Programming is one of the most relevant skills you can have right now. Computers and software are everywhere, and the ability to make your own apps can be very useful in your professional or personal life. There’s just one problem: coding is hard.
But why is that the case, and what can we do to to ease the process?
Why Coding is So Hard to Learn
Learning to program for the first time can involve different challenges depending on the beginner’s personal background. Many grow up with the mistaken idea that they aren’t capable of learning a “hard” subject like programming or computer science. It can seem like advanced computer skills are out of reach if you haven’t grown up tinkering with code from a young age, which is far from the truth.
Besides, it can be hard to know how to go about learning to code in the first place. There are an enormous number of programming languages, technologies, and development platforms to choose from. Moreover, these different technologies all have their own books, courses, boot camps, degrees, and other ways to learn them. For a newcomer with no experience or context, all the choices can be overwhelming.
On top of this information overload, some of the most popular learning materials often leave a lot to be desired in terms of quality.
"Learn X Language in 30 Minutes!"
Aspiring programmers often turn to web-based instruction to get their feet wet. This comes with some risks. Although the Internet is full of high-quality information about programming, there are also a number of second-rate articles and videos that promise to teach you the newest hip programming language in one sitting. Unfortunately, these types of tutorials rarely live up to their promises. There are several reasons for this (other than their overall spotty quality).
First, it's impossible to acquire significant programming skills in such a short time frame. Software development is a craft that takes repeated practice and a deliberate learning process if you hope to master it. Think marathon, not sprint.
Pre-Baked Code in Tutorials
A common genre of programming tutorial gives the exact steps to solve a very specific problem or create a certain feature in your code — say, how to add a payment form to a web store. This type of tutorial does have its place, since working on real projects is one of the most important parts of learning to program. Tinkering with a working example has a lot of educational value. And if you can find working code that does exactly what you need, it can save you time.
There is a catch with this approach, however. If you are using the tutorial for learning purposes, relying on other people’s work can hinder your improvement. To truly develop your programming abilities, you need to spend time working on your own code.
To Learn Effectively, You Need Real Practice
In fact, this is a general problem with a lot of coding tutorials: a lack of real practice. When you watch a video or read an article, you are learning passively, which isn't sufficient on its own to learn an active skill like coding. Even if the material in the tutorial is accurate and useful, you need to practice writing code in order to improve.
As a beginner, you normally start by solving exercises specifically aimed at helping new coders learn fundamental programming concepts. As your abilities improve, you move on to more complex programs or simple apps. You build your problem-solving skills over time through a cycle of writing code, making mistakes, debugging, and writing more code. After a few weeks or months of this process, you’ll be amazed how far you’ve come.
Unfortunately, many tutorials don't even present the material in a way that is useful for beginners. Instead, they very quickly cover the basic syntax of the language without considering how new programmers actually learn. It's a bit like trying to learn a (spoken) foreign language by memorizing grammar rules but never making an attempt to actually speak the language.
Whirlwind language introductions like these are better suited to experienced programmers who are already familiar with the fundamental concepts of programming and just need to know how they are implemented in a particular language.
A Better Way: Build a Foundation First
It turns out that these fundamental concepts apply to almost every common language in use. When you’re first starting out, learning the basics of how to program is just as important as your choice of language, if not more so.
This means that your choice of learning materials should be specially designed to teach the fundamentals using the chosen language as a vehicle, as opposed to focusing too heavily on the specific details of the language itself. There should also be a strong selection of exercises to hone your skills on.
Once you’ve built that foundation, you can expand your skills by jumping into some real projects. FreeCodeCamp has a good list of project ideas for beginners to advanced learners.
“No Code” and “Low-Code”
What if you'd like to build an app, but want to keep the coding to a minimum? A number of tools exist to help you create your own apps with very little traditional programming required.
Low-code platforms enable people at different levels of technical sophistication to make working apps. The platforms normally have much simpler interfaces than traditional software development platforms and make it possible to piece together functionality with small amounts of code. For example, Salesforce’s Lightning Platform incorporates several functions typical to corporate environments. These are easy to combine into a working application, allowing business users of various kinds to contribute to development.
Going a step further, “no code” platforms like the web application creator Bubble allow you to create apps without having to write any code at all. These systems ramp up the simplicity even more, often consisting of a simple visual interface with drag-and-drop functionality that anyone with basic computer skills can work with.
These types of resources can act as a bridge to help you build your first apps. Or if you're lucky, you might even find that a "no code" solution meets your needs well enough that you can get by without learning any further technical skills at all.
Too Much Work? Consider Hiring a Programmer
If creating your own app seems a little too daunting, consider hiring outside help. This is a good option for those who either lack the technical background to write their own code or would rather spend their time on other things. If you're more of an "idea" person, you may prefer to leave the coding to a specialist.
Freelancing platforms like Upwork and Guru have active populations of freelancers looking for work. Most of them work on a bidding structure where individual freelancers submit proposals for jobs posted by clients.
To work effectively with a freelancer, you should carefully plan out your goals for the project and be realistic about your budget limitations. This makes it easier to find a suitable programmer whose skill set, experience, and rates line up with your needs. Strong communication is vital when working remotely with freelancers. It’s especially important to provide your hire with a very clear set of requirements for your product.
It might seem like a daunting prospect to find a freelancer if you don’t have any previous experience hiring. Fortunately, the platforms usually make the process as simple as possible for clients. Most have rating systems to help you judge the quality of different freelancers, as well as extensive information about their history and success rate on the platform to date.
Coding is Hard, But There Are Many Roads to Rome
Building your own applications can be intimidating if you’re new to the world of software development, but there are a ton of resources out there to help ease the process. When building up your coding skills for the first time, make sure you prioritize the highest quality learning materials. Know how to spot the less helpful tutorials so you can avoid getting bogged down in less effective learning methods. Build up your skills by writing increasingly more complex programs and make an effort to learn from your mistakes.
If you’d rather avoid getting too technical, “no code” platforms and other kinds of simplified development tools can get the job done when their capabilities are a good match for your app’s needs. And if you need some serious custom work done and have the resources to hire, then bringing in some outside help is a natural solution. Whatever your background or particular situation, there are always options for achieving your goals in app development.