How to become a better programmer/developer?
From time to time I receive emails with questions "How to become a better/awesome developer?", "Should I go to college?", "what's the secret formula to becoming the ultimate programmer?". Instead of answering the same questions over, and over again - providing only partial responses each time - I decided to write this blog post.
Should I go to college?
It's a very hard question. Especially from the perspective of a person who went to 3 Universities (and graduated from all of them). Thus, instead of telling you whether you should or should not go to College, I will tell you what are the benefits of going to College.
First, and foremost - the opportunity to connect with other people. The better the school is - the better connections you can make. This is the real value of going to Harvard or Stanford instead of Community College. Not outstanding professors who own secret formulas that they are sharing only with their students. Of course, professors at top Universities are usually better than at non-top Universities, but they do not have a recipe to teach you something without your own initiative. Did you know that Stanford and MIT publish some of their classes online, for FREE? Why you do not just study these classes instead of going to college? You can, but this is like watching the moon landing from home instead of being in the spacecraft. This is also the reason why top schools accept only ~2% of candidates. They want to have only the smartest people to hang out together and then have successful careers. This makes the school prestigious.
The second benefit is being forced to learn things that have a steep learning curve, are not very fun at the beginning, but are definitely worth knowing while being a developer. Most of them are actually very exciting when you connect all pieces together.
Check out my other blog post: 10 things you should learn at University.
When you will have the opportunity to choose classes to attend - first choose professors, then subjects. From my experience - when I wasn't interested in some topic, but the professor was good - I liked the class, and I learned a lot. On the other hand - when I was very interested in some topic, but the professor wasn't great - I always regretted it because I probably could have learned more by myself.
Before making your decision, get familiar with opinions of people who recommend you to go to College (e.g., Joel Spolsky), or with those who definitely tells you to do not (e.g., DHH). You should also take into consideration the path of those who went to College, and drop (e.g., Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg). Be aware that the educational system has its issues that are amazingly explained by Sir Ken Robinson in the most watched TED talk ever Do schools kill creativity?, and Peter Thiel in one of the interviews. Remember that a university education is not a life insurance policy. It may work exactly the opposite.
I do not remember who said that, but I agree:
The best programmers learned Computer Science at School, and programming by themselves.
What language should I learn?
Most experienced programmers will tell you: "whichever is your favorite because you can do cool stuff in C#, but also in Ada, e.g., by writing Software for Boeing 787". And they are right! But I feel sorry for those beginners who will try to start with Ada because it is very likely that at the time when they will be getting their first program to compile, those who had chosen C# would already have full CRUD application with Database deployed on Azure.
Why C#? "C# is a better Java", and those two (C# and Java) are currently the most popular compiled programming languages. Thus, there are a lot of code samples, tutorials, and community support.
Extra credit: learn also C/C++ to learn pointers, and how memory allocation works. I would even recommend you try to write some assembly: to understand how variables are stored in the processor registers, and memory. Then spend 7 weeks with this book: Seven languages in seven weeks. Hint: after you learn your first programming language, learning each next will be getting easier. There is also a great, GREAT book that will help you to understand how computers work: The Elements of Computing Systems.
You may hear from more experienced programmers that you shouldn't try just to learn another language but to build something. Unfortunately, the difference between you and them is usually the number of languages you both know. You: 1 or 2, them: more than 5. Because of that, they are able to pick up language basics in one night and start building something right away. They already know how to use common programming constructs - such as loops, functions, and classes - and how to use them efficiently. For you: it would be much harder.
It's good to be proficient in one language and know how to use a few others. I think it was Albert Einstein who said:
Know everything about something and something about everything.
How to get a job when I do not have any industry experience?
Create something. Whatever. Really! That's the most popular advice from experienced programmers. While it's true, the problem is that it is much easier to say and understand, when you already have done that. For somebody who is really entering the market for the first time - it is not that obvious. So, here, I will tell you what to do: Create a website that will allow you to browse, add, edit and delete books. Then add the possibility to log in, and roles for admins (who can do everything) and standard users (who can only browse books). Once you have this, create a mobile app that will allow you to browse these books like the website, and later on, also edit/delete when you are logged in as admin. You can get books from your website by creating an API that will return data in JSON format.
BTW: You can learn all technologies mentioned above at Pluralsight. I really recommend you get an account there. You can check popular courses list as a tip on what it currently hot and worth learning.
When your app is ready, publish it on GitHub, and deploy to Azure or AWS, or Google Cloud, or to all of these platforms. Use FREE trials if you do not want to pay, or even better - figure out how to not spend too much money when using Cloud.
Are you done? I hope you didn't do it exactly how I said, or you did multiple versions of slightly different applications using different tools. Great! Now, you can show it to your future employer, and tell him that you are already capable to deliver software from your first day at work. You can put it in your resume, in the 'projects' section, and describe it: "I created a website for book collection management with user authentication and authorization. Additionally, I created companion mobile apps for the 3 most popular mobile platforms (iOS, Android and Windows Phone) that communicate with the database through RESTful API". If you will have a thing, when you graduate from college, you will already beat 95% of other students, and - I am assuring you - this will give you your first job for 99%. From then - you will figure things out!
If you want to work for some of the top, tech companies like Microsoft, Google, or Facebook, I recommend you learn a lot about algorithms. Take as many algorithms classes as possible at school, read books (1, 2, 3), and practice, practice, practice. These companies don't care whether you can program in Java, even if you are applying for Java Programmer position. What they care about is whether you are smart, and can get things done. I really recommend checking out Sean Lee's talk How to Get a Job at the Big 4 - Amazon, Facebook, Google & Microsoft - it's not only about getting a job at particular companies, but it's also great career advice.
How can I improve my coding skills?
Write code. A lot! Really. Write code every day. You can create some simple applications, like to-do lists, shopping list apps, or personal finances calculators. I know all of these exist, but you are going to learn by reinventing the wheel. If you want to create something more complex - go for it! Look at this woman who built 180 websites in 180 days. The good way to practice programming is to compete in programming contests.
Read books to learn from more experienced programmers, and to discover what we know about programming today. If you want some reading recommendations check list of my favorite books, or all books I have read.
You can also take a look at Google's Technical Development Guide - recommendations and resources that will help you to become a developer from Google.
There is an amazing, free Pluralsight production by Scott Hanselman and Rob Connery - Get Involved! Check this out. Then start a blog, create Twitter and GitHub accounts, and subscribe to some podcasts (e.g., Hanselminutes, .NET Rocks, This Developer's life, StackOverflow podcast), and go to some conference for developers, local meetup, or Code Camp. Pro tip: when you want to learn something - submit a proposal for a local meetup, student Computer Science group, or conference about the topic that you are interested in, and would like to dive in. This will give you the motivation to learn.
Remember about soft skills
What many developers underestimate is the value of soft skills. Please read Dale Carnegie's How to win Friends and influence people, and Chad Fowler's The Passionate Programmer. Maybe at the very beginning of your career, it doesn't matter that much, but at some point, you will notice how important is communication, and the ability to interact with people.
I know you would like to be an awesome coder tomorrow, but this takes time. Be patient, work hard, and after some time you will realize that you are a good programmer. However, remember to maintain and improve your skills every day, as athletes do with everyday training.