Learning How to Program – General Path

In the last post I discussed picking a programming language; this post will discuss a a general plan for learning programming. The next post should link to some language-specific resources.

Basics – The first step is probably to find a good online tutorial that teaches the basics. I don’t think long video lectures are a good way to learn programming, since one needs to focus on doing things, and they are also hard to refer back to. Instead, one should find a good interactive tutorial that lets you practice as you go through it. You should practice with small additional problems on your own, either ones you make up or problems you find online.

Reference – Make sure you know where to lookup stuff. You don’t want to immediately do a general Google search for every question. Each language has official documentation that you should be able to search quickly to find out how to use something. It might also be helpful to have a specific book or site you check to get more info. It can also help to keep your own code samples organized so you can quickly refer back to previous work you’ve done.

StackOverflow – StackOverflow.com is a free Q&A site for programming. Once you know your programming basics, if you have a question on how to do something, you can search StackOverflow to see if its been asked. (Often it’s easier to search StackOverflow through a Google site search.) If you can’t find an answer, you can ask the question yourself on StackOverflow, but make sure you spell out the specific issue your’re having. Well-written questions on popular languages often receive very fast answers on StackOverflow.

Bigger Projects – After you’ve gone through the basics and worked on small coding problems, you’ll be ready to take on a bigger project. You should now pick a project that you really want to work on, and learn more as you work on building it. When you get stuck, searching the web (and StackOverflow) will sometimes help you figure things out. However, it helps to have a more experienced programmer to turn to when you’re really stuck or for general feedback and guidance. You can either find someone you know, hire a mentor, attend meetups, or even enroll in a programming bootcamp.

Stuff To Learn – Besides learning the specifics of your language, you should also learn the general basics of programming. This includes topics like object-oriented programming, algorithms and data structures. You don’t need to cover everything that’s done in a college algorithms class, but there are certain topics everyone programming should know. Some algorithms tutorials are available on TopCoder, and if you want a fuller treatment, Coursera and Udacity seem to have decent courses on the topic. Its also important to (eventually) learn good programming practice, such as using version control, debugging techniques, and writing test code (Udacity). Once you’ve learned these topics, you’ll have the experience to help beginner programmers!