A painting representing the wisdom of the universe via a flowering tree and a dove

4 Tips to Help Beginner Programmers

For this post, I am as¬≠sum¬≠ing you al¬≠ready have some pro¬≠gram¬≠ming skills, but feel stuck. There is a lot of stuff you could po¬≠ten¬≠tially learn. Yet, this di¬≠ver¬≠sity of op¬≠tions makes de¬≠ci¬≠sion mak¬≠ing dif¬≠Ô¨Ā¬≠cult. What will give you the best bang for your buck, so to speak? Well, I am go¬≠ing to try giv¬≠ing some ad¬≠vice here. Some of this ad¬≠vice will be ob¬≠vi¬≠ous, but some¬≠times we need to re¬≠peat¬≠edly hear com¬≠mon sense truths for them to sink into our psy¬≠che. Thus, pro¬≠gram¬≠mers with years of ex¬≠pe¬≠ri¬≠ence may not Ô¨Ānd much value in this post, but my early col¬≠lege self would have ea¬≠gerly ab¬≠sorbed the knowl¬≠edge‚Äďmaybe you‚Äôll Ô¨Ānd the tips use¬≠ful too.

To start, I‚Äôm go¬≠ing to em¬≠pha¬≠size mas¬≠ter¬≠ing the fun¬≠da¬≠men¬≠tals. When in doubt, re¬≠view¬≠ing and strength¬≠ing your knowl¬≠edge of the ba¬≠sics is never a bad idea. Hard prob¬≠lems are of¬≠ten com¬≠bi¬≠na¬≠tions of sim¬≠ple prob¬≠lems. It will be eas¬≠ier to solve the mon¬≠strosi¬≠ties if we‚Äôre not bel¬≠lyÔ¨āop¬≠ping through the ba¬≠sic stuff.

Data Structures

Data struc¬≠tures are nec¬≠es¬≠sary to code much of any¬≠thing‚Äďbut it may be worth re¬≠vis¬≠it¬≠ing these build¬≠ing blocks. I Ô¨Ānd my¬≠self reusing the same ones over and over again. This repet¬≠i¬≠tive¬≠ness is¬≠n‚Äôt nec¬≠es¬≠sar¬≠ily bad. If it‚Äôs not broke, why Ô¨Āx it? Yet, there may be new lev¬≠els to this ish if we dig a lit¬≠tle deeper. For starters, make sure you‚Äôve mas¬≠tered the ba¬≠sics. You will never run out of rea¬≠sons to use ar¬≠rays, linked lists, sets, hash ta¬≠bles, trees, graphs, heaps, etc. For the var¬≠i¬≠ous struc¬≠tures, it may be worth re¬≠view¬≠ing the prop¬≠er¬≠ties and time-com¬≠plex¬≠i¬≠ties for their op¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tions. You should be able to com¬≠pare their pros and cons. For ex¬≠am¬≠ple, why use an ar¬≠ray over a linked-list? Or vice-versa? Sure, know¬≠ing about data struc¬≠tures is cool; how¬≠ever, it‚Äôs im¬≠por¬≠tant you also know how to uti¬≠lize them ef¬≠fec¬≠tively in real-world ap¬≠pli¬≠ca¬≠tions.


Of course, once you know a bunch of data struc­tures, you need to make use of them. Thus, let’s bring on the al­go­rithms. While in­vest­ing time learn­ing and im­ple­ment­ing new al­go­rithms is worth it, I would en­cour­age you to learn al­go­rith­mic pat­terns. Some of the new prob­lems you run into will look like prob­lems you’ve al­ready seen. Be smart and lever­age that knowl­edge in­stead of rein­vent­ing the wheel.

In ad­di­tion, you should al­ready be fa­mil­iar with mea­sur­ing the run­time and space com­plex­ity of an al­go­rithm us­ing as­ymp­totic analy­sis. Asymptotic analy­sis gives a ma­chine-in­de­pen­dent way of mea­sur­ing per­for­mance. It’s use­ful to say that merge­sort has an O(n log(n)) worse case run­ning time, which is su­pe­rior to bub­ble sort’s O(n2) worse case run­ning time. If this no­ta­tion looks like hi­ero­glyph­ics to you, con­sider brush­ing up on this topic.

I would also rec¬≠om¬≠mend peo¬≠ple get com¬≠fort¬≠able us¬≠ing re¬≠cur¬≠sion. Yes, it‚Äôs not al¬≠ways use¬≠ful and can some¬≠times make the code more con¬≠vo¬≠luted. It can also have the op¬≠po¬≠site ef¬≠fect. Look at the re¬≠cur¬≠sive al¬≠go¬≠rithm to solve the Tower of Hanoi game‚Äďand then com¬≠pare it to the it¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tive ver¬≠sion. There are just some prob¬≠lems in the world that lend them¬≠selves to re¬≠cur¬≠sive so¬≠lu¬≠tions. Plus, it will help ex¬≠pand your mind. Challenging your¬≠self is worth it in the long run.

Learn a New Language Paradigm

With a few ex­cep­tions here or there, most peo­ple are in­tro­duced to pro­gram­ming nowa­days via an im­per­a­tive, ob­ject-ori­ented lan­guage. This, once again, is­n’t nec­es­sar­ily bad. Examples in­clude Java, JavaScript, Python, C++, C#, and Ruby. There’s noth­ing wrong with any of these lan­guages, and you could prob­a­bly start your ca­reer by learn­ing any of them.

Yet, in my jour¬≠ney so far, I have found it in¬≠sight¬≠ful to learn new lan¬≠guage par¬≠a¬≠digms. This could mean learn¬≠ing a whole new pro¬≠gram¬≠ming lan¬≠guage or dis¬≠cov¬≠er¬≠ing pre¬≠vi¬≠ously un¬≠known abil¬≠i¬≠ties in your cur¬≠rent fa¬≠vorite lan¬≠guage. Before I go any fur¬≠ther, I should prob¬≠a¬≠bly de¬≠Ô¨Āne some terms. After all, what do I mean by lan¬≠guage par¬≠a¬≠digms?

Language par¬≠a¬≠digms are a way to clas¬≠sify pro¬≠gram¬≠ming lan¬≠guages based on their fea¬≠tures. To note, lan¬≠guages can Ô¨Āt into mul¬≠ti¬≠ple par¬≠a¬≠digms‚Äďthey need not be mu¬≠tu¬≠ally ex¬≠clu¬≠sive.

Object-oriented is an ex¬≠am¬≠ple of a par¬≠a¬≠digm. Most read¬≠ers are prob¬≠a¬≠bly al¬≠ready fa¬≠mil¬≠iar with the no¬≠tion of cre¬≠at¬≠ing ob¬≠jects and deÔ¨Ān¬≠ing the re¬≠la¬≠tion¬≠ships be¬≠tween them. Yet, not all lan¬≠guages are ob¬≠ject-ori¬≠ented. It‚Äôs worth it to ex¬≠plore. I rec¬≠om¬≠mend peo¬≠ple try learn¬≠ing ei¬≠ther a func¬≠tional lan¬≠guage or a log¬≠i¬≠cal lan¬≠guage.

An ex¬≠am¬≠ple of a func¬≠tional lan¬≠guage would in¬≠clude Racket. If Racket‚Äôs syn¬≠tax does¬≠n‚Äôt ter¬≠rify you, con¬≠sider check¬≠ing out some of the code ex¬≠am¬≠ples else¬≠where on my web¬≠site. To note, func¬≠tional lan¬≠guages place a lot of em¬≠pha¬≠sis on ap¬≠ply¬≠ing and com¬≠pos¬≠ing func¬≠tions‚Äďand of¬≠ten make use of im¬≠mutable data struc¬≠tures and re¬≠cur¬≠sion. Keeping in mind some of my ear¬≠lier rec¬≠om¬≠men¬≠da¬≠tions, you could knock many birds with one stone.

Honestly, I‚Äôve haven‚Äôt done much with log¬≠i¬≠cal lan¬≠guages. It‚Äôs on my list of things I might learn one day. You, how¬≠ever, can one-up me by div¬≠ing into one of these lan¬≠guages. An ex¬≠am¬≠ple would in¬≠clude Prolog‚Äďbut there are oth¬≠ers. These lan¬≠guages solve prob¬≠lems us¬≠ing for¬≠mal logic so be pre¬≠pared to brush up on some math.

There are many other lan¬≠guage par¬≠a¬≠digms, and I am not go¬≠ing to at¬≠tempt to men¬≠tion all of them here. You could, for ex¬≠am¬≠ple, ex¬≠plore the dif¬≠fer¬≠ence be¬≠tween dy¬≠nam¬≠i¬≠cally-typed lan¬≠guages and sta¬≠t¬≠i¬≠cally-typed lan¬≠guages. It‚Äôs worth think¬≠ing about why type sys¬≠tems are use¬≠ful in the Ô¨Ārst place. Another set of in¬≠ter¬≠est¬≠ing par¬≠a¬≠digms would in¬≠clude im¬≠per¬≠a¬≠tive lan¬≠guages vs. de¬≠clar¬≠a¬≠tive lan¬≠guages. I‚Äôve al¬≠ready men¬≠tioned im¬≠per¬≠a¬≠tive lan¬≠guages. They al¬≠low the pro¬≠gram¬≠mer to ex¬≠plic¬≠itly set the pro¬≠gram‚Äôs state us¬≠ing state¬≠ments. You‚Äôre telling the com¬≠puter what to do‚Äďstep by step. In con¬≠trast, a pro¬≠gram¬≠mer us¬≠ing a de¬≠clar¬≠a¬≠tive lan¬≠guage only tells the com¬≠puter what they wanted to be com¬≠puted, typ¬≠i¬≠cally within the re¬≠straints of some prob¬≠lem do¬≠main. The com¬≠puter then Ô¨Āg¬≠ures out how to solve the prob¬≠lem. Examples of this kind of lan¬≠guage would in¬≠clude Prolog and SQL.

Master Your Tools

I of¬≠ten over¬≠look this one. Investing some time into mas¬≠ter¬≠ing the tools and pro¬≠grams we use every day can pay div¬≠i¬≠dends later on. It could be as sim¬≠ple as learn¬≠ing a few key¬≠board short¬≠cuts. You should at the very least be com¬≠fort¬≠able in your fa¬≠vorite text ed¬≠i¬≠tor‚Äďmaybe use Google to try to Ô¨Ānd use¬≠ful fea¬≠tures you‚Äôve over¬≠looked. I would also rec¬≠om¬≠mend Ô¨Āg¬≠ur¬≠ing out how to use a ver¬≠sion con¬≠trol sys¬≠tem, such as Git. If you know how to setup re¬≠mote branches, fork pro¬≠jects, han¬≠dle merge con¬≠Ô¨āicts, and re¬≠base, you may know more than many fresh com¬≠puter sci¬≠ence grad¬≠u¬≠ates. Trust me, I have sto¬≠ries. Bored of my sug¬≠ges¬≠tions so far? You can al¬≠ways just try new soft¬≠ware. Download a new ed¬≠i¬≠tor and mess around. Use a new frame¬≠work. You‚Äôll prob¬≠a¬≠bly learn some¬≠thing use¬≠ful.


I’m go­ing to end the post here, but there are ob­vi­ously many other skills to work on. This list is­n’t meant to be com­plete. I mostly tack­led top­ics I ei­ther cov­ered in col­lege or felt fa­mil­iar with. Also, many of these sec­tions are in­ten­tion­ally sparse. I am go­ing to leave it up to you to do some re­search on your own. Hopefully, in the fu­ture, I can ex­pand on some of these ideas in fu­ture posts.