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Learning to Program on Your Own

Tue, Dec 15, 2009

Productivity, Tips

Learning how to code is like learning anything else – You have to do it. The hardest part is figuring out where to begin, and then you need some mechanism to show you that you’re making progress. The latter is important because it motivates you to keep going.

First, have a goal. I initially wanted to make AOL “punters” (apps that kicked other users offline) and malware. I found them interesting. Do you want to program games? websites? Facebook Apps? Apps for OS X?

Once you have the goal, do research on how those apps are made, particularly on the language used, APIs/libraries used, and so on.

When starting, you will be learning a lot of concepts that you will see no use for. If-then statements, variables, etc. You might understand the basic idea of what a variable is, but might wonder – why would I ever use this instead of putting the value in directly? At this stage, it’s important that you remain persistant and just go through the examples/exercises in your book (or those provided by your tutor). I noticed that most people will struggle through the first set of concepts, and then lose interest and quit after seeing that they aren’t doing anything interesting. One day, you’ll be doing something and everything will fall into place. An A-Ha moment.

You’re learning a bunch of stuff that doesn’t really connect with each other. How does printing “Hello World” to the screen eventually become a 3D game? How do I go from a console app to a window app? How does knowing what a variable or constant is translate to a web development project?

It’s a plateau — and I want to stress that this applies to almost anything, not just programming. You begin by learning a lot of stuff, very slowly making progress, and over time you begin to see that you kinda “know” what’s happening behind the scenes of the apps you’re using. After that, learning because easier and quicker. Getting to that level requires persistance.

My Turning Point – Stop Asking “What Should I Code?”

When I first began coding, I had the mentality that I had to “learn how to program” before “making app X” – This is logical but the way I structured in my head was important in impeding my progress. I divided learning how to program and making app X into two separate goals. It was a problem because it migrated me away from the goal of “making app X.” I began asking the wrong question – what should I code to learn how to program?

Instead, I should have been asking – what should I learn next, to reach my goal of making app X? I broke down app X into individual tasks, and then began learning how to do each one. For example, let’s say my goal is to program a game.

If I ask “what should I code to learn how to program?” I will spend a lot of time learning things I might not need anytime soon (or ever), I will get nowhere near reaching my goal, and will become unmotivated and quit before getting there. Instead, I would break down the game into individual tasks (this requires research) and work on learning each one.

Let’s see, I need to figure out how to make a window/draw things on screen. That becomes my new short term goal. I dig deeper and learn that I need to learn the Windows API. I learn that the Windows API is how one draws to the screen. But the Windows API is another thing I need to learn, so that becomes the immediate short term goal. Digging deeper, I realize that the Windows API is just a bunch of functions with some conventions that I need to memorize.

Now my goal is somewhat clearer. I begin reading about the Windows API, making different small apps to make sure I understand what I’m reading. Eventually I am able to draw a window and controls. Great. I still don’t have a game. What’s next? I need to draw graphics. I dig into how it’s done and learn that the Windows API provides a set of functions graphics. I’m familiar with the Win API and so I just begin learning the graphics lib. I make a few dozen apps drawing basic circles, loading bitmap images, etc. Now my goal of making a game is starting to take shape in my head. I can mentally structure how the game will be, minus a few concepts I might not have learned yet.

Persistence.

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Marco Barbosa Says:

    Persistence – That’s the key!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Hi.Thanks for this great post. Right now I was feeling low because of my current progress . This post made my day. Cheers!!

  3. Neo Says:

    Persistence +1, :)

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