A thorough guide on coding; languages, and basics explained.
The world has changed drastically ever since modern computers first made their way into the home. Through every humble desktop and government supercomputer, our understanding of technology has developed to the point where we can process millions of terabytes of data, simulate entire fictional worlds, and place tiny yet powerful computers into the pocket of every civilian.
While working on your computer, browsing the Internet, or playing video games, there is a programming language that determines when and how the device processes data.
In this guide, you’ll learn what coding is and how you can get started. To make it more accessible, our guide is split into the following sections:
- What Is Coding?
- Is Coding Hard To Learn?
- Identify Why You Want To Code, And What Sort Of Path You Want To Take
- Coding Languages And Their Purposes
- Coding Basics And Different Properties Explained
- Starting To Code
- Get Your Kids To Code
As you can see, we have a lot of information to get through, so let’s get started!
What Is Coding?
Coding is where you use programming languages to communicate and direct your computer. Let’s break down what the terms “coding” and “programming languages” mean. Coding is easy, it’s simply the verb we use when we are writing in a programming language.
Like any other means of communication, a language is needed so that the computer can understand our intentions and follow our instructions. We can’t use English to program a computer because they are machines. We need to use a language that the recipient understands.
If a deaf person understands American Sign Language, you should sign to communicate with them. It’s that same logic that is used for programming languages. A computer can’t understand us, so we need to communicate with them on their terms. We do this through programming languages. Unlike English or ASL (natural languages that have developed over time), we use invented formal languages that have very strict criteria so that every character, symbol, and “word” means something very specific. That way, nothing gets lost in translation when we order our machine to do something.
Those characters and symbols are called strings when they are typed out into lines. When somebody is coding, they type out those strings and format them in a way the computer understands. Those strings are a human input that is then translated into binary and read by the machine, resulting in machine output.
There isn’t just one programming language, there are many, as you’ll find out later. Each one has different rules and ways of writing to get the desired outcome.
Is Coding Hard To Learn?
After all of that, you may be a little intimidated. Don’t be! Coding has a reputation for being hard to learn because many take a sideways glance at the subject, see a lot of intimidating numbers and letters, and then run away. Like any other skill, time and persistence are needed to code.
Anything is hard to learn if you don’t give it the time and effort that it demands.
Besides, some programming languages are easier than others to learn. Many have learned to code before you, so you benefit from not being the first, and you have the Internet to help you out like it’s doing right now! Could you imagine learning to code in the 90s?
If you need even more encouragement, many jobs related to software development and computer science, which require coding knowledge, pay very well. Many people dedicate their time to hobbies that won’t give them the skills and earning potential that coding does. Programmers can make big bucks, they flex their brains to become even smarter (Psychological Science, ‘The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project’, 2013), and they’re becoming more in demand with each passing day!
Identify Why You Want To Code, And What Sort Of Path You Want To Take
If there is any difficulty in coding, it’s because each programming language has different applications. Due to how specific they need to be, programming languages are often created with a purpose in mind. This means you can’t learn one programming language and use it for other purposes. Some languages are more widely used than others, of course, but it helps to know why you are coding before you start.
- Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Development
- Web Application/Website Development
- OS Development
- Data Analysis & Management
- Mobile App Development
- Videogame Development
You may already know why you want to code, in which case you’re already ahead!
Coding Languages And Their Purposes
With that in mind, let’s take a look at thirteen coding languages and the best purposes that they can be used for. Find the one that corresponds to your interest and take a look at it!
HTML & CSS
These are two programming languages that are best used for web development. HTML, or HyperText Markup Language, is used to describe the structure of a webpage to the computer that’s presenting it. It’s used to publish online documents and dictate where the headings, text, and any photos, tables, or other inclusions are located. It’s relatively easy to learn and a must for web design.
It’s combined with CSS, Cascading Style Sheets, which are used within HTML to present additional information such as text color, font, and spacing. It’s a great tool for making pages more accessible too.
Apple’s software has a reputation for being impenetrable and difficult to modify but Swift makes programming with iOS much easier. It’s an open-source programming language that can use both iOS and OS X applications. It integrates elements of Objective-C, namely a compiler and debugger.
It can be used for mobile app design for Apple’s handheld products as well as other development and administrative uses, like Apple software development, data engineering, or data management. Besides Apple, the popular workplace communication platform Slack also makes use of Swift.
If you use Apple products more than any other OS, Swift is a great programming language to learn.
PHP, or Hypertext Preprocessor, is a general-purpose programming language. This means it’s a great starter language because it has many applications, chiefly in web development, and it can still function even if your code contains errors. A lenient programming language like that is ideal for beginners.
You should keep in mind that it’s an older programming language, so its mileage going into the future may vary. The first instances of Facebook used PHP on their pages but have since added a compiler that translates it into their own native code to boost performance. There is another huge content management system that still uses PHP – WordPress. If you’re building a site on WordPress, knowledge of PHP would take your efforts to the next level.
Python is another old and beginner-friendly programming language that’s still widely in use today, making it many programmer’s first stop on their coding journey. As far as programming languages go, it’s quite easy to read and understand for us humans, reducing syntax mistakes that could harm your code.
Python is particularly a favorite in scientific fields. NASA swears by it while those advancing artificial intelligence technology have also been using it to support machine learning. Internet giants like Google and Wikipedia still run Python code on their pages.
It is also the most learned language, with developer interest in the coding format rising by 27% in the last year during the pandemic (O’Reilly, ‘Where Programming, Ops, AI, and the Cloud are Headed in 2021’, 2021).
C, C++, C#
C, C++, and C# can be combined together due to their shared qualities. They are a tough but rewarding language to learn, so many advise starting with another programming language because of their steep learning curve. The C family comprises multiple open-source projects that have many, many applications.
C is one of the oldest and foundational programming languages on this list, with C coding being used to write Python and PHP. C code can be used to implement general-purpose or system-specific instructions for data crunching, like in word processing, databases, spreadsheets, and graphics packages.
C++ is an extension of the C language whose codes can be used to write and modify database software, operating systems, web browsers, banking applications, and even video games. Cloud distribution systems have also been created with C++. LinkedIn is a popular service that uses C++.
C# is one of the latest C family languages that have many of the same applications for coding desktops, web apps, and other web services. As such, Microsoft makes use of a lot of C# code. It’s also the programming language of choice for Unity, a popular cross-platform game development engine.
Here’s another language related to the C programming language family. Objective-C is a simple and general-purpose language that was created after combining C with Smalltalk, a language used to ferry messages between users. It allows for the sending, forwarding, or ignoring of messages.
It’s popular with iOS applications and other systems that rely on messages sent between users. If you’re making iOS or OS X apps, this is another language that’s ideal to know along with Swift.
Ruby is often compared with Python since it’s a flexible programming language that has many general-purpose use cases. It can be used independently by any programmer as part of Ruby on Rails, a web framework written with Ruby.
Ruby is used by sites like Airbnb, Hulu, GitHub, and Kickstarter. NASA and Motorola also make use of it, too, for its application in the field of robotics and digital simulations. It’s a great programming language if you need to track information or work with 3D models.
SQL, Structured Query Language, is not a development language. It’s a database query language, which means it’s used to add, access, and manage content when inside a database. This makes it a common programming language that’s used for strictly business, database development, testing, and administration in professional contexts. If an industry needs a database, like finance sectors, then they often need somebody who knows SQL. MySQL is the second most popular database management system worldwide (Statista, Ranking of the most popular database management systems worldwide, as of June 2021, 2021).
Since it’s a database query language, it’s often used in conjunction with a programming language that’s capable of more versatile code writing. Fortunately, the simple syntax patterns used in SQL are easy to pick up once you have some coding experience. Due to its limited scope, this is a language you should pick up alongside a programming language.
Coding Basics And Different Properties Explained
So, we’ve seen some programming languages and what they can be used for, now it’s time to get into specifics. Here are some basic principles and properties related to coding, no matter which languages you’re working with.
Front-End And Back-End
You may have seen us use these terms above when describing how certain languages are related to the front end or the back end of software, usually websites.
The front end is what users see on their screens when interfacing with the software. Let’s say it’s a webpage or an app you commonly use. You may see convenient fields that you can type in and buttons that you can press, designed in a way that’s easy to understand and be visually pleasing.
The back end is everything that happens behind the scenes. This includes the calculations and communications that the software runs that shouldn’t be seen by the user or would be unsightly if they were visible to the user. It’s all about how the site or app works without any consideration for user experience yet.
Both are required for developers to create software that works and looks good. Many programmers elect to train at both forms of development. We call them full-stack developers.
Imperative VS Declarative Paradigms
Every programming language works with a paradigm. This is the logical approach that a computer uses when solving a problem, which then dictates the style of the programming language. Every paradigm falls into one of two branches, imperative or declarative.
Imperative programming is where you tell the compiler what should happen to your code. By doing this, you give the compiler all the steps necessary for it to heed your command and work towards it. You give the instructions for the compiler to follow to create an outcome.
Declarative programming is the opposite, where you create code that describes the desired outcome without explaining how you get there. Then that result is processed and the instructions on how to get there are created by the machine.
You’re a beginner, so you shouldn’t get lost in the weeds when it comes to paradigms. For now, you should know these:
- Functional Programming – This is a declarative paradigm that conceives data as lists of tasks that need to be completed, which are called functions.
- Object-Oriented Programming – This is an imperative paradigm that is very common in the field of programming and coding. This is where entities in the program are treated like they are objects that can be interacted with to produce the desired outcome.
Compiled VS Interpreted Languages
We mentioned above that computers must translate code into binary so that they can read the information. This is done by compilers and interpreters that translate into code that can get read by computers.
Compiled languages are those where your machine translates the code that you enter directly. Interpreted languages, on the other hand, require an extra step. This build step needs another program to read and execute the code after it has been written.
We have also brought up syntax a few times. This is a grammatical term that describes how words and phrases are arranged to create proper sentences, which then form a language. If a sentence is otherwise spelled perfectly but punctuation and words are in the wrong order, those are syntax issues. Syntax is the rules and structure of our language.
Well, programming languages are languages too, so they have syntax. The syntax of code is much more important than an embarrassing typo, however, as it’ll determine how memorable the code is to learn and how many coding mistakes will be tolerated.
The syntax is often mentioned alongside semantics too, which is simply a term that’s used to describe the logic that is behind the syntax. If the syntax is the literal structure of the language, semantics are the logical meaning contained in words and symbols. In a programming language where each symbol and word means something very specific, semantics are important.
Keywords & Identifiers
And now that we’re thinking about the meaning behind terms in language, you should learn what keywords and identifiers are. You probably know what keywords are already, they are just words that have pre-determined meanings, uses, and contexts.
As for identifiers, these are labels given to entities within the program by the programmer. With a keyword, they’re innate to the language and cannot be changed while you can create an identifier as long as you follow the language’s syntax rules. Here are the rules dictating many identifiers:
- They can use underscores, lowercase letters, uppercase letters, and 0-9 digits.
- They cannot begin with a digit, however.
- They cannot be keywords.
- They cannot use @, &, $, !, %, etc.
If you’re accessing a certain piece of information repeatedly, it may be best to create a variable, which is called declaring a variable. If you know anything about algebra, you likely know what a variable is, and it’s the same in programming too! If you’re using data more than once, you can declare a variable and then have a way to reference and reuse that information in your code without typing it again.
A lot of data gets processed by programmers and it comes in different data types. These are labels that let the compiler or interpreter know how the information is supposed to be handled. There are four common data types every beginner should know:
- Lists, which are where we store multiple variables into a group.
- Integers, which are numbers that don’t use decimals. They can be used in variables and can even be used to do algebra.
- Boolean, a yes or no response that can serve many purposes. They typically respond with True or False.
- Strings, pieces of text that are strung together in programming languages and written within quotation marks.
These are symbols that enable mathematical functions to be used with your data. There are several different types of operators:
- Arithmetic, to create simple number operations.
- Assignment, to denote value onto a specific code.
- Relational, to create Boolean values or to create comparisons.
- Logical, to get a Boolean response after a Boolean input.
These are actions that are performed when certain conditions are met. Booleans are used to see if data meets the requirements and then conditionals create what happens once those conditions happen. The all-powerful “if” function is the most widely used and widely known example of a conditional.
Functions are what we call commands or actions in your program. They only run when they are told to and after they have been defined with a keyword. Once a function is defined, it’s used to implement actions in the program.
A loop is where the same block of code is run repeatedly. It’s common in Python with the for loop, which demands something is done for every item in a list.
With all of the data used by programmers, it needs to be structured somehow. The data structure is how it is arranged in a computer’s memory stores. There are two main concerns with how the data is structured. First, how it is stored. Second, what needs to be done to that data.
There are two main structures, linear and hierarchical. Linear structures are linked like a chain, to the piece of data before and after it. Hierarchical structures create a pyramid that links pieces of data by what is above and below it.
The word algorithm gets thrown around a lot, what does it mean? It’s simply a step-by-step process where rules are followed to fulfill an operation or a calculation.
Source code is the program’s human-readable structure that is written by the programmer. It is compiled by the machine and translated into binary so it can be understood by the software/hardware.
Open-source is where the software has a license that allows the code to be grabbed by any coder and modified and improved in their own projects.
Starting To Code
As we near the end of our guide, here’s our step-by-step advice on how you can start coding! We’ve boiled the process down into five steps:
- Get The Right Text Editor: To start practicing, you’ll need a text editor. This is where you write your code (no, you can’t use Microsoft Word) so it’s essential to programming. Research which one is best for you and your designed programming language. We’d advise you to take a look at Notepad++, Visual Studio Code, Sublime Text, ATOM, and Brackets.
The most popular text editors are Notepad++ and Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code or VSCode. In 2016, they both had 36% popularity in development spaces (StackOverflow, ‘Developer Survey Results’, 2016) and this hasn’t changed much since.
- Choose Your Coding Languages: Speaking of your programming language, you should know which one you want to start learning. As a beginner, we’d recommend Java, Python, Ruby, or C++, though that last one comes with an extra challenge attached! Python allows you to jump right in and start making projects with relatively little downtime.
- Start A Practice Project: Don’t get paralysis by analysis, you should start a practice project to start learning from experience. It’ll boost your confidence and you can track your progress to figure out where you’re going wrong.
Coding is best learned when you have some kind of tutorial or learning resource to work from. We’d recommend resources like Codecademy, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, or Bento.io. Between those, you’ll find several free or paid courses but the courses that you need to pay for are cheap. Most of them will give you projects to complete, which will teach you the basics of coding.
Of course, if you want to start with easier coding materials, there is nothing stopping you from using some of the coding resources for children we’ve included below.
- Join A Community: Everybody needs a mentor sometimes, so an online community can help you hone your programming skills. Like-minded people can inspire and share ideas with you. The community should be oriented around your chosen language.
Here are some examples of coding communities online:
Practice, Practice, Practice: Then there’s nothing else to it, you just need to practice until you become proficient at the language. That’s how it works when you learn Spanish or any other language, and it’s the same for programming languages too!
Get Your Kids To Code
Given all the benefits of coding in both economic prospects and mental development, there are many reasons you should teach your kids to code if you have any. Coding teaches kids the basics of writing, math, and creative problem solving all at once!
Remember that, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for software developers will go up by 21% by 2028 (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, ‘Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers, 2021).
Benefits Of Kids Learning To Code
There are both short-term and long-term benefits to teaching your kids to code. In the short term, it’ll improve their confidence, resilience to failure, and empower them. In the long-term, you can expect three important improvements in the way their mind works:
- It Will Boost Their Creativity: Coding is a process of experimentation – trial and error that flexes your child’s creative muscles. Whether they’re a child or an adult, beginner programmers make a lot of mistakes that teach you there is more than one way of solving a problem.
- It Will Improve Their Math Skills: Since a lot of programming involves working with abstract concepts and refining them into lines of numbers and variables, there is an element of mathematics to coding.
- It Will Enhance Academic Writing Performance: With such a serious focus on syntax and organized text, those skills can then be translated into natural language writing to improve the syntax and semantic meaning of their written work. That’s useful for essays and other academic writing where the structure and presentation of written information are important.
Top Free Coding Programs And Sites For Kids
Here are some coding programs you should look into if you’re a parent who wants their child to learn to program:
- Coder Kids – Coder Kids offer a wide array of educational services but their Introduction to Scratch Coding is what we’d recommend. It’s free and teaches the basics of Scratch, a programming language that’s engineered for children and allows them to create animations and games.
- Code.org – One of the most popular coding class platforms for children, you can search for all sorts of tutorials and access them for free. They span a variety of applications and programming languages. They’re comprehensive too, averaging at 15 hours long.
- ScratchJr.org – This is another platform where Scratch can be learned by children between 6 and 16. Typing isn’t necessary, instead, you drag and drop blocks of code to create programs. It also has an active community of fellow learners to bounce ideas off of.
- Codecombat.com – This handy site combines text-based coding with RPG games, allowing kids to play a game through their programming. This involves navigating mazes, creating puzzles, and completing other tasks. You get 39 levels with its free version.
- LightBot – LightBot is a simple puzzle game that can be acquired on the Google Play or Apple App Store. It’s very flexible and enjoyable for all ages as they advance the puzzle platformer by using programming. It was developed by programmers for those to learn to program. It’s free with its demo version but there is an advanced paid model.
With that, we have come to the end of our beginner’s guide on coding. After reading through this guide, you should now have a basic understanding of the concepts and tools that are used for programming.
Now you can be confident when opening a text editor of your choice and experimenting with your chosen programming language, which is where the real learning begins. Like learning any other language, you need to use it a lot to understand it and use it to write programs.
This article was previously published in PC Guide by Adam Topper: https://www.pcguide.com/feature/beginners-guide-to-learning-how-to-code/