeCodeCamp, both of which offer structured tutorials and embedded code editors for graded challenges. These options may be well-suited to those who don’t have the funds, time, or interest in a more structured program.
Interested in a self-guided route? Check out these free options.
- Introduction to Programming — freecodecamp
- The Basics of Code — Khan Academy
- Mozilla Tutorials — Mozilla Developer Network
We’re lucky enough to live in the era of open-source content. It might not be easy, but it is certainly possible to learn entire programming languages and disciplines through freely provided content.
Self-taught programmers rely on a wealth of online tutorials, books, and community coding challenges to get their skills up to par. It requires consistent discipline and passion to learn coding without the support of teachers and peers.
In addition to reading language-specific books, we recommend reading material about computer science fundamentals. A theoretical understanding of how computers function, how code is executed, and best practices for implementing good code are vital in a developer’s career.
For a start, check out Jon Bentley’s Programming Pearls. This thick textbook provides a comprehensive overview of programming techniques and design principles and offers necessary information on the basics of testing, string problems, and debugging and timing. More than anything else, it teaches you how to adopt a programmer’s problem-solving mindset.
Often, the best way to learn a programming language is by diving into a wide variety of books, materials, and online articles about computer science. Make a note — you’ll need to stitch disparate lessons from books, online tutorials, and practical projects into a comprehensive curriculum. This path isn’t for the faint of heart or those lacking in motivation.
- 46 Best Programming Books for Every Coder in 2020 — Learn to Code With Me
- 10 Must-Read Software Development Blogs — Phrase
- Top YouTube Channels for Developers of all Levels — Stackify
- Here Are the Most Interesting Developer Podcasts — Better Programming
Is Learning Coding a Good Career Choice?
Today, developers create the code that underpins the software applications, operating systems, and web pages we use and visit every day.
Every application you’ve ever used, from social media platforms to your banking app and favorite online games, exists because skilled developers dedicated tens, if not hundreds, of hours to building it. These talented professionals possess the skills, training, and insight necessary to write scalable and robust programs, and they apply their talents to a wide variety of industries.
According to metrics published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the employment of software developers is projected to climb 21 percent between 2018 and 2028 — a figure significantly higher than the average five percent expected for all other occupations.
Career satisfaction rates are similarly impressive; research from PayScale indicates that most developers are “highly satisfied” with their profession, with respondents reporting an average rating of 3.8 stars out of 5.
Programming is an incredible career that isn’t as challenging to get into as Hollywood’s depictions might make you expect.
Assess Your Options Today
Competent programmers are needed in virtually every modern business today, no matter what industry you go into. After all, code now drives the way we think, act, shop and socialize, both online and off.
Thankfully, learning to code isn’t as difficult as it seems, so don’t let Hollywood’s intimidating depictions of the field dissuade you. There isn’t a single best way to learn coding, so take the time to assess which educational option will work best for your situation. Once you figure out the path you want to pursue, there’s little to stop you from building a rewarding career in programming.