Pitfalls in learning to program

Tim H. commented:

[…] do you have any advice based on personal experience from when you first started coding? Things to do (or avoid doing) or perhaps something that you know now that you wish you had known when you first started?

Oh, please. I wish I could say that I took all the right turns while learning–if I had, I’d be a much better coder than I am–but that’s not the case.

This is probably more than you bargained for, but here–you’re now the… third? commenter to get a full post in reply to a question.

Building on your own

The biggest thing is that building stuff outside the books and classes is the most important thing to do. I’ve been coding in some form or another since I was about twelve: RPG Maker XP at 12, basic web design at 13-14, VB at 15, Java at 16, and then I went to college–I didn’t choose all my tools, most of this is an expression of what classes/books/programs were available to me at the time. But I usually didn’t go out and build stuff with what I learned in my classes.

I did try to make some games with RPGXP, but I was pretty awful at it because I didn’t know Ruby (the game maker has a Scratch-like interface that generates syntax) and the English documentation was very lacking (I looked). And I put together a few web sites for my parents’ birthdays that… were actually pretty nice-looking, but never got published. I was kind of lukewarm about VB, and I had a hard time coding in Java on my own computer for some reason–something about NetBeans not wanting to work.

–Basically, I tended to use the stuff I self-taught (RPGXP and HTML/CSS) more than the stuff I learned in classes (VB and Java). I did have a class on HTML/CSS, but not before I self-taught it, which was good because the class was horribly outdated. That repeated itself with the Linux class–which was taught very well and was up to date, but didn’t teach me as much as I’d learned by tinkering.

School isn’t as useful as you think

This pattern has held consistently through college: I learn better, and learn more relevant stuff, by screwing around with stuff on my own than by sitting in a class.

What I learned in class: Flash, old Dreamweaver (which was as bad as Flash), VB, Java, pseudocode markup, flowcharts (as if I couldn’t make those before), Windows networking, shell scripting, C#, .NET programming (sort of–the class had serious technical difficulties)

What I’ve self-taught: RPGXP (sort of), HTML/CSS, Linux, Python, working with an API, and a tiny bit of FileZilla and phpMyAdmin for freelance web work. Plus all the stuff I read online about programming and startups and businesses and new technology and other awesomeness of that stripe.

What I’ve used: the second list (minus RPGXP really)

What I feel like I know well: the second list (minus RPGXP again)

I’ve long maintained that I’m going to college to get a degree (formal credentials) and to meet people. I’m much less there to learn, because if that were my only priority, I could accomplish it more cheaply and efficiently by sitting around in an ethnic restaurant of my choice with some books and my laptop every day.

Although, probably the teacher who’s taught me the most is Mr. Noord, because he rarely stays on topic for more than half an hour, and the stuff he ends up talking about tends to be more useful and interesting. Don’t tell the school board.

It’s totally different for networking students though. Then classes are way more worthwhile because the school has the hardware they need to work with, and networking is easier to teach in a class.

Programming is an art form that can’t be taught in a class. Programming is a separate skill from knowing the syntax of programming languages, which can be taught in classes. Knowing the syntax is like memorizing a French textbook. But to learn French, you have to speak it (write programs), listen to other people speak it (read programs), let them correct your speech (take criticism from older programmers), learn the current grammar and slang rules (style and best practices), and keep using your skills.

Classes just don’t usually let you mess around with stuff, and when they do, they put lots of restrictions in place: how long you get to work, how fast you have to work, what you can make, and what other things you have to do or write in order to discuss what you learned so someone can prove you learned it and somehow quantify what you did. It’s a real pain. And then you have to pay for them, instead of getting to spend the money on new books or tools or hardware.

I’m not saying that schools can’t be useful. They can be! They can teach the basics and introduce you to other programmers, and they introduce you to some great teachers and other students. They just won’t teach you the sort of skill that makes a great programmer.

Books are quite a bit better, but still watch out

Books still won’t get you all the way; you have to build on your own. But, at least for me, they’re definitely more productive than classes, in terms of learning a new technology or language.

Books tend to a) be cheaper, b) invite you to mess around freely and without restrictions on time or what you do with the example code or stuff like that, and c) let you choose your tools. When you buy a book, there aren’t required classes. You get to study what you want.

The tools you choose are important

The main reason I’ve never used VB or C# or Flash or the other stuff I took classes on isn’t necessarily because the teacher was bad or the curriculum was awful. On the contrary–I’ve had mostly great teachers.

But the technologies are pretty crap, to be honest.

If you’ve been around very long, you know about my burning hatred of Visual Studio. I didn’t always hate it so much. I used to be lukewarm towards it, back in the days I was using VS 2012 for my Visual Basic classes. We had technical difficulties with it even then, and it liked to crash and all sorts of crap, although nothing like the temper tantrums it’s thrown in my more recent classes.

But now that I know what programming is actually like, I look back on it and realize how boring and tedious it was. It sucked! No wonder I wanted to go into psychology instead. I thought coding was cool, but sometimes I wondered if I just thought the idea of coding was cool and I liked the romantic techie-nerd image it let me imagine, because what I was doing was not that much fun.

(Straight-up HTML and CSS isn’t very fun either, to be honest. Once you get good at it, both the novelty and the challenge kind of wear off. I’m looking forward to learning to code dynamic web pages, though.)

Java was okay, but we didn’t get very far into it, the coding examples were largely busywork, and it was really complex. I think we just got a bad textbook, honestly.

The books you choose are important

The difference between a bad textbook and a good textbook is like the difference between a bad teacher and a good teacher.

Here are the different kinds of books:

Diving Into ASP.NET, MVC, TLA, GPS, and SAT by J. Random Microserf

This will probably have some geometric feature on the cover. It’ll look deceptively shiny and colorful, but it’s as engaging a read as the Terms of Use agreement for the technology it’s purporting to teach. Said technology will of course be the kind that has a Terms of Use agreement, because these books are usually made in order to sell both the book and the IDE or language or whatever the book is about, plus all the attached certifications (which probably all have test prep books of their own).

They’re written by someone who probably does not like the technology they’re writing about, even if they say otherwise in the intro. This will translate into the writing, and you will end up not liking it either.

Generally, these books are best used as eBay fodder or, if the technology described therein has already flunked out (it will soon if it hasn’t), as expensive firewood.

Learn Foo in 24 Hours!!!!

You will not learn foo in 24 hours.

You may get a basic but deceptively broad understanding of foo. But you will not have learned foo.

This book is not quite firewood. It may be helpful, if not so in-depth.

Weird homebrew-looking e-book sold on Amazon


Head First Foo

Made by O’Reilly. This will have a lot of pictures and silly jokes. They’re great for learning from if you need to get a complete understanding of a technology quickly, or if you’re a beginner and you’re kind of intimidated.

I lose patience with them, though, under two circumstances:

  1. I have something I want to build, and I don’t want to sift through 50 pages of pictures of tigers and pizza before I find the bit of information I’m looking for. What I need is not exactly a reference book; I just want the info in a more dense and organized form.
  2. I’m trying to read it as an ebook. They don’t translate well to the format. Don’t buy these as ebooks.

Notably, they’re bad reference books, as you might have gathered. Don’t get them for that either.

Making Stuff with Foo

This could be “Building Dynamic Websites with Django”, “Creating Apps with Kivy” (<3), et cetera.

It’ll contain something like this in the intro.

I’ve been using this technology for foo amount of time, and I think it’s a great tool for doing bar because of how it bazzes the quuxilators. I tried some other ways of doing bar and overall, I like this one the best because it’s well-designed and has great features.

Anyway, I thought a lot about how to write this book, and you might notice that the example code (which is on GitHub at [URL], by the way) is actually not a bunch of different projects–it’s just a couple projects, and we change them over the different chapters so you can see the development cycle better.

I really hope you have fun making stuff with foo using this book. If you find any errors along the way, send me an email at foo@gmail.com.

Not exactly, necessarily, but approximately that tone–you get the idea. The tone of the book will be friendly, but practical and not too goofy. These are great books!

It has a picture of an animal on the front?

That is probably an O’Reilly book. It is worth its weight in gold.

These are very often the “Making Stuff with Foo” variety.

If O’Reilly doesn’t make a book about a technology that is well known enough to have school classes taught on it for, say, a year… that technology may not be worth learning. Unless you can find someone else who wrote a good “Making Stuff with Foo” book about it, and then it might be okay.

Dry Internet documentation

For when you already know what you’re doing. Confusing, frustrating, and boring if you don’t. Buy a book.

Good Internet documentation

Save your bookmarks!

Make stuff. Solve problems. Meet other nerds. Eat cake. Browse GitHub. Play a board game. Tinker with stuff. Install Linux on something. Eat cake again. Hang with your nerd friends.

Have fun.

Happy hacking!


3 thoughts on “Pitfalls in learning to program

  1. An entire post dedicated to my question; I’m so honored! Once again thank you for taking the time to share your experiences and knowledge. I will definitely take this to heart and start making a compilation of resources. Mostly maps, as this will be quite the adventure!

    … and cake. Lots of cake…

    Liked by 1 person

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