Last updated 10/17/2023
For some, the initial perception of a software developer may be a far cry from reality. That’s because building tech products in real life often means more than sitting alone in front of a laptop for nine hours a day—just as becoming a successful programmer requires more than learning how to code.
Knowing your way around various programming languages is just one aspect of being an effective professional software developer. You’ll also have to utilize interpersonal, “soft” skills like communication and collaboration to work effectively across departments in an organization. And you’ll face new challenges daily, no matter how long you’ve been coding.
In this article, we’ll explore the basics of coding and what a career as a programmer may look like.
What is Coding?
To the budding developer, writing computer code can seem like a foreign language—which makes sense, because that’s exactly what it is.
What these words are and the order in which you use them differs among the programming languages. At the core of each language, though, are the same basic components and concepts.
Why Learning the Basics of Programming Is Important
Learning the fundamentals of one programming language is the first place any aspiring coder should start. That’s because many programming languages share structural concepts that are both transferable to other programming languages and essential to all of them.
Whatever programming language you decide to learn first, there will be many new terminologies and concepts to digest. This can be overwhelming if you aren’t already familiar with the basics of how computer science works in general, says developer Mikke Goes. “After learning Computer Science basics, you’ll have a solid understanding about what computers can do for you,” Goes writes. “You’ll also learn coding a lot faster since you’ll already be familiar with most of the technical terminology you hear when you’re learning programming.”
This last point is essential. At the end of the day, you probably aren’t going to learn just one programming language during your entire career. Odds are, you’re going to have to learn several, one after the other.
Adam Wulf, founder of Milestone Made, believes changing tech stacks is inevitable. “Right now, I’m of the mind that you should plan to learn essentially brand new technology stacks every ~4 years,” he writes.
That means your career will depend on your ability to learn new languages quickly, which is facilitated by a solid understanding of programming’s underlying concepts.
Coding Concepts That Aspiring Developers Need to Know
Lines of computer code might seem completely indecipherable to you in the beginning, but if you can understand the following key concepts, you’ll soon be able to start making sense of specific programming languages.
The Flow of Data
Programming is all about the flow of data. A programmer has data that they can feed into a program. The program has its own data that it can use to interpret the input data. All of this data can be combined to represent ideas and provide use to both the program and the user.
In programming, data is usually represented by what we call data types, which can include words, numbers, and other kinds of complex data.
Data is essential, but a program can only use that data if it knows how to ask for it—and what to do with it when accessed, which is why it’s important to declare data at the start of the program.
Declaring a variable simply means giving a name to a piece of data. Once you’ve named it, you can refer to that data as many times as you want. Naming your variables helps the program understand what the data is and what it means when you need to draw on it later. It’s important to remember that variables just point to data; they don’t hold the data.
Once you have data and have named that data as variables, your program needs rules and instructions to allow it to make choices and execute commands. This is done with control structures.
Think of control structures as bouncers at a bar. The bouncer (control structure) is instructed not to let anyone under the age of 21 in. They check each ID, and if the birthday is before a certain date, that person is allowed into the bar. If the birthday is after the required date, the bouncer does not allow that person in the bar. Control structures operate in a similar fashion. They are a fundamental conditional concept, one that allows you to dictate how your code runs under different conditions or not until a certain condition is met.
In order to build something, you’re going to have to give your program a lot of instruction—but if you’re stuck asking the computer to run through the same steps over and over, writing out the same dozen instructions gets incredibly repetitive.
Functions are a way of collecting commonly used instructions and giving them a shorthand name that you can call back to. Rather than writing all of the instructions every time, you can simply use the name of the function instead, and the instructions contained within that function will execute on their own.
You can use functions to scale activities, including:
Encapsulating code without having to know the code inside
Dividing code into segments so multiple developers can work on it
Making it easier to test and debug
The final core programming concept that you need to know is syntax. In technical terms, syntax is the order in which certain predefined control structures, variables, and keywords are allowed to be written. This order defines the expected result of the computer reading and executing the code.
To simplify this concept, you can think of coding syntax just as you would think of syntax in the English language. The order in which you write code is very important. Write it in the wrong order, and—just as with English—the meaning of what you’re saying can change drastically.
Unlike English, however, noticing syntactic mistakes in code isn’t that easy. These mistakes can be a tricky problem for coders because the program will run with syntactic errors but won’t produce the right output. For many new programmers, syntax can be a challenge. However, it does get easier as you gain more experience and get better at spotting syntax errors.
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Professional Software Developer Career Outlook
Now that you have a basic understanding of coding, you’re probably wondering what a career in software development might look like. Life as a programmer will vary depending on the kind of company you work for, what you’re building, and which stack you’re using to do so. That said, there are several things that all programming jobs have in common.
Patience and Persistence are Non-negotiable
Patience is key to being a successful programmer. Some concepts can be incredibly complex and difficult to understand. However, with patience and hard work, you’ll eventually overcome the challenge.
Failure will happen as well, though—and that’s to be expected, even when you’ve got a good grasp on the programming languages you’re working in. The important thing to remember is that failure is not a bad thing; it’s an opportunity.
There’s also a (pretty good) chance that, as time goes on, one or more of the programming languages you know so well will be rendered obsolete by changes in technology. Learning one or even a set of coding languages isn’t enough. You need persistence to keep re-skilling if you want to stay current in the labor market.
Coding Requires Both Creativity and Thorough Planning
You’d be forgiven for assuming that coding is repetitive work. Yes, the fundamentals of coding are the same whether you’re building a web browser or fixing a plane’s autopilot system, but that’s what makes coding so creative.
By definition, coding is a creative act because you’re creating something that has never existed before. What’s more, the solution you are looking for can often be expressed in several different ways. Choosing the correct solution for your specific product out of the many available—say, for example, by making the right trade-offs (like prioritizing speed over memory)—requires the imagination to think through all of the possible user experiences and choose the best one.
While many programmers are eager to jump right into writing code, it’s important to plan ahead. By not planning, you may miss important things—leading to bugs and poor performance—which could slow down development and cost your company time and money.
Communication Skills are Just as Important as Tech Skills
You can be the greatest programmer in the world, but if you can’t explain things clearly to other (non-technical) people, you’ll limit your potential success in the industry. Communication—whether verbal, written, or even embedded in your code—is absolutely essential in the web development field.
Effective verbal communication is part of being a good team player. As a programmer, you’ll need to learn to explain code in basic, easy-to-understand terms. This will make it easier to work closely with your fellow peers who aren’t programmers.
Programmers should also possess good written communication skills. While it may not seem like it, coders spend a great deal of time communicating via email and other channels. It’s important to be clear and concise, especially if you want to eventually step into a management role.
Lastly, remember the code you write is a powerful communication tool, too. Ensure that you write clean lines of code with comments so your fellow developers can easily decipher your code and understand the reasoning behind it.
Being a Great Programmer Goes Far Beyond Your Programming Abilities
To be a good developer, you must have a firm grasp of relevant programming languages—no question. But to take things further and build a long-term career, you’ll need to dig a little deeper. The best programmers are creative, quick-thinking collaborators who keep learning as technologies change.
Coding isn’t done in isolation, and the ability to accept rapidly changing demands and work with a team to implement changes is crucial in this field. It’s one of the reasons coding bootcamp graduates tend to become great all-around programmers. During bootcamp, you’ll have the opportunity to practice pair programming by working collaboratively with instructors and peers through group projects to help further develop your teamwork and communication skills. You’ll be able to combine these in-demand soft skills with more technical bootcamp knowledge for a competitive edge.
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