Learning to Code (Part 1)

This piece was published in a college newspaper

I’m an energy guy who likes economics, politics and history. For the past three years, I’ve focused on and developed these aspects of my professional personality. For whatever reason, I didn’t give much attention to computer programming.

But I was wrong. And I’m here to tell you two things: First, I’m making amends. Second, if you’re in a situation like mine, you should make amends, too.

Why is computer programming so critical, and why should everyone learn something about it? Computers do things humans can’t — or do things in ways humans can’t — which is why most human functions are increasingly being taken over by computer systems. The guru of Silicon Valley, Marc Andreseen, wrote a valid and powerful essay in the Wall Street Journal two years ago. To paraphrase his opinion, from purchasing a cup of coffee to trading billions of dollars on Wall Street, every transaction is done using some kind of computer code.

You watch movies on Netflix, purchase anything man-made there is to purchase on Amazon, bank using web or mobile applications — heck, you even do your schoolwork on cloud softwares like ELMS. And, of course, you spend a bulk of your time browsing the Internet on Facebook, Twitter and communication on mobile applications like WeChat and WhatsApp. That’s a rough picture of where we are right now. The future is going to be even more tech-oriented, from driver-less cars to brain-implanted microchips. In Japan, scientists are developing robots you can have sex with.

Let me pause here and emphasize that I’m not making the case for quitting traditional career paths or your area of interest for a career in the tech industry. No, definitely not. But knowing the language of computers is going to be an essential skill no matter where you go or what you do. Combine your expertise — biology, math, music, psychology, whatever it may be — with skills in computer coding, and you’ll do very well for yourself. It’s similar to how English is a prerequisite to whatever you do today. Without English, it’s difficult to communicate and you have very little to no value in the market. Similarly, you’ll be left wondering and wandering if you can’t communicate in tomorrow’s language, computer code.

All right, so that’s making the case for the importance and value of computer programming. But how can you get on track if you don’t have any tech or math background whatsoever?

Self-learning. Really, that’s the answer.

There are dozens of websites that offer free tutorials, and many of them are really effective. To get you started, I’m going to recommend signing up for a course on Coursera.org or doing the entire “Learn Python The Hard Way” course. Both are free and well regarded by the tech community. Honestly, there are dozens of top-quality tutorial forums online. You’ll be fine regardless what you use, so long as you put in the time and effort. Khan Academy’s free online math training program is also a good way to restart your tryst with math.

A few pointers (taking from Learn Python the hard way): I’d recommend you first learn the basics of Command Prompt (on Windows) and Terminal (on Mac). Command Prompt and Terminal are like the alphabet of programming. You’ll also get a taste of what the language of computers is like.

Power to you as you start this journey. More on Hackathons and surrounding yourself with experts at local hack meetups in my next post.

A good friend of mine who self-taught himself programming put it this way: Coding is very French. There is humor in it if you shovel deep enough.

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