Learning to code, part II

This piece was published in a college newspaper

A few months ago, on this page, I made the case for learning how to code. I primarily addressed readers who, like me, have no background in coding whatsoever. My argument was that it is extremely beneficial from a professional standpoint to learn how to read and write a computer language in our highly tech-oriented world. From buying a simple cup of coffee at Starbucks to trading billions of dollars on Wall Street, understanding what goes on behind the scenes is an extremely useful skill.

In this column, I’m going to argue the importance of attending events organized by the student tech community and how those events can help you learn coding more easily – both in terms of the quality of your code and how fast you master some of the basic concepts.

First, hackathons. These are large gatherings of members of the hacking community where people come together to transform their computer coding ideas into reality in a matter of 24 to 36 hours. This could involve building anything from web applications to hardware. When I attended my first hackathon at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., a month ago, I didn’t have to pay for travel, food or lodging. In our “no free lunch” world, where else are you going to get such excellent perks while improving your skills?

The other evening, I met a senior economics and marketing major whom I encouraged to register for a hackathon at Yale. She told me that she needed to attain a certain level of expertise in computer programming before she felt comfortable registering. If you feel this way, too, then I must borrow the metaphor used by David Fontenot, the director of Michigan’s MHacks, which is the largest student hackathon in the entire country. He says that going to hackathons is like going to a gym. You don’t need to be an expert bodybuilder to use the gym. Doing a few push-ups or squats at home isn’t going to take you far. Going to the gym helps you get inspired, pick up new exercising techniques (not easily accessible to you at home) and improve on your fitness in a systematic and scientific way.

Even if you know little about how a computer operates (and I can safely assume most people reading this do), you are ready to start learning at a hackathon.

The second option at your avail is Terrapin Hackers. The club recently became the 2013 hackathon season champions, beating out 110 participating schools, including MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. They have hack nights every Wednesday from 6 p.m. to midnight where you can practice with experts, ask questions, get feedback and, in general, accelerate your learning. You should definitely start attending their events if you think you want to learn how to code.

Computers are involved in most important things you can think of in our economy today. Knowing the mechanics behind coding is going to be useful. You do not have to be an engineer or mathematician to learn coding. Coding need not be your primary skill set, but you will definitely catch employers’ eyes if you have it as a complementary skill. All you need is desire and willingness to learn. With that, I encourage you to sign up with the Terrapin Hackers Club for the Spring hackathon season, which will start at the beginning of next semester.

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