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How to learn to code – a beginner’s guide

Computer coding and programming are skills that are in high demand. We take a look at the basics of how to learn to code, as well as some links to free coding courses.

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Computers are all around us. And, these days, nearly all electronic devices and machinery contain at least a little bit of computer code. But what exactly is it? We take a detailed look at how to learn to code, from the basics of what it entails, why you might want to do so, and where you can find the necessary resources. 

As well as exploring these top-level details, we’ll also take a closer look at what coding languages are available to learn, how coding differs from programming, and how long your learning journey might take. If you’ve always wanted to know how to code, this article is the ideal first step.

What is coding?

Let’s start with the very basics. Words like programming and coding are often thrown around. Yet if you’re new to the field, the many technical terms and words associated with coding can seem a little confusing. So what is coding? 

The first thing we need to understand is what computer code is. At its core, computer code is a language. Computers themselves only truly ‘understand’ one language, which is called binary. This mathematical language is composed of ones and zeros, which basically represent ‘on’ and ‘off’ functions. However, binary is complex and unwieldy and doesn’t translate well into the languages we speak and understand. 

Code in the context we’re talking about it is basically an intermediary between the language of humans and the language of computers. Coding is the process of writing this intermediary language (code) with the aim of getting a computer to perform certain tasks. 

Of course, this is a very simple explanation, and there is a lot more to it. For example, various programs are needed to translate and carry out the code, and there are many different coding languages, as well as many different purposes.

What are the different types of coding?

As you can probably tell from using the many electronic devices that surround us, computer code can be used for many different things. Whether it’s the computer or smartphone you use to access apps, the automated systems that operate in factories, or your microwave oven, all use a type of code. 

Perhaps the first consideration is the ‘level’ of coding or programming languages. There are essentially two levels, high-level languages and low-level languages. What’s the difference? Well: 

  • High-level languages are more programmer-friendly, easy for humans to understand, maintain and troubleshoot. These include the most common coding languages around today, and we’ll primarily focus on these. 
  • Low-level languages are more machine-friendly, making them more memory-efficient and faster to execute. They are usually used for specialist hardware and are harder for humans to understand. 

There are also several different styles of coding, known as paradigms, which are used to solve various different problems. We’ll not get into a detailed explanation as to the many coding paradigms, but we have outlined some of the main terms below: 

  • Object-oriented 
  • Functional 
  • Procedural 
  • Database
  • Logical 

These different paradigms and levels are used for all kinds of projects, job roles, and purposes. Whether it’s developing applications, creating websites, analysing data, or managing databases, there are different coding languages suited to different tasks.

What are the coding languages I can learn?

As you might expect, based on the different levels and paradigms of coding, there are a lot of programming languages out there. What’s more, there are different estimates as to exactly how many exist, depending on where you look. For example, the Historical Encyclopaedia of Programming Languages claims we’ve created 8,945 programming languages since the 18th century, while Wikipedia puts the number of ‘notable’ languages at around 700. 

When you’re finding your feet with how to learn to code, the sheer number of languages can seem quite daunting. However, many are incredibly niche and obscure. In reality, depending on your aims, you may only need to know one language to get started in a career, and only a handful at most once you’re established. 

So, which are the most popular programming languages today? Well, the PYPL Popularity of Programming Language Index looks at search data to give an overview of learning trends. Some of the top programming languages to learn are: 

  • Python 
  • Java
  • JavaScript 
  • C#
  • C/C++

Of course, there are plenty of other popular and useful coding languages. For example, if you want to learn to code for webpages, HTML and CSS are two of the essentials. They give websites (such as this one you’re reading) their building blocks and styling.

Coding vs programming

You’ve probably noticed that we’ve used the terms coding and programming throughout the article so far. But what’s the difference? Depending on where you look, you might get a slightly different answer. What’s more, plenty of people use the two terms interchangeably. However, there is a difference. 

Coding is the process of writing code – producing commands that a computer can understand in a language understood by humans. Programming is the process of creating a functioning computer program or piece of software. So, coding is an essential part of programming, but the latter requires a host of additional skills and knowledge.  

As well as writing code, programmers also analyse problems, test solutions, model outcomes, process data, and manage projects. Ultimately, they are responsible for creating a ready-to-use application that solves a particular problem.


Why learn to code?

Before we move on to look at how to learn to code, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss why you’d want to do it in the first place.

In the UK, a change to the curriculum in 2014 saw a greater focus on coding and programming. This change reflects a growing need for all kinds of digital and computing skills in the job market. Although some fear an over-reliance on coding in education, it’s clear that there is a demand for coding and programming skills around the world. 

Whether it’s for your career or as a hobby, there are plenty of reasons why you might want to learn to code:

The benefits of coding

Let’s start by looking at some of the benefits that come with knowing how to code. There are many reasons you might want to figure out how to learn to code, including:

It teaches hard and soft skills

Being able to program and write computer code is a hard skill that has many applications. And, whether you learn a coding language for a specific reason or simply as a hobby, it also teaches a variety of other soft skills. Creativity, problem-solving, analytics, and logical and abstract thinking are all associated with coding and programming.

Jobs are in demand

LinkedIn recently released a report on the most in-demand hard and soft skills that employers are looking for. Areas like blockchain and data analytics often require at least some knowledge of computer code. Similarly, careers in UX design and scientific computing are based on a strong understanding of programming principles. Learning to code can benefit your career now and in the future. 

Coding means flexibility 

Programming is a skill that gives you many options. Not only does it mean that you can solve problems in a variety of different ways, but it also gives you flexibility in your career. You can utilise the skills you acquire in all kinds of job roles and for many purposes. 

It’s fun and creative 

Learning to code can be fun and rewarding, whether you use your knowledge in a career or not. You can find creative ways to overcome obstacles, for example, or program something like a Raspberry Pi to help with all kinds of everyday tasks.

What career paths need coding?

As we’ve already established, when it comes to how to learn to code, there are many different avenues you can pursue. All kinds of professions and careers require at least some understanding of the principles of how computer programs work, including:

  • Software developers. This role is one of the most in-demand jobs across the world. Software developers create and enhance applications and software across computers, smartphones, tablets, and other devices. 
  • Web developers. Those who work in this career focus on the look and functionality of websites, whether it’s the front-end (user side) back-end (database side) or both. 
  • Systems analyst. A systems analyst explores how a business’s hardware, software, and IT systems perform. They recommend, build, and implement new technologies and systems to help their clients. 
  • Data scientists. This role is focused on leveraging the use of big data to provide insight and analysis. Various programming languages are used to help organise and structure large sets of data. 

Of course, there are many other roles where coding comes in useful. Engineers often make use of technology to design and test products, while scientists use programming to create predictive models. Professionals such as designers, marketing managers, and analysts can also make use of these skills, as can digital marketers.

How much do coding jobs pay?

Exact salary ranges depend a great deal on the role, industry, and company. However, the good news is that jobs such as coders, developers, and engineers can earn up to 145% more than the UK average

There’s plenty of other data that shows the high earning potential for those who can code. A recent survey by Stack Overflow shows that computer engineering managers earn an average of £99,000 per year, while back-end and mobile developers earn an average of £72,000.  

It’s worth noting that many of these high-paying jobs rely on many years of experience in the field, as well as a broad knowledge base. Junior developers, by comparison, have an average starting salary of around £30,000 per year.


How to learn to code

Now that we know a little more about what coding is and why you might want to know about it, it’s time to look at how to learn to code. As with any skill, this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. However, with a little bit of know-how, you can start building your knowledge base and working towards your goal. 

Let’s get started with some of the basics:

How to choose a coding language

Whichever language you choose, it’s going to take time and effort to learn it. As such, you might not want to spend time jumping between the various options before finding one you like. To make things easier, you should think about your aims and do some research. When trying to choose a language to learn, consider the following questions:

  • What is your existing skill level? You might need to work on your digital skills before committing to a language if you’re not that confident. 
  • What’s the job market like? If you’re planning on making this a career, you’ll want to see whether there is (and is likely to be) demand for the language. 
  • How easy is the language? Some coding languages are more intuitive than others. Similarly, some are built upon previous languages, meaning skill in one area can be easily transferred to another.
  • What do you want to use it for? Different languages have different applications. For example, Java is commonly used in things like video games and apps, as well as server-side applications. Ruby, on the other hand, is frequently used for web app development.

What coding language should I learn first?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, although it’s one that’s often asked. That’s not to say that you should run off and start learning any old coding language. Instead, you need to think about what it is you want to get out of your learning. 

That being said, many resources will point to similar starter languages thanks to their accessibility and wide usage. These include: 

  • PythonPython is easy to use and easy to learn, which is why it’s used for a whole range of purposes. There’s a huge community of coders who use the language, and its uses are too numerous to list. 
  • Java. Java is another well-established language that’s widely used. Web applications frequently run on Java, thanks to its stability and multiple uses. 
  • JavaScript. Not to be confused with the above, many developers use JavaScript to build front-end applications. It’s also fast and versatile. 
  • C/C++. Although more difficult to learn than some of the others on the list, it’s just as widely used, particularly on things like operating systems and file systems. 

You’ll notice that many of these languages are ones we’ve mentioned already, as they’re some of the most popular formats at the moment. As such, there’s a lot of potential, whether for a career or a hobby.

How long does it take to learn to code?

If you’re looking at how to learn to code, you’re probably pretty impatient to get started. But how long does the process take? Again, the answer here depends on a few things. However, it’s worth noting that this kind of skill set is one you continue to develop over the span of a career. 

As an example, let’s look at our program on how to start programming with Python. Over a period of 11 weeks, you’ll learn some of the key concepts about computing, as well as producing your very own Python programs. With just two hours’ study each week, you can build a basic knowledge of Python. 

For an even more in-depth and functional understanding of coding, you’ll need a bit more time. To get all the basics of a coding language, it’s estimated you’ll need around 3 to 12 months if you’re dedicated to self-study. With a degree, you’ll gain a far more detailed understanding of code and its uses, but this can take up to four years. Ultimately, it depends on you, your situation, the language, and your goals.

How to start coding

There are all kinds of ways you can get started with coding. At FutureLearn, we’ve got a whole host of different courses and qualifications you can take to help build your knowledge. We’ve outlined some of our top coding courses below, but we’ll get to those in a moment. 

For those looking to get as much coding experience as possible, there are many resources and exercises you can get stuck into. As well as one of our courses, you might also want to try: 

  • Setting yourself small goals. What is it you want to do with your coding knowledge? Becoming a full-stack developer might be your ultimate aim, but it will be many years before you get there. Instead, set small goals that you can achieve, such as building a simple program or spending 30 minutes each day learning to code. 
  • Joining communities. There are plenty of people who love to share and compare their knowledge and code. Look for communities, both online and in-person, where you can learn, ask questions, and exchange knowledge. 
  • Consuming media. You’ll find all sorts of resources out there that are designed to help you as you learn. Whether it’s books, online tutorials, forums, podcasts, or other media, you’ll want to find out as much as you can about your chosen coding language.
  • Persisting. When it comes to how to learn to code, persistence is essential. It’s not always straightforward, even for experienced developers. Don’t get disheartened if your code isn’t working. Instead, think of the challenge as another learning experience.

Free coding courses

As you’ve seen, we’ve included links to a wide variety of free coding courses throughout this article. We won’t repeat all of them here, but we have picked out some others we think you’ll find useful. They can help you as you figure out how to learn to code: 


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