Learning to code

Two of my younger extended family members have contacted me recently wondering how to get into app development, which is admittedly kind of a puzzler for me (apparently publishing TapWatch gained me some level of legitimacy, even though TapNote continues to vastly outperform it, dead platform and all). I could recommend a book, I suppose, except that the only coding book I have ever used is Dynamic HTML: The Definitive Reference. Dynamic HTML is fantastic if you need to reference absolutely anything to do with HTML, CSS, or Javascript, but a lot less useful for someone who wants to write, say, Objective-C and has only the foggiest of ideas about what they’re getting into.

Frankly, the way I learn a new language or tool is by using it. I start with a project, usually something I want to use myself, and then just jump in feet first. This typically involves scouring the internet for example code, tutorials, and prior art that I can implement and tweak to my own needs while regularly banging my head against the wall. I’ve bought a few coding books aside from Dynamic HTML over the years, but I never make it very far past the introduction. They bore me to tears. Head-to-wall contact is admittedly a bit painful, but it’s a lot more interesting and the things that I learn tend to stick.

So recommending books is out. I’ve heard good things about a few of them, but having never read any (or learned anything substantive the few times I did try to crack their covers), I’m rather unqualified.

But saying, “Just find a project and run with it!” isn’t terribly helpful, either. That’s a great way to encourage a proto-coder to drop the whole idea before they really get started. Especially if their ultimate goal is writing an app for their favorite iOS device, which can be a complicated and frustrating process even for veteran coders.

And at this point I find myself staring at a blank email, certain I am about to send my young relative down the path to a sad and codeless life.

Though I may not have a lot of practical knowledge when it comes to easing your way into coding, I do have a fair bit of observations based on first-hand experience to offer. Perhaps that will be helpful instead.

Overcoming the wall

The land of coding is a wonderful, magical, frustrating place but to get there you have to find your way over the wall that surrounds it. This isn’t a learning curve (although you’ll find plenty of those beyond); it is a wall. Steep, high, and not exactly obvious in approach. The simple fact is that coding is unlike anything you have ever done previously. When you write code, what you are actually doing is using a specialized language to lay out simple, logical instructions for a device that can only make the mistakes you inadvertently tell it to make (the trick is that huge numbers of other people have already layered on numerous strata of instructions with their own inadvertent mistakes that you are building on top of, so even if your code is perfect you still may find yourself running into problems that encourage head-meet-wall interaction).

There are analogs to other things you might have learned in the past (other countries’ languages, scientific experiments, math, art), but particularly if you do not know what you are getting into, jumping into coding will likely feel like running into a wall. You can vaguely see where you want to be when you back up far enough, but when you get close the whole thing is simply overwhelming.

But do not fear! Many of the other people who have scaled this wall in the past are there to help you over, through, or under it.

Your first coding lesson

I shall now give you your first coding lesson. Learn this, and you’ve basically lopped off the top few feet of the wall before you ever reached it.

Here it is: dream big, act small.

There are numerous desires that lead people to coding, but probably the two most common I run across are the desire to make money and the desire to make a tool you yourself want to use. And make it right this time, because darn it those other developers are approaching the problem all wrong.

Both are great motivations, but keep in mind that neither is something you are likely to accomplish immediately. Especially when it comes to app development a lot of people nowadays are going into it with stars in their eyes, imagining their app taking off on the bestselling charts and making hundreds of thousands of dollars in a month or two. Banish this fantasy! Yes, it is remotely possible you could succeed wildly with your first app/website/whatever, but the chances of it are vanishingly slim. Striving for widespread adoption is laudable, but if you measure your success solely against it you will quickly become discouraged, and discouraged people don’t ship software.

So have your big dream, but act on smaller things. Coding is about taking a complex problem and breaking it down into manageable smaller steps. It is about understanding the limitations and restraints you are working with and finding ways around them or adapting your code and vision to work within them. It is about having a laundry list of features that you know you absolutely must implement, but being able and willing to ship only the tiniest subset of them in your initial 1.0 release, and then steadily adding more as you go.

It is about realizing that you are not, in fact, facing a wall. You are facing a collection of stones, each of which is much easier to deal with on its own.

Three things to master

At root, there are only three things you have to learn:

1) The basic building blocks: variables (typically composed of arrays, strings, numeric types, dictionaries), functions, loops, conditional statements, and (for most modern languages) classes and objects. Learning about this stuff pretty much allows you to write in any coding language you want; usually the only thing that differs between languages is the specific syntax you use, which is (typically) easy to pick up. Coding is simply a specific, logical way of thinking and communicating using a small number of standard tools.

For basic building blocks, you can find any number of “getting started with language X” tutorials and resources online. Look for the very early introductory materials that introduce variables, functions, etc. and read through them. Once you understand if/elseif/else blocks, for and while loops, variables, and functions you will have the basics for what you need to read and write code.

2) The syntax: every language is different, so before you can write one or another you have to figure out how it handles the basic building blocks from above. For instance, here’s the same variable (a string) in three different languages:


var helloString = 'Hello world!';


$helloString = 'Hello world!';


NSString *helloString = @"Hello world!";

Exact same meaning in all three, but slightly different requirements for each. When you are learning the building blocks above, try to find a tutorial for whatever language you are most interested in working in right away, because all the examples will use its syntax, allowing you to learn both at once.

3) Specific capabilities: every language and environment offers slightly different built-in functions and so forth that you can call upon. This is the stuff that I typically spend very little time learning, and look up as I work.

For instance, PHP has a zillion functions that help with anything from manipulating strings to connecting to databases, and it would be a complete waste of my brain to try and memorize them. Instead, I keep the PHP documentation handy when I am working in that language and reference it when I need to figure out how to do a particular task.

The same applies to Objective-C; a lot of the complication behind Objective-C is that most of what you will be doing is working with the framework’s provided objects, functions, and methods, and since there are so many of them it can be overwhelming when you get started. Instead, ignore them. It might be worth skimming over some of the functions provided for working with the basic types of variables like strings, arrays, and dictionaries so you have an idea of what things you can do out of the box, but typically it’s easier to look this stuff up as the need arises.

Practical application

Lovely abstract overviews and pithy sayings may make you feel good, but coding is a practical activity and up to now I admittedly haven’t offered much specific, practical advice. Let’s change that, shall we?

When you are first getting into coding, any language you learn is going to help. They all will teach you the basic building blocks (and for a lot of them, you’ll pick up a fair amount of common syntax, too), so it doesn’t matter at all where you start. The corollary of this is that learning a language other than the language you want to work in might be a good idea, particularly if it will allow you to see results more quickly (and based on my own experience, seeing results quickly is important; there is something truly magical about using something you have programmed that pays for the frustration and difficulty leading up to that point).

For instance, if I were just now getting into coding with the ultimate goal of publishing a native Objective-C app, I would not start off working in Xcode and trying to learn Objective-C.

I would learn Javascript.

The benefit of Javascript is that a lot of the syntax is very similar to C, but because it is a high-level language you can go from learning the building blocks to actually creating something a bit quicker (and typically with less frustration, although there are certainly pain points in Javascript, as well). Javascript has its share of unique quirks, but with your pick of frameworks like Enyo, jQuery Mobile, Sencha Touch, and others you have some very useful tools that can speed things up by providing common interface elements and other niceties.

Granted, you will likely want to learn a framework in addition to the language itself to use them, but the same is true of Objective-C (coding in Objective-C is practically nothing but learning to use a framework).

How I would learn Javascript is a little more up in the air, but I have heard excellent things about Codecademy, so I would likely start there, and then quickly transition into writing my own app as soon as I learned enough to be dangerous. Most Javascript frameworks also have active communities surrounding them, so I would try to leverage those to help me get over the difficulties of going from idea to actual working interface elements on screen.

Once I had a working, simple Javascript app, then I would start digging deeper into Objective-C as I moved toward my true goal.

Other resources

Not everyone learns the same way as I do. If you learn better through books, then by all means visit your local bookseller, consult some Amazon reviews or similar, and try one of them.

Regardless of what you are interested in coding, I would also highly recommend taking a course in C if the chance arises (or C++, but C is far more universally useful). A local community college would probably be the most likely place to find something like this. When I was in college, taking a course in beginning C++ was an incredible boon. It taught me a lot about not only C (which has been useful when I need to write Objective-C or try to read other source code written in other low-level languages), but also introduced me to the command line. Getting enough knowledge not to be scared of the command line is incredibly liberating.

General courses on how to think about and approach code would also likely be useful, but you can usually achieve the same knowledge through active curiosity and a willingness to read a bunch of articles and blog posts online.

Go forth and code

How you go about it and what language you use doesn’t matter. Ultimately, what matters is that you get out there and start writing code. Come up with your big dream, and for your first small act create something simple but useful, be it a website, a mobile app, or a script that makes a repetitive action on your computer less onerous. Learn Javascript, or buy a book about Objective-C, or find a course to take. Experiment, fail, and try again.

No matter what route you choose, it will be frustrating, it will be difficult in the beginning, but it will be worthwhile. Even if you never spend the time to get particularly fluent in any given language, understanding the basic building blocks of code and knowing just enough to be dangerous can open a lot of doors and give you a way to tweak the devices that you rely on every day to better suit your needs.

Good luck!

3 responses to “Learning to code”

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  1. Cooper says:

    :) Thanks Ian! Time to find something about Javascript… :D

  2. Matt says:

    I totally agree with the recommendation for JavaScript, especially since one of the headaches with coding is actually getting interesting things displayed on screen. If you’re making some kind of webapp, that’s mostly taken care of: you can get an interactive application with much less work (and instant feedback — no compiling!).

    As a frequent collaborator with Ian on coding projects, I can also say that our most successful projects were those where we had smaller, more manageable goals.

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