There was a great question on Programmers about graduating with a programming degree, but not knowing how to program. I see this kind of question a lot, and I felt the same way when I first got my degree, so I thought I’d write about my experiences and what I learned when first started programming.
This was originally an article I wrote for the Programmers.SE blog, however the blog doesn’t appear to be happening at this time so I am posting it on my own blog instead.
Start with baby steps
First off, don’t expect to be able to code enterprise-level applications or the next Facebook right away. You really can’t become a good programmer without a lot of practice, so practice any way you can. This can include hobby projects, reading books or source code, or even answering questions on Stack Overflow.
The book Outliers: The Story of Success frequently states that to become a master in any field you need to practice it for a total of 10,000 hours. In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s about 3.5 years of programming 8 hours every single day. If you only program during business hours at work, that’s almost 5 years.
Don’t discount your education
When I first started working, I felt my education was worthless; that it just taught me stuff that was never used in the workplace. I soon realized it provided me with something better than syntax: it provided me with a good foundation for programming. For example, it didn’t teach me design patterns, but it did teach me what design patterns were and how / when to use them. And I might not have built a data access layer in my class projects, but I knew what they were for and when to use them.
It also provided me with resources such as books, an online library, and networking contacts in the industry. In addition, it gave me a fancy piece of paper which can be very useful for getting your foot in the door when you don’t have experience.
Of course, it didn’t teach me everything. Looking back I wish I had been taught about things like Version Control and Unit Testing. But they did their best to provide me with a solid foundation to build upon in the short time I was there, providing I was willing to go out there and keep learning.
Always be learning
One of the first things I got taught in college was that to be an IT professional, you really need to be a life-long learner. You can’t just graduate and expect you’ll have everything you need to get a high-paying job for the rest of your life. You’ll need to be willing to spend the rest of your life learning new technologies and languages.
Whenever I come across something new, something I don’t understand, or something I’m not sure of how to do, I Google it. Most of the time I can find a simple definition or samples, and I can start from there. If I do start from samples, I hate just blindly copying/pasting. I always take the time to understand what the code does. It might be slower to start with, however once understood it makes me that much better of a programmer.
Remember, N years of experience means nothing if it was simply 1 year repeated N times. There are plenty of jobs out there that are that will let you accumulate years of experience without you ever needing to learn anything new, however I feel you simply cannot be a great programmer without continuing to learn.
Steps to success in programming projects
Here is a list of steps to success in any project as a new programmer:
- Be positive when asked if you can do something.
If someone asks you if you can do something, be positive in your response. Answering negatively, or even indecisively, will often result in a lost opportunity to learn and grow, so avoid that unless the task is truly outside the realm of possibility.
I usually use terms like “I don’t see why not” or “shouldn’t be too hard”. You may not know how to do it right away, but you should have the tools (Google!) and intelligence needed to figure out how to get it done. I like to avoid actually saying “yes” unless I know I can actually do what is being asked.
- Determine requirements.
Sit down with your client (boss, customer, etc) and figure out what they want. I’m not going to go into details of gathering requirements here, but do take the time to draw out the screens they expect to see, and to determine the expected input / output. My favorite tool for screen mock-ups is Balsamiq (its free!).
- Figure out how to build it.
This is one of the most important steps. A huge part of programming (especially early on) is figuring out what your client wants, and then learning how to do that. Don’t just stick with your own knowledge base!
For new programmers, I would suggest just focusing on just getting the desired results. Don’t get bogged down trying to learn design patterns, architecture, test-driven development, etc. Learn the basics of how to program first, then expand on that knowledge. And remember, keep it simple! You don’t need an enterprise-level solution for the FizzBuzz problem.
At this point, if you determine that the project is completely out of your scope, say so. Even if you determine the project is far too large or complex for you to build, you will have at least increased your own knowledge, so I always see it as a win-win situation.
- Build it.
You might think this is the hardest step of all, but in reality it will eventually become one of the easiest ones. Gathering the requirements and figuring out how you’re going to build the application are much more important, and if done right, it will make this step a breeze.
Of course, early on in your career this step will be the most time-consuming and frustrating one. It will likely consist of a lot of trial and error, but don’t be disheartened because this means you are learning! We learn much more from our mistakes than from our successes, and the more you learn, the better your programming skills will become.
So to summarize, don’t worry too much about not being able to build / understand enterprise-level applications straight out of college. Start small, and keep an always be willing to learn. Work on programming for results first, and worry about best-practices later on. Hobby projects are a great way to gain experience. And remember, don’t ever stop learning!