Getting Started in Code: How to Think Like a Programmer

Alexandre Ouellette, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

Becoming a web developer isn’t simply about learning to write code. More than anything, you’ll need to add a different mindset to your skillset. So, how do you go about learning to think like a programmer? Past CareerFoundry student Alexandre explains all.

As a student of the CareerFoundry Web Development Program, I strongly believe anyone who is dedicated enough can launch themselves into a career in coding. However, within such a specialized field it can sometimes be hard to know if this is really the right career choice for you.

In this post I’m going to examine the mindset and commonly shared approaches used by many programmers in the industry. By understanding the mindset of experts in the field you can more easily identify if this is a career you too would enjoy and succeed in.

Although a very varied group of people, programmers often share patterns of thinking and a problem-solving mentality. As a beginner in the field, I can tell you that adapting my own thinking to be more “like a programmer” has eased my transition into this exciting new area of expertise.

So let’s have a look at some of the common traits found in successful web developers.

How do I start thinking like a programmer?

  1. Programmers don’t hesitate to ask for help
  2. Programmers are persistent
  3. Programmers review their work
  4. Programmers enjoy what they do

1. Programmers don’t hesitate to ask for help

Few would argue with the fact that getting started in programming is a big challenge irrespective of your background or previous training. That’s why it’s so important, especially early on, to accept the fact that you won’t know or understand everything straight away. Because of the challenging nature of what you’ll be learning, it is expected and even recommended that you ask for help, as and when you need it.

Asking Google and Stack OverFlow

Remember, Google is your friend. So when you get stuck on a problem just Google it. You’ll be surprised at not only how many other people have come across the same issue themselves but also the number of programmers out there who are willing and happy to help you out. Websites like Stack Overflow are an incredible resource for every level of programmer, and you should start getting comfortable with this popular question-and-answer site early on. Before long you may find yourself helping out other beginner programmers too!

Learning how to ask the right questions in the right places is a skill worth developing. When you post for help online, make sure you include the error messages you receive and the code that generates the error. Mention what you are trying to accomplish with this code and the steps you’ve already taken in trying to solve your issue.

Coding communities

As you continue to learn and grow as a programmer and your problems become more specific, you might then want to turn to the community for your particular product. For example, Ruby on Rails has a large community and you can chat with other members through IRC. There is even a dedicated channel for beginners to ask questions. Don’t feel afraid about looking foolish, everyone has to start at the beginning, and you’ll soon grow in both knowledge and confidence the more you ask and discover.

Once you start feeling more confident, you could branch out even further and start answering questions on your favourite website. People will always need help and your experience and expertise are valuable to them.

Remember, programming is a collaborative effort and helping one another is what makes it such a sociable, interesting, and fulfilling field to work in. Now, who said programmers weren’t social animals?!

2. Programmers are persistent

Even with the help of other programmers and online communities, there are still going to be times when you get stuck, and no matter what you do nothing works the way it should. Honestly, coding can be very frustrating and sometimes it will drive you nuts! However, this is where learning to think like a programmer can really pay off. In times like these you have to put your nose to the grindstone and persevere.

It’s helpful to remember that computers are binary, so they either work or they don’t. When your code doesn’t work, you can be sure there is an error in there somewhere and given enough time and effort you can get it to work again.

It then becomes imperative that you are able to see a problem through to the end. Try the following:

  • Break down your issues into smaller parts.
  • Tackle each part individually, then move on to the next one.
  • Browse through forums and documentation in search of the solution.
  • And, as discussed above, ask for help!

When I feel like giving up on a problem, I find it helpful to remember all the other issues I’ve had in the past and how I’ve felt after I’ve solved them: relief, satisfaction with my work and pride in myself that I stuck it out until it was done. So remember these feelings and recall them next time you are struggling with a piece of code.

Overcoming all the errors you encounter is the very best way to grow and improve as a programmer. In my experience, it’s always worth the effort to persevere.

3. Programmers review their work

Continuing from my last point, it’s important to put some time aside at the end of a project and take stock of what you’ve accomplished. Too often we jump from one project to the next without actually reflecting on what we’ve just achieved. Taking the time to reflect on your work gives you a tangible sense of purpose and direction that you can use further down the line when you are struggling with a problem or lacking motivation.

Established web developers are constantly learning from their previous experiences, keeping track of what worked well and what didn’t. By analyzing past mistakes or successes they continue to learn and grow as the field itself evolves.

Let’s not forget, it’s not just about what you’ve accomplished as an individual. Every time you complete a project, you’ve provided significant value to somebody else, be that a client, an employer, a customer or a colleague. Web development is a profession that reaps tangible results; your work really make a difference to people.

Learning to program is no easy feat, but once those skills under your belt you’ve got a great tool to wield. Using this tool you can reach significant personal goals and help others which is something you can be very proud of. Bearing this in mind and using it to motivate yourself is a key element of having to think like a programmer.

4. Programmers enjoy what they do

As much as coding is a tool to solve problems, it’s also a great tool to express your creativity. There are endless possibilities out there for you to explore as you learn how to code. Even solving the same old problems can be done creatively. Learn to experiment with new and exciting tools or take on projects that you find interesting.

It is important to work on projects that you enjoy and you can have fun doing. If that isn’t feasible, maintain side projects that you can work on in your free time. Passion projects are a great way to keep your creative juices flowing and to get inspiration for projects you work on for clients.

So find something you love and get involved!

Next steps

Hopefully my advice has shown (or reminded!) you of some key techniques of how to think like a programmer, as well as how that can help you thrive in your new career. If you’re looking to start coding from scratch, there are a world of different ways out there available to you, many of them for free, from YouTube tutorials to books to free coding bootcamps. To kick off with the basics of building and styling your first website, this video from our in-house web developer Abhishek is a great introduction:

Before that, if you’re looking to read more about learning to code or the world of web development in general, then have a look at these articles:

What You Should Do Now

  1. Get a hands-on introduction to web development with a free, 5-day short course.

  2. Take part in one of our live online web development events with industry experts.

  3. Talk to a program advisor to discuss career change and find out if web development is right for you.

  4. Become a qualified web developer in 4-7 months—complete with a job guarantee.