Five tips for five years

I saw some wonderful tweets the other day where the author gave their former naive self some time-travelling advice from their present self about how best to get started with programming. I did intend to keep the link but sadly my filing system has failed and it’s fallen through the cracks. I’m grateful to the author, in any case, for inspiring this post, written on the fifth anniversary of my own initial foray into the world of programming. I will give myself five pieces of advice for five years, also because five is a nice round-ish number.

1. It may sound obvious, but it’s worth saying and it’s probably the most important of the points in this post- write code. Write code to solve problems you face in your work. Write code to find out why the code that you’re writing doesn’t work. Write code to make sure that the code that you’re writing gives you the right answer. Write code for fun. Write code to see if you can do something with code instead of by hand. Write code to write “Hey, look what I did” blog posts. Write code to produce minimal examples so you can get help on forums. Writing code is an art (we’ll come back to the points in this post that caution against churning our code that “just works”), and, like all arts, you need to log the hours. So log the hours.

2. Following on from this, and as espoused by the pre-eminent stats guru, Hadley Wickham, never be ashamed of your code. The code I wrote five years ago is laughably bad. At a glance it’s quite obvious I had no idea what I was doing. Many of the functions are the wrong functions. It’s by turns ridiculously verbose and frustratingly taciturn. It’s badly commented and baffling to me, never mind about any other poor individual who might have to maintain or change it. But you learn by experience and coming back to all this dreadful code taught me WHY it’s important to write legible, well commented code and WHY it’s important to refactor code and WHY it’s important to use the paradigms in the language you’re writing in (functions, objects…).

3. At the same time as you’re writing code that solves problems, having fun, and learning how to make code that works, listen to the experts. You won’t understand it all yet but you need to file it away for later. There are many brilliant people on the internet sharing their knowledge with anybody who cares to listen and you need to listen to each and explore for yourself what they’re saying. In my time I’ve run down many dead-ends (or, I should say, things that are dead-ends for me now, with my level of skill) but have learned a great deal when I crashed into the wall at the end. Emacs is the best text editor in the world? Great! Wham! No, Vim is the best editor. Great! Wham! You must use MVC for PHP/ MySQL applications? I’ll use CakePHP! Wham!

CakePHP was probably the brick wall that I hit the hardest. I didn’t understand it at all. Now I’m starting to understand the principles, and the why, but haven’t quite got to the how.

4. While it’s good to just roam the internet, writing terrible code, reading advice from experts, and generally just having fun, there is definitely value in doing a paid course where you get help with your own code from an expert. I’ve taken two courses now, one with the Open University, Introduction to object oriented programming with Java, and one with O’Reilly, Web security with PHP and MySQL. Having a real person read, assess, and improve my actual own real code not only taught me a lot but also gave me discipline to write code that could be understood and easily criticised by somebody other than me. This is also a good way to dip your toes into different waters and start to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different languages and approaches. I have learnt Java and Python (on https://www.coursera.org/) and although I haven’t yet used them for anything serious it’s helped me to understand the situations in which you would use them for something serious and why.

5. This only applies to certain types of programmer, but it certainly applied to me. Run your own server. They’re quite cheap to rent (or you could use an old computer in your own house) and you can do fun things with them like run WordPress (I self host this blog) and Shiny Server. Running a server will cause you a lot of headaches but will teach you a tremendous amount about your operating system as well as giving you an insight into the world of running applications and servers in real world applications. This only applies to people who want to write applications for the web, of course. Some programmers will spend their whole lives blissfully ignorant about such matters.

6. One extra one for fun. Use Linux. It’s fun. You can “take the back off” quite easily which makes it good for learning and the community is great. You’ll probably break and replace your operating system many times getting your graphics/ sound/ network card working and that’s more grist to the mill learning how your operating system works.

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