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Want to learn to write code? Here's how...

Understanding how software is made is increasingly important (but it needn’t cost you the earth to learn).

Mark Lambe

ON THE EIGHTH of December last year Barack Obama wore a Code.org hat and wrote a line of Javascript. The hat didn’t particularly suit him and the code he wrote wasn’t particularly meaningful, but I suspect the symbolism of POTUS being taught to write code by kids wasn’t lost on many.

From minors to ministers, the explosion of programming initiatives in Ireland has caught the attention of the nation; those evangelising the art point to the benefits of understanding how software is made, whether or not you build it for a living.

There’s a lot of discussion about the best way to learn to write code. One theory is that it should be geared towards highly visual and graphical feedback as early as possible; another is that a friendly language makes more sense. The former would lead you towards learning some HTML and CSS or possibly Javascript to create something visual, the latter would introduce you to a friendly language that best introduces the core concepts of programming. Both approaches have their merits so I’ve picked two resources below that take one approach each, both are free and extremely accessible for beginners.

What’s the right approach?

There are so many online resources geared toward teaching programming that the problem no longer lies in finding them but in filtering down to the most appropriate ones.

Khan Academy is an excellent online tool that allows you to work your way through courses with constant feedback and help. The videos are excellent and you can go from beginner to a reasonably advanced coder using the tutorials. The most appropriate course here is the ‘Computer Programming’ one, as ‘Computer Science’ is a more theory based approach to algorithms which isn’t the best introduction to programming generally.

One of the great features of Khan academy is that you can do the ‘Hour of Code’ or ‘Hour of Databases’ which give a quick, one hour introduction to a topic. The interaction is hugely impressive as you can just work in your web browser without downloading or installing any other software. The programming here is all done in Javascript, which is an extremely popular and powerful language that controls most interactions you have with a web page. Khan academy is completely free, though they do appreciate donations; I used Khan Academy extensively during my masters and it was a huge asset.

If you want to push yourself…

Another of my favourite resources is Coursera. Coursera has a much bigger catalogue of courses than Khan Academy and they’re from actual universities. They tend to last a number of weeks and have set amount of work to do per week. This is a higher commitment option but that does push you to put in more time to get a higher reward.

Coursera have beginner Python courses specific to both adults and children. Python is a well-established, multi-purpose language that used in many areas from web development to data analysis and scientific computing. Coursera tend to offer good follow on courses that allow you to progress as far as you wish. Coursera is completely free, though you can pay for a certificate of accomplishment for the courses. I’ve completed a few software development courses on Coursera and they were all extremely well organised and more educational than I expected.

There are other great resources too such as Lynda.com, but I’ve found that you need to pay to get the most out of it which can turn people off.

The best advice: just start

Given the extreme accessibility of Khan Academy it’s probably a good place to start, but for a 2-4 hour per week commitment I think the Coursera course probably offers more motivation. You also have the added advantage with Coursera of thousands of other students doing the course at the same time, and some forums that allow you to discuss the class content and exercises.

Overall the best advice, as with most things, is just to start. While there’s no ‘right’ language or technology to get you started there’s no ‘wrong’ one either. Once you begin doing tutorials you’ll be learning the basics of variables, conditions, loops, and functions which are essential no matter what language you choose.

Of course I’ve aimed these suggestions at everyone, but if you or someone you know is under 17 they should seriously consider going to a Coder Dojo, they exist in almost every town in Ireland and are volunteer led get-togethers for children to learn how to code. You can find the nearest one to you on their website, CoderDojo.com.

Mark Lambe is a Dublin-based software developer who works in scientific and high-performance computing. He tweets about this and much more as @AnTweetseach

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