Advice I wish I had when I started programming










I started my current path into programming almost ten years ago, back in 2014. Today, I’ve been programming professionally for almost 8 years! Before then, I tried and failed several times to learn how to code.

This is a list of things I wish someone had told me when I had first started.

Go beyond tutorials

When you first start out learning to program, tutorials will be your best friend. They will get you up and running with the basics - teaching you data types and control flows. However, at some point you will hit a wall and tutorials and lessons will stop providing you value and you will end up in ‘tutorial hell’.

Tutorial hell is when you get stuck following tutorials because it’s all you know and you haven’t yet tried to build something from scratch. It’s easy to get trapped here because it’s comforting, you know at some point during the tutorial you will get the answers to the problem. When you’re working on a project on your own, if you get stuck you have to set out to find the answers to the problems you are solving. This is hard, but a skill that is vital to develop.

If you can be mindful of tutorial hell, you will be able to spot it so you can break out to start building something.

Don’t try to remember it all

I constantly find myself looking up syntax I should know, and that’s ok. It’s very easy to think that programmers commit to memory every single aspect of a programming language. Instead, it’s the opposite. We commit to memory the flow of a program, ifs and for loops, and anything else we happen to remember is a bonus!

If you need to stop to look up what method you need to call in order to add an element to your list - it’s ok the first time, and it’s ok the thousandth time. Over time you will naturally start to remember the things that are important for you to remember.

Don’t let not knowing every aspect of programming stop you from starting to build things.

One cavitate to this is if you're looking for your first job programming, and some of your interviews involve pair programming - if you know you constantly forget certain basics, take some time to commit them to memory.

Avoid copy and paste

It can be very tempting to copy and paste a working solution from a tutorial or Stack Overflow into your code editor. There are a couple of reasons why you should avoid doing so while you’re learning.

Writing code is not like writing normal text. It uses all the same characters but somehow it’s so alien. We have funny looking brackets showing up all the time ([, ], {, }). And, while we have normal looking keywords (if, continue), some you probably aren’t typing day-to-day (yield, void) - and the rest are brain breaking (def, func, struct, lambda, elif). By transcribing code instead of copy and pasting, you will improve your muscle memory for these incantations which will help you when you’re writing code from your own brain.

Another reason to type your code out is it helps you slow down and ingest what you’re typing. When you first start out you will be really slow typing the code out, which will probably feel frustrating. If you can stick with it, you will find you will develop an internal patter that will speed up with time. I liken it to listening to a podcast above 1x speed. You can jump in at 2x, but it will be easier if you go to 1.2x speed first and increase slowly from there.

Read code

When working on an established system most of your time will be spending reading, not writing, code. So, it can be a good skill to practice while you’re still learning as it will help accelerate your learning. Seeing how other people solved a problem can new tools to your tool belt.

For example, in Python, you might start out creating lists dynamically using a for loop

results = []

for item in thing:
    if item == ...:

Then one day you come across this

results = [item for item in thing if item == ...]


Modern programming is so fortunate to have a movement like open-source that enables you to go and look at what other people are building/have built - and take a look under the hood at how it was built.

When you’re first getting started, it might be difficult to find good open source code bases to read through - some code bases are complex and can quickly get overwhelming if you try and understand them too quickly.

Be on the lookout for code reading opportunities, so when you do stumble upon some code, you can stop and read it. Try and understand it. Did you understand it quickly? Did anything surprise you? Was there something new you learnt?

Read documentation

When I first starting programming and saw advice like ‘read the documentation’, I always assumed it meant I would sit down with a cup of coffee and read it like a book - going through each page until I had absorbed all there was to know about the technology I was learning about. Don’t be me.

Reading documentation is about using the documentation to answer a question you have about a programming language or a technology. It’s a vital skill to have - I’ve answered questions on Stack Overflow before, not because I knew the answer, but because I found the answer in the documentation.

If you can practice getting answers from the documentation rather that from articles and help sites - you will be able to get yourself unstuck when you’re on the path less trodden and there are fewer questions and answers available on the internet.

Build something

I think as soon as you have a few basics under your belt you should try to start solving problems. It will help you in two ways:

  1. It will help the code you write feel less abstract - it will start doing real things that help you.
  2. When you learn of new data types or features of a language, your will make the leap back to your project, thinking of ways this new thing can help you.

Without these two things, learning something new feels pointless. Why spend time learning about a hashmap/dictionary when it feels useless because you have no need for it.

Building something to solve a problem you have also exposes you to things that can be a little bit more complicated, like reading and writing a file, or making a web request. Doing these things in the context of trying to solve a problem you have can make them a bit more bearable to learn.

So, try and think of a problem you have - either and home or at work. Could you write a small program to solve it?

Accept that it’s hard and unnatural

Programming isn’t a thing humans brains were made to do. Occasionally, there will be find someone who’s mental model perfectly aligns with code and they hit the ground running. However, for most of us it’s strange and makes our head meat hurt.

Accepting this can help alleviate some of the frustration that arises when you encounter a new and challenging concept. Sometimes if you’re just not understanding something, take a couple of days, then revisit the topic. The rest will help your mind absorb the information and when you come back to it, it should be easier!

Sometimes, this isn’t the case. For these times I would look to see if you really need to understand the concept deeply right now. Do you need to know the concept right now, or can you leave it and pick it up another time? (This is tough for tutorials where you can’t progress - maybe you’re in tutorial hell). Can you accept that this is how it works, even if you don’t fully understand it? Once your knowledge broadens, it might suddenly click.