Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Learn How to Program Computers!

Say What?

News photo of an experimental self-driving Volvo from Engadget report.


Computer procesors show up almost everywhere these days. Desktops, laptops, cell phones, processors embedded in cars, processors embedded in printers, embedded in cameras, embedded in dish-washers.


One thing that they all have in common is that someone (or some team of folks) had to develop a set of instructions to guide the computer to do whatever it is that it does. Those instructions are called programs, software, and the stuff that goes into a program is called "code", not to be confused with "secret codes", though there is a connection if cryptography is what interests you.


So, no matter what, you are pretty much fated to be a user of computer programs, but with some effort on your part, you can learn to write your own computer programs too. Creating a computer program is called "software development". You can learn to do software development on your own. I'll caution up front that seriously big projects generally are tackled by teams, not individuals working solo. But the longest journey starts with but a single step.


My intent here is to convince you that you should embark on the long journey of learning to program computers, to do software development.

Motive

There are plenty of reasons why you should learn how to program computers. Before you begin on that path, you might want to think about what your motive is. Are you hoping to write your own computer games? Want to understand Cyberwarfare before you are noted as a threat by Skynet? Interested in autonomous robots? Self-driving cars? Want to develop a fancy web site of your own? Thinking it might be a useful skill when seeking a serious job? Want to understand how the NSA accidentally intercepted calls from Washington, DC, when they meant to intercept calls from Egypt?


I can't tell you what motivates you. I will caution that this is no short trip, so you should probably be sure you are well motivated before you dive in.


I'll also mention up front that the early days of getting started with developing your own software can be frustrating. As you master the basics, a self-driving car may seem awfully far away. Part of my hope here is that I can convince you that if you keep your motive in mind, you can work through the steep initial learning curve.

Age restrictions?

In my opinion, there's no upper bound on the age when you can learn to program computers. If you are past retirement age, that might alter your own list of motives for learning, but it is no reason to refuse to give it a try.


Can you be too young to learn to program? Well, programming does generally involve reading and writing, so if you haven't gotten proficient at those skills yet, you may find it hard to get into software development. But then, how is it that you are reading this article? The US apparently has regulations that strongly discourage web sites from registering information for children under age 13, so if you are under age 13, it is important that you discuss your plans with your parent or guardian and have permission from them to get involved in online courses.

Cost?

If you have access to a computer with a good Internet connection, you probably have all that you need to get started. If you don't, then how is it that you are reading this article?


Of course, if you have money to invest in this project of yours, there are things you might want to look into. For instance, books. You can get plenty of materials for free here on the Internet, but sometimes it can be useful to have a paper document that you can bookmark, dog-ear, highlight and annotate. Don't feel you have to invest in books up front, but if you can find a good local book store, you may find that there are useful things to be found by browsing. Your local library may also be useful, though in my experience, the local library tends to be woefully short of current technical books. The good news is that if you can find titles worth looking at, perhaps from web searches of places like amazon.com, then most likely your local library can arrange an inter-library loan so you can examine the book without having to buy it first.


Of course, library books, including books borrowed on inter-library loans, need to be treated politely, not dog-eared, high-lighted and given marginal annotations. And they do have to be returned after a relatively short time. If you find a title that looks really well matched to your needs, that's where you just might blow your allowance on an order from an online book-seller, so you'll have a copy of it for your own. Amazon.com does have provisions for wish lists, sort of like bridal registries, so as you publically grow your list of titles you hunger for, you'll at least make it easy for folks thinking about getting you a birthday present or Christmas present.


Libraries can also be a great place for getting free public access to Internet-connected computers. You might find that there are administrative obstacles to your installing software development tools on the library's PC's, or even filters to protect you from the educational materials. Don't let those barriers stop you. Talk to the librarian to find out who is in charge of those kinds of filters. Most likely, arrangements can be made for good reasons like you have.

Courses?

There are many computer programming courses available on the Internet for free. "Massive Open Online Courses", MOOC's, featuring different programming languages and different levels of material. Some aim to serve particularly younger students. You might look, for example, for courses that introduce the "Scratch" programming language.


I haven't taken a "Scratch" course myself, so I'm not going to single out a specific suggestion here. Just try a simple Google search for:


    scratch programming course


and let us know in a comment which course you picked and why, and how that went for you.


But if you feel you are ready to learn a somewhat more conventional programming language, one that will take you further than I believe Scratch will, my suggestion is CS101 from Udacity.com, where you will learn to program using the Python 2 programming language.


The Python programming language continues to evolve. There are Python 3 versions available today. The world is still catching up to that. You'll be fine starting with Python 2, and learning the differences later on to get over to the newer versions. It is important that you know that there are multiple versions and that when you are shopping for books or tools that you get a version that matches what the course is expecting you to have.


There are other courses available, though I haven't tried the others myself. Certainly there are courses that teach Python specifically for game development. And there are plenty of courses that teach other languages, Java and C, for example. But in my opinion, CS101 from Udacity.com is a good place to start. It is free, self-paced, you work on it on your own schedule. Nominally, it is an 8-week course. It doesn't have pre-requisite other courses. I believe it is an excellent place to get started with MOOC's. There's a final exam at the end and when you pass it, they will e-mail to you a certificate to commemorate your accomplishment. There are reports on the web of real colleges that even give credits if you are a registered student and pass the Udacity.com CS101 course, but being a registered student at a physical college is outside the realm of stuff you can try for no charge.


If nothing else, trying a MOOC to get started will show you if this is a field that holds your interest. I know software development has been a long standing interest of my own, but I also know that some fraction of the students who try it find that they absolutely hate programming. If you find that's the case for you, my advice is that you tough it out to completion of the introductory course and then look for other fields that do hold your interest. It's only a couple of months to work through Udacity CS101, and it isn't anything like a full-time course load while you are working through just the introductory course. Getting the certificate isn't good motive to start the course, but perhaps it is a good motive to stick it out to the end.

Where to find more?

code.org is a web site that advocates that everyone should learn how to code. They offer 3 editions of a promotional video to promote interest in the field. One is a 1-minute teaser. Another is a 5-minute edition featured on their web site's front page. And if you have 10-minutes to spare, there is a full edition available.


There are links on the code.org site to various local places to learn to program. For example, there's a brief plug there for the "Yes We Can Community Center" here in Westbury, NY.


Details of the schedule are not yet nailed down for Fall 2013, but if you are local to here, one way to take on CS101 is to sign up with the Community Center. The Center has the computers and Internet access, and it will have other students so you won't feel too much that you are on-your-own. And, for what it worth, I'll be available to answer questions and help keep you motivated while you are working through the course online.


Not quite free, as there is a membership fee to sign up with the Community Center. But use of the basketball courts, game room and locker room and access to quiet study space for your homework time all come with that membership, so it's probably worth joining if this is your community. (Use of the fitness center is not included in basic membership. Sorry).


The schedule I've proposed is that Monday evenings we'd meet as a class to share discussion of progress and problems. Other school nights I'd be available to answer questions 7-9PM or by appointment.


In any case, you can try udacity.com CS101 on your own before we even get started and then continue at the Community center once we get our act together there. Please, do let them know at the front desk that you're interested in taking CS101 as seating is limited.

Free for Senior Citizens

If you are a resident of North Hempstead and are age 60 or more, you are eligible for free membership in Project Independence and get a free community center membership too when you join Project Independence. Such a deal!

Further reading

Benefits of Teaching Kids To Code That No One Is Talking About - This blog post by an online acquaintance of mine has an example of a Scratch program, and a link to a video of a talk by the creator of Scratch.


Is Udacity CS101 Watered Down - This is a blog post from me in December 2012, describing what you should expect to get out of the online Udacity CS101 course.


Where to Get Python - This is another blog post from me. This one describes how you can install Python on your own PC. Note that back when I wrote that, Udacity was still using Python 2.6, but the course has since updated it's software to Python 2.7. From an end-user point of view that's an almost imperceptible change.


There are numerous Youtube videos available about learning to program games. Here is Episode 1 of a series that is dozens of videos long. Part 1 shows off a couple of games the guy has written in Python and describes what prerequisite knowledge he expects you to have to get started with his tutorials.


This isn't the first time that I've written about plans for CS101 at the Community Center. For more details of my intended format for the weekly meetings, see my blog article: Marketing the Importance of Programming Education