Editor’s note: This content was originally published in Oct 2019 and has since been updated for thoroughness, accuracy, and recency.
Since the dawn of the internet, our world has become more digital with each passing year, seriously impacting the global economy. As companies and organizations produce ever greater amounts of data, there is a serious need for individuals who possess the skills necessary to interact with computers in meaningful ways so data can be utilized effectively.
According to CompTIA, it’s estimated there were an estimated 918,000 vacant IT jobs in the United States. Further, global HR consulting firm Robert Half reports that up to 87 percent of IT executives say it is difficult to find skilled and qualified technology professionals to fill these open roles.
This is good news for individuals who have the technology skills employers are looking for. It’s little wonder, then, that so many professionals want to learn how to code so that they can take advantage of this skills gap and pivot to a tech-focused career.
“What used to be manual processes are becoming digitized,” says Nate Derbinsky, associate teaching professor and director of teaching faculty at Northeastern’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences. “Being able to write code allows you to enter a whole new economy.”
Do you want to improve your coding skills? Below, we explore real, actionable tips that you can use to advance your coding knowledge and offer advice to help you find the best path forward for your unique goals.
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Whether you have a technical or non-technical background, here’s what you need to know.
Two Questions to Ask Yourself Before Getting Started
Answer the questions below to gain important insight to determine the best opportunities to improve your coding and programming skills.
How extensive is your computer science background?
Before answering the question of “how do you improve your coding skills,” it is first important that you understand how much you already know. Only after you have a firm sense of your current skill level can you determine your best path forward. After all, someone who has no formal education in computer science or who is self-taught is likely to pursue learning strategies that are different from someone who has completed a graduate degree in computer science and has spent years working in the field.
Are you entering the world of coding with absolutely no computer science background? Have you taught yourself how to complete a handful of coding-related activities, but not much else? If so, a program that is specifically designed for students with minimal computer science background might be the best fit for you.
Did you earn your undergraduate degree in computer science or a related field (like statistics, mathematics, or data analytics)? Do you currently work in a tech-focused role, or are you in a different industry altogether? In these instances, a more traditional master of science in computer science could be ideal.
Knowing where you currently stand is the most important step in charting your path to improving your skills.
What are your goals?
Understanding your existing skillset will help you identify gaps in your knowledge and the learning methods that will work best for you. Just as important is understanding your goals for wanting to improve your coding skills.
“If you just want to improve your coding skills so that you can work on a side project or have fun challenging yourself, then the internet can be a great resource for you,” Derbinsky says. “But if you want to solidly improve your skills in order to take a leap in your career or open up more professional opportunities, then earning a relevant graduate degree in computer science might be a better option.”
So ask yourself: What is motivating you to advance your coding abilities? Do you want to advance in your career or transition to a new tech-focused role? Do you want to pursue a passion project or have fun on the side? Do you just want to be able to troubleshoot your website more effectively when things go wrong?
5 Ways to Improve Your Coding and Programming Skills
Before diving into the specific steps to take to get better at coding, Derbinsky suggests individuals take a step back and think for a moment about what “coding” actually means.
“Coding is, at its simplest, just about learning how to speak in the language of computers,” he says. “But humans and computers speak in very different ways. While humans use tens of thousands of words to communicate, computers have a very limited vocabulary. Human brains can make assumptions and fill in blanks fairly accurately, but computers have no room for imprecision. While human language seems to have ambiguities built right in, computers need everything laid out step by step in order to be effective.”
“All of this means that coding isn’t just about translating between the way that humans speak and the way that computers speak,” he continues. “It’s about learning how to design solutions to problems.”
With this in mind, below are four effective strategies for improving your coding skills.
1. Take advantage of books and other free resources.
There are many books, magazines, websites, and other resources specifically geared toward those who want to learn how to code or improve their coding and programming skills.
For those with little to no computer science background, these resources can be a great way of familiarizing yourself with the terminology and phrases you will need to understand to advance—and they might even help you learn how to perform some basic code. For those who already have some computer science background, these resources can be a great way of staying up-to-date with industry norms or learning a new skill—an important part of advancing your career in the industry.
“What’s great about computer science is that if I want to learn something new, I can pick up a book or read an article and advance my understanding in small, incremental ways,” Derbinsky says. “But it’s only going to get me so far.”
The one downside to print publications, Derbinsky says, is the length of time it takes to get one written and published. Because computer science is such a fast-moving field, many of these resources can be outdated by the time they end up in your hands. Print and digital publications still hold great value, but their timeliness is something to keep in mind.
2. Sign up for a bootcamp.
Another potential path forward might be to sign up for some kind of a coding bootcamp, of which there are many across the country. These are highly condensed courses that are designed to educate participants on a subject very quickly (often between 12 to 40 weeks, though there are some that might be as short as a weekend).
Because bootcamps are completed in such a short window of time, they can be an effective way of learning something rapidly. For example, someone with no coding background who attends an introductory bootcamp might walk away understanding how to write basic code. On the other hand, someone with a more developed foundation might sign up for a very tactical bootcamp that teaches them a new skill in great detail.
While an effective way of improving your skill in certain situations, “attending a bootcamp may not change the kinds of projects that you can work on or the kinds of jobs you’ll be qualified for,” Derbinsky says.
This is true for two reasons. Because bootcamps are limited in terms of their time frame and scope, it is impossible for students to delve deeply into the subject matter. Additionally, certificates of completion for bootcamps are currently less widely accepted by employers than degrees or more substantial experience, which can cause some participants to have difficulty positioning the bootcamp experience positively on their resumés.
3. Practice, practice, practice.
Once you know the basics of how to code, one of the best ways to improve your coding and programming skills is simply to practice. Putting your knowledge to use and challenging yourself can force you to grow in substantial ways that won’t happen from reading books or attending lectures. If you want to code better, then you have to spend time coding.
One popular resource for those looking to improve their coding skills is Project Euler, a website that offers users coding problems to solve. In addition to allowing you to test your skills, the website also enables you to connect with other like-minded individuals who you can learn from. You aren’t just practicing skills that you already know—you’re learning new ways of addressing the same problem. This can offer powerful insights into the “why” behind a problem, which you can carry with you throughout your career.
4. Engage with the computer science community.
As you continue to develop your skills, it can be beneficial to turn to the community and learn from others. Building a network of coding professionals who have similar interests will allow you to create an environment where you can share ideas, work through challenges, and learn from one another.
If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to network with other computer science professionals, you can get started by following people who inspire you on social media or joining one of the many online communities focused on coding and programming.
Stack Overflow, for example, is a popular platform for developers to ask questions, collaborate, and share knowledge. Similarly, contributing to open source projects is a great way to get experience while getting feedback and advice on your work.
As you build relationships within these communities, you will be able to ask questions and stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the field. Perhaps most importantly, these connections can form the foundation of a professional network that can guide you to career opportunities in the future.
5. Pursue a formal education in computer science.
If your ultimate motivation is to advance your career—by either breaking into your first computer science role or moving up the industry ranks—then undertaking a formal education is likely the best way to achieve your goals.
“Earning a degree is one of the most effective ways of learning how to code and put that code to use,” Derbinsky says. “Sure, you could learn how to do it on your own. But you’ll learn and advance your skills so much faster through the structured format of a degree program.”
There are several reasons a degree in computer science is worth the investment:
- You’ll learn with others like you and build your professional network.
- You’ll gain access to cutting edge industry leaders who are working on state-of-the-art projects.
- You can ask questions and get answers more readily than you might be able to in any other setting.
- You can pursue more advanced topics—like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, programming languages, compilers, and theoretical concepts—that would be very difficult to learn on your own.
Making the Right Decision For Your Career
If you have decided that earning a degree in computer science is right for you, it’s important to take the time to consider all of your options so that you choose the degree that best aligns with your personal and professional goals. Derbinsky offers the following advice for prospective students.
For those who already have undergraduate experience in computer science or a related field, a master’s degree in computer science is likely to be the next logical step in advancing your skills.
It is important, though, to choose a specialization or concentration that aligns with your goals to be sure you’ll learn the specific skills required to work in the position or industry you desire. For example, someone interested in becoming a video game developer might seek a program that offers a concentration in game science and design.
And what if you didn’t major in computer science as an undergraduate? There are programs, like Northeastern’s Align program, specifically designed to help you first learn the foundational skills that you need and then turn them into a full master’s in computer science.
Learn more about Northeastern’s graduate computer science programs to see how you can improve your coding (and other) skills to advance your career.