Foundations

September 2020 ยท 7 minute read

I’ve spent the past week building a foundation for my social media alternative project. Today I want to talk about how to build your own foundation in programming, especially if you don’t come from a STEM background.

I didn’t. In my first year in middle school, my English teacher encouraged me in creative writing, and I grabbed on to it like it was the thing that would save me. My parents encouraged me and even helped me beg out of taking a math class in my senior year of high school. I did a loosely-structured poetry independent study instead. No one in my family ever tried to get me to change course. They also knew as little as I did about how one went about making a living as a creative writer. We all just sort of assumed that I’d figure something out when I needed to, which is more or less what happened. At crucial points–being able to go to college, getting my foot in the door at an appraisal company, having a friend who worked at a robotics company, being socialized with the default assumption that there was no type of knowledge or practice from which I would be excluded–I was significantly helped by privilege. That’s how I know that anyone can do this if given the opportunity–I look back on what I had and I know that if that help and support were given to anyone, they would succeed in building themselves an excellent and fulfilling life. So if there are real or imagined voices in your life that are telling you that you don’t have the capacity to do something, please, for me, invite them to take a long walk off a short pier.

If you want to become good at programming it’s very useful to be able to ignore criticism, because you’re going to meet the most pedantic, infuriating and stubborn Other that you may ever encounter: the computer. Most people have experienced the kind of impotent frustration that comes from trying to argue with technology. Programming is very similar to that feeling, especially in the beginning, with one important difference. When technology doesn’t work correctly for you as a user, it has failed. When it doesn’t work for you as a software author, the only way you can move forward is to assume that you have failed. To be screwed over by a vending machine is one thing. To be screwed over by a vending machine that you built specifically not to do that is another. It is very important to stay attentive to your own emotional state, and give yourself plenty of slack to ask for help and encouragement. Doing great doesn’t always feel like doing great. James Mickens was known at Microsoft for building himself a throne complete with Incredible Hulk fists, which is the kind of silly radical self-love that everyone needs.

So where do you actually start learning to program? There are many options, and the most important thing is to find one where you feel challenged and excited. For me, that was the 2008 version of the OpenCourseWare intro to computer science, Today I would use one of the more recent versions of the class, but I also hope to update the exercises from that earlier version as an online workbook. Finding a good set of exercises is probably more important than finding a good teacher or set of lectures. Every programming language has good parts and bad parts, so just pick whichever one seems like the best fit and don’t feel bad about changing your mind down the road once you have more context.

The next step is your development cycle. The development cycle is very simple to describe: you get an idea for some code, you write it down, you run it, it doesn’t work, you fix it, you run it again, etc. There are fully online tools that work for this; you can google “repl” (short for “read-eval-print-loop”) and the name of the language you want to use and you’ll probably find something you can turn into a development cycle. Most computers also come with some programming language interpreters preinstalled (every browser has a JavaScript repl builtin). Choose your development cycle by how fast it lets you test your ideas–you want to find the way that gets you from idea, to code, to errors, and back to ideas as quickly as possible, because that’s the speed at which you’ll improve.

If this was a movie, this is the part where we’d have the training montage. Once you have exercises and a development cycle that work for you, expect a bit of a slog. This is when you’re going to feel the best and the worst about your progress. You’ll see how the words that you write do incredible things with unbelievable reliability and precision, and you’ll see how the search for a single misplaced comma can eat up four or five hours of practice time. All of these experiences are valuable–they build your instincts and intuition, which I’m not sure it’s possible to get any other way. If you are intentional about your practice, it is also a good opportunity for learning to be gentle with yourself in the face of frustration. That frustration never goes away, but it does mellow out. Try to let it be the puckishness of a respected teacher–and when you don’t have the bandwidth to deal with it, just step back.

This practice will teach you how to write code in the same way that when you were little you learned to write your native language. It will start to open up the world of things that can be done with computers but you will also start to understand how much of programming is about understanding other people’s programs. Every corner of the programming landscape–web development, generic back-end work, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning–are about as separate from each other as biology is from chemistry is from earth science. That is; they share approaches and ideas and ways of seeing the world, and each of them includes certain aspects of the others, but there’s lots of domain knowledge, history and culture that makes them different. Personally, I found that without a computer science background I didn’t really get to pick the tasks I wanted to do, so my strategy was to try to learn enough to be competent in several areas, and also learn which areas I would always want to avoid.

If you get to that point, you will not need me to tell you where to go next, but I can tell you what seemed best to me. My focus is (still) in assertional making and in storytelling and writing–the types of communication that validate, affirm and support the global mission of caring better for ourselves, our planet and each other. Since that mission is so broad and since computers can only play a small part in it, I have focused on a relatively narrow set of tools and subjects. As a programming language I favor JavaScript because it fits the way I think and it works in the browser and on the server. I spend a lot of time learning about different cheap cloud components–databases, storage, queues, and task engines–so that whenever practical I’m able to use someone else’s good work rather than trying to do everything myself. There are various ways of organizing the small armies of components you end up with if you build this way–I find terraform to be the one that aligns best with the way I think. Finally, I spend a significant amount of time focused on front-end design and presentation concepts–the technology of web pages and web browsers. Early in my career I bounced around a lot to different languages and domains (and if I could do it over again I wouldn’t change a thing) but now I find that limiting myself to a few tools I know really well leaves me free to focus on the “what” and “why” of my goals rather than the “how.”

In future posts I’ll go into these areas more deeply, but as in most fields, the one critical message is that you don’t need permission to jump in. This field needs far more perspectives and experiences than are currently represented in it. If you’re interested in these areas and want help or suggestions, don’t hesitate to reach out.