Programmers learning something new: a simple guide

I struggle a lot to learn new programming languages on my own.  It’s not that I’m not smart (I want to believe I am VERY smart) but it’s the combination of lack of time, lack of desire and having no answer to the question: “Great, I’ve learned X… now what?”

I’ve started to learn about Django, and I believe it will be DIFFERENT this time.  Why?  Because I have created a simple guide to learning something new from a programming perspective:

STEP 1: Accept that you may burn out and ask “why bother” and figure out the answer to it before starting

I had stated before:  It’s hard for me to learn something new when I expect to do precisely nothing with it.  This is what happened with me and Ruby on Rails.  Ruby is a cool language and Ruby on Rails was really awesome to build scaffolding with.  However, I didn’t really know what else I wanted to do with it.  I suppose I could have learned it’s cool AJAX capabilities that go with it, but really, it just didn’t appeal to me.  Therefore, it went on the infinite back-burner

Back when LINQ was new, I struggled to learn it as well, because even though I do .NET professionally, I was so knee-deep into what I was doing that it would have been almost a waste of time to really sufficiently learn it.  I finally got a project in which allowed me to utilize LINQ to SQL effectively and easily and since then I wouldn’t know what I’d do without it. Again, once purpose settled in, I was ready and very willing to learn.

Your ‘why bother’ may be different.  Your success may be dependent on how you handle it.

STEP 2: Do the tutorials

These days, it’s pretty hard to find popular frameworks which have no or incomplete tutorials (I’m sure anyone could find examples where this isn’t true, but in general, it’s true).  Also, framework creators know that a quick and simple tutorial is the best chance for a developer to get on board, especially in the framework’s early stages.  Django has a wonderful tutorial, split up into four parts building a poll system (I feel like poll systems are the hello world of the web development world).

Here are reasons why I don’t like to just “dive into the code”:

  • You cannot be guaranteed what you are looking at is the correct way to do it
  • Most of us are lazy, and there may be certain things hidden by shortcuts which obfuscate key basic techniques used by the framework/programming language
  • There is more impact in doing it yourself, seeing what works and what doesn’t, rather than just reading through it and trusting it works
  • It’s less fun!

Tutorials are the best way to get yourself acclimated, set up your environment, and ultimately help you decide “why bother?”

STEP 3: Research technology on StackOverflow

I am a HUGE fan of StackOverflow.  I’ve never met a bigger group of developers, all willing to write great questions and thorough yet quick responses.  The reputation system is awesome.  Any developer not utilizing StackOverflow is SERIOUSLY missing out.

StackOverflow is a great way to see what difficulties most users have, as well as to see how these user’s issues are resolved.  While it’s not immediately helpful, you will drill back into your head, and all of a sudden, you’ll come up to a problem where you say “wow, I remember this on StackOverflow!”

StackOverflow is a great place to see how a technology stacks (get it) up.  For example, a quick search of Django immediately show questions about scalability, whether a user should use Django or X and configuration questions. A few quick searches and research will give you a sense of what type of framework Django is.

STEP 4: Think Small

I picked Django because I had an idea for a website and needed a specific framework.  I discussed the idea with a buddy of mine, a developer who uses Django, and he sold me the benefits of using Django.  I owned hosting which could support Django but not .NET, so it looked like a good choice.  Also, I was in the ‘market’ to learn something new.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t just dive in because I needed to learn Python as well as the basics of the framework.  Therefore, I decided to table the original idea for now and decided to build a personal website for myself entirely in Django.  It took hours to do, I had to read up on a lot of how Django and Pyhton works, but the idea was simple enough to wrap my head around so I was successful.  You should see a site hopefully by the end of next week.  Because it’s my own personal website (and not a large, professional site), it’s okay if it has a few problems with it or if I did it incorrectly;  it’s all part of the learning process.

STEP 5: Have a buddy help you learn

It’s nice to be able to send code to someone, even if it is just a file or two, for them to kindly message you back and say “get out of your .NET world, here’s a better way to handle what you are trying to do.”  Having a human allows you to do a sanity check as well as to see if you’ve missed any nuances.  It’s also nice to have someone to ask for help on really simple yet bothersome problems.  It’s a lot harder to do this using the Internet.

STEP 6: Have fun!

Every blog post with steps needs a cop-out answer.  Here is mine.  Most of us are learning new languages because ultimately we want to.  You should have fun with your learning experience!

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