How to Think Like a Programmer
More and more people worldwide are discovering the fun and excitement of software development. A career where you build things, get to break them, then build them again even better. A career where you can often set your own hours and work with clients from all over the globe. A career where you can be your own boss? The appeal of programming in the 21st century is obvious.
Being a successful programmer takes more than simply learning a popular coding language or taking some free online coding classes and involves more than your technical skill set -- it also involves the mental acumen and flexibility to tackle the uniquely challenging nature of coding and trying to solve problems that may not have ever been solved before.
So how do you learn to think like a programmer? What mental abilities should you be nurturing alongside the code you are learning? We’ve compiled some of the most common attributes of successful programmers to help you prep for a fruitful career working with code and building web sites and applications.
Tip #1: Embrace the Unknown and Uncertain
One of the most interesting contradictions about programming is the relationship between fixed and accepted rules and uncertainty. While popular programming languages are built upon systems of organization, rules for building things, and structures that cause errors if broken, our first tip may seem like the opposite of logical thinking for a successful programmer.
However, experienced programmers will tell you that the nature of code -- always being created, messed with, and deleted as new systems and workarounds are developed -- is one that requires you to accept not knowing everything. Even the highest-paid developers at some of the largest tech companies in the world are happy to tell you there is plenty they don’t know about coding. There’s always another new language emerging, new problems with code that worked fine for years, and new needs from industries trying to transition to the digital space.
So how do you embrace the unknown and uncertain? By taking the surprises, changes, and unexpected issues in stride. Be patient as you learn how to fix issues and build more elegant solutions for programming problems, and be aware that something that you think is “done” might not actually be done at all. The sooner you prepare yourself for the twists and turns of a programming career, the easier it will be when you face your first obstacles and avoid the frustration of being unable to roll with the changes.
A final tip on remaining flexible (and keeping your sanity as you program) is to always remember to keep a sense of humor. Every programmer will run into problems that they just can’t seem to solve, difficult clients with changing needs, and frustrating collaborators who require patience to work alongside. A little sense of humor can go a long way toward helping you maintain your sanity, protect your productivity, and let you overcome the challenging nature of the job.
Tip #2 - Be Realistic About Your Own Skills and Limitations
Programming careers often begin in the world of freelancing -- while there are plenty of job opportunities out there for experienced programmers, novice programmers often need to find startups or teams specifically looking to train new coders to begin their professional career. There are some definite benefits to the freelancing life, including flexibility and the ability to “be your own boss”.
However, a common problem for many new programmers is to try and bite off more than they can chew to begin building a work history and portfolio. For companies or startups working with limited budgets and tight deadlines for product launch, wasting lots of money on an inexperienced programmer can result in you getting let go, or to negative reviews and business referrals that can actually set you back further as you try to progress in your career.
So, for new programmers, the trick is to be patient -- to seek out opportunities to develop your skills first, and then search for advanced projects once you have truly learned the ropes and discovered what knowledge you still need. If you can remain patient and build a truly impressive early work history, you will see the benefits in the opportunities that become available to you and the salary you are able to command over time.
For more suggestions on how to make freelancing a successful start to your career, visit our in-depth guide for freelancing.
Tip #3 - Decide to Be Your Own Boss or Build Visions For Others
Movies like The Social Network and Hackers have romanticized the world of programming and coding for years. However, the Hollywood version of programming often revolves around either hacking established systems or building the next billion-dollar idea -- which leaves out of much of the reality of a programming career for most who choose it.
Realistically, many developers fall into one of two camps - those who are trying to build their own creative vision, and those who are happy to make their career building ideas for others. Figuring out which of these two camps you fall into is essential before diving deeply into your programming career, because each requires developing a unique skill-set that may be unhelpful if you choose the other path once you’ve begun your programming work.
If you choose to be a resource for helping others, then you will want to treat your programming career as a professional portfolio -- networking, establishing relationships with clients, building a code base and work history for future clients to review, and learning the professional and communication skills needed to collaborate effectively.
For the dreamers out there who want to build their own “next big thing”, broadening your own coding skill set often comes before your professional persona. Since dynamic web apps often require thousands of lines of intricate code, as well as solving the many bugs that will appear as this code is written, increasing your knowledge of various languages and practicing high-level concepts of a chosen language is essential.
Tip #4 - Create Systems That Help You Work Efficiently and Effectively
This is another key tool successful programmers utilize that the Hollywood versions leave out - really successful programmers are organized! Far from simply coding throughout the night in dark rooms, the truly successful programmers find schedules that work for them, systems for checking and delivering code, and methods for communicating with clients that ensure everyone is on the same page.
While everyone has different methods for working efficiently, some good simple steps to take to help organize your own programming approach include:
- Creating a set work schedule that works for your own productivity and your client’s demands. Whether you work better late at night, during typical business hours, or in bursts of coding based on milestones, settling on a system can help you stay effective and productive no matter what you are working on.
- Choose a preferred platform for communication and availability. While many clients will often have a system selected for their team or company, letting them know the best way to reach you and ensure prompt responses or availability to solve problems will make everyone happier.
- Once you start receiving projects and collecting payments, find a consistent system for processing payments that you use for every job. Clients will respect your professionalism if you have a proven, trusted payment system that makes accounting purposes easier for everyone.
- Consider using project planning tools like Trello or Airtable, which can help you create easy-to-organize flow charts and cards that let you keep on top of your to-do list. Given the ever-changing needs of any coding project, this is essential for avoiding wasted time (or wasting a client’s money and resources)
Tip #5 - Always Be Learning!
You may have started to notice a theme with these suggestions -- specifically, embracing what you don’t know and working to fix those gaps. While some of that comes with experience in working with clients and tackling different types of coding problems and projects, there is also a simple way to continue building your knowledge base. Never stop learning.
What might this look like as you begin your career and start accepting more demanding jobs?
- Continuing to take quality coding courses in languages you aren’t as familiar with, or experiment with code playgrounds that let you practice with code in real-time, to build out your coding skill set
- Visiting active developer forums, like Stack Overflow or Github, to learn from experienced developers, ask questions, and get advice over specific problems and bugs you are tackling
- Read leading tech publications and programmer advice blogs that can help you stay abreast of new developments in programming and trends for the future
- Keep a directory of previous clients to reach out to for feedback, advice, and suggestions on processes that can make you a more effective programmer and team member on future projects
- Find a good tool for building and maintaining your own professional portfolio, which can better help you reflect on where your experience and knowledge lies and what gaps you need to fill to make it even more robust
There’s no better tool than experience, but using these resources and others can be the best method for helping you achieve success in your career and reaching the goals that you have, whether they be professional or creative.