Ready, set, go!

There are a lot of ways to learn to code. There are a lot of ways to actually write code. There are a lot of things to think about. It can be… it is overwhelming. “Start there,” was my mandate, and with that in mind, I decided I need to quickly find the lowest resistance approaches.

I knew immediately that books, as a first step, were not going to work. There are just too many, with varying levels of prior experience assumed and no quick and easy way to determine if they even offered what I would need. I would soon circle back to this avenue, but for now I knew it would only bog me down.

Formal education. I bring this up even though by this stage I had already discarded it as a method for me because I think that under other circumstances, this would have been more attractive. That is probably a topic for later discussion, but my timeline ruled this out too.

The most attractive path for me, then, was informal education. For this I turned to the internet. One website in particular came up repeatedly. Codecademy. It turns out, this is where I would start. I should give a special mention for another website that shares a lot of the same features of Codecademy, and that primed me to learn in this fashion. Anyone who has investigated interactive, gamified learning on the internet has surely run into Khan Academy.

A few years ago, a friend asked me to help her son with his math homework. I figured I could handle pre-algebra, even though it has been a long time since I cracked open a math textbook. But just in case, I started looking for online resources. If nothing else, I could crib the methods to help me teach the material. That led me to Khan Academy, and I raced through the material, eventually progressing further than I ever got at school. I never did finish the lessons in Linear Algebra (sorry Matt, I really wanted to be able to help!), but Khan Academy is still one of my most used bookmarks.

Codecademy follows a similar model. Focused lessons with a gradual progression, and rewarding badges and challenges. Compared to Khan Academy, Codecademy is almost Spartan, but that is actually one of its major plusses. There aren’t a lot of distractions or roadblocks or hurdles. Sign up and start learning. The front page emphasizes a somewhat holistic approach to learning, with the more general Web Developer lessons at the top and then language specific courses below.

For me, Codecademy was the perfect introduction to Web Development. Self-paced, with easy navigation and just enough positive reinforcement to keep me motivated without being patronizing or cloying. I spent around three weeks sprinting through lessons whenever I had the time. Pretty soon I was feeling comfortable with the three main “languages” in their core web dev section; HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Not an expert, by any means. In fact, probably just enough knowledge to be dangerous, but I knew that I still didn’t know enough to know what I didn’t know!

It was time for the next step, but once again, I wasn’t sure what that step should be. Books have been a big part of my life since early childhood. The feel of holding a book and flipping through the pages is a very relaxing and comforting act for me. I still didn’t know how to pick and choose, and I didn’t need a dozen books of varying usefulness sitting on my shelves. And that’s how I ended up in a bookstore, monopolizing the twelve feet or so of programming shelf space. Once again, however, I realized that I still didn’t know what to look for, but I at least felt like I was getting closer…

Next time, I’ll talk about finding the right tools and, big surprise, the right books.

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How did I get here?

Over the years, I have dabbled with coding. I have started and stopped learning C++, WPF, .net, even python. They were interesting and difficult and in a lot of ways fascinating, but I didn’t have the drive to push through, hunker down and learn them. Sure, I have plenty of excuses. I had a full-time job running my own electrical contracting business. Then my son was born and I became a stay-at-home parent, which, it turns out, is even more full-time than a full-time job. More recently, my daughter was born, and so my free-time has grown into an even more precious commodity.

So, why now? The brutal, up-front, honest answer is, I need marketable skills, because I need to work. For the last few months, I have been deciding what I want to do with my life and realizing the hole I have dug myself into by not finishing college and not seeking a career before now. I realized that I need a job that has some level of creativity and will keep me mentally stimulated. I’d also love to be able to help people. And then there is the variable I call “time to acquire.” How long will it take to go from zero to having a job in the field?

Most of the things that piqued my interest had long or uber-competitive processes. Firefighter/Paramedic, nursing, teaching, engineering. No matter how “good” I got at the skills required, I was going to need formal education. This led me to consider a new strategy. Get an intermediate job and pursue an education. This is still the most reasonable approach I can think of, but I had one more idea.

My brother and my best friend both work as professional software developers. They have both encouraged me, for years, to learn how to code. They have both been in positions to interview and hire developers. I wondered what they thought my chances would be? Could someone with no formal education in the field, but a command the material get a job as a developer? So I discussed it with them. “Yes, but,” was the answer they both gave, immediately. This was good, I could work with this. Over the course of the next few days, we talked about it more in-depth. Then we got to work on a plan, and it wasn’t at all what I expected.

Both of my new career counselors have spent a lot of time neck-deep in the Microsoft development world. Not exclusively, they are both knowledge seekers first and try to keep their toolboxes current. However, their years of experience gave me certain expectations about what advice they would give me. I was dead wrong. Both of them recommended that I give web and mobile development a shot.

“You mean, HTML and CSS?” I asked.

“Yes, and JavaScript. There will be more, but start there.”

Start there. So I did.

Next time, I’ll talk about how I narrowed down the confusing forest of choices and focused on some very select trees.