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Advice On Learning To Code


I’ve been lucky enough to have several dozens of people read the things I write about how I taught myself to code, and occasionally I get some kick-ass questions via email to which I try my best to give equally kick-ass answers. I’m sure that there are others out there that have similar inquiries about how to teach themselves how to code, so I am going to start trying to make a better effort to open up some of the good questions and answers I encounter.

The backstory on this question comes from a reader of the article I wrote on how I was able to teach myself to code in under 10 months. I get a pretty steady stream of outstanding questions from this article, and the following conversation is one of them!

Nick: “Hi Riley, I was doing some research online for coding programs and after scrolling through numerous forums got linked to your awesome blog. As someone who has 1.5 semesters left in a degree that doesn’t exactly interest me (finance), reading your coding journey was truly inspiring. After you finished your degree, did you have a 9-5 job and learned coding on the side, or were you unemployed and took a year off to dedicate yourself to coding? I really want to get a job in the emerging tech world— not financial services, but fear that taking a year off to learn code is very risky financially. Any advice or comment would be much appreciated!”

Riley: “Hey, whats up. Glad you found my scribbles worth reading.

My junior year of college I actually started DJing, launched a podcast on iTunes, and did a little touring as a D-list DJ for about 4 years. 2 of those years were my Junior and Senior year of college, and then 2 years were post college. Around the beginning of my second post college year, I really started looking at the future longevity of DJs and saw a lot of ‘thirty-something’ burnouts and decided that that was certainly not the path for me. From the podcast network I had built, I had superglued some wordpress sites together on my own and decided that learning the whole thing couldn’t be too difficult, which is what really spurred me to try and learn how to code.

The good thing about DJing in my early 20’s was that I really only ‘worked’ Thursday-Sat, which left Sunday-Wednesday completely open. I started filling that free-time with learning, which included playing around with intro-level courses at sites like Codecademy. When I really decided that coding was for me, I stopped DJing and focused on learning 24/7. The time it took me from when I stopped DJing full time and focused on learning all day was about a 6 month period. It is a huge gamble to do something like that, and understandably I racked up a shit-ton of credit card debt in the process. I am a really long-term goal oriented person, so I understood that this was not going to be easy and I wasn’t going to learn the full stack of everything in a weekend. In retrospect, having a realistic outlook on how long it takes to learn how to code is very important. If you decide you are going to learn, I would emphasize that you know off the bat:

  • There will be times you feel like you are the stupidest person in the room.
  • There will be times that you feel like you will never ‘get it’.
  • You will suffer through Impostor Syndrome.
  • Know: learning to program takes time, and to learn you have to put in the time.

When I was deciding to learn to code, what I thought about was primarily: Out of all the jobs out there, which are the most ‘in demand’. Which pay the wage that will allow you to live your life the way you want. Which do you enjoy doing. Which could you realistically learn to do. For me, coding filtered to the top of the most in demand + pay potential + able to learn + enjoy doing. This (coding) may be the same for you, or there may be something else that falls into that list. I would encourage you to think about those four things as you choose what to focus on in you latter collegiate / post collegiate years.

Coding is awesome. I love it. It might be right for you too. Or there might be something else right for you. Take a few weeks, travel somewhere inspiring (which could be your local cool civic area, artsy-ass building, or nature hike) and really think about what you want to do, then laser-focus on that area and crush it. Learn about whatever it is you choose, from start to finish as best you can, and when it comes to a job interview make it stupid for the company to say no. Thats my advice.”

Nick: “With respect to coding, I have a couple more questions. In your opinion, does it take a certain mind to master coding, say, like physics, or can it be conquered by a majority of above-average thinking people who possess the stick-to-it-ive-ness? Did you know you had the right mental ability to get good at coding or did you just blindly jump into it? Thanks so much for the help, seriously. I’ll be reading your upcoming articles. Keep up the good work brotha!”

Riley: “I think one of the main reasons I didn’t pursue a Computer Science degree (I majored in History) was because I likely wouldn’t have made it through the math classes. Coding is highly mathematical, but not in the way that most universities force students to jump through upper level math pre requisites. I’ve not needed to know trigonometry or calculus to be good at coding. Because of that I never really considered computer science when I was in college.

When I decided to learn to code, ‘stick-to-it-ive-ness’ was far more important than knowing high level math. That’s not to say being good at math isn’t a serious help (it probably is), but it wasn’t a requirement for me by any means. A lot of my colleagues I would consider to be from a STEM background, and on average they lean more towards the ‘engineer/science’ type minds, however the Tech industry does not only cater to those that are strong in the analytical sphere. For example Designers and UX(User Experience) professionals are usually highly creative and less pure logic. So I guess my point is, in the tech field there are lots of different types of people: some creative, some logical, and some a mixture of both. If the position has to do with coding you do need to understand programming theory and whatever languages your writing, but the level of ‘gnar’-logic can vary based on the position.”