Coding for Beginners: the Ultimate Guide

Are you reading these words on a computer? Or maybe on a tablet, or smartphone? All of these devices are powered by code: millions of lines of words and numbers whirring away behind the scenes. Code is everywhere. Our lives depend on it.

But not many people know how it works. For many of us, code has a mystical quality — we know it exists, but it floats beyond the edge of understanding. It’s like gravity, or DNA, or the way that an airplane stays in the sky. We accept these things, but we can’t make sense of them. It hurts our brains to try.

This guide won’t help with those other things. We don’t understand them either.

But it will definitely help with coding. The fundamental principles are surprisingly simple, and easy enough to learn. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this, the idea of code won’t feel quite so mystical. We’ll also let you know what steps to take if you want to explore it more.

What is code?

It’s good to start with a definition. You can’t be expected to learn about something if you don’t know what that something is.

In simple terms, code is the language of computers. If a person knows how to write code, they can give instructions to a computer. That’s what computer programmers do. They write strings of code that tell a computer how it’s meant to behave, like opening a website when you’ve clicked a link, or deleting a file when you’ve pressed delete.

It’s the same as talking to a human. If you give them instructions in their native language, they’ll know what you’re talking about. If you try to give instructions in another language? They might not understand. Computers work in the exact same way. If you don’t use code to write their instructions, they won’t know what they’re meant to do.

Just to be clear, when we say ‘computer’, we’re not just talking about laptops. A mobile phone is a type of computer. So is a tablet. A smartwatch. A washing machine. Behind the scenes, every one of these digital devices is controlled by code, and all of this code was written by programmers to tell the devices exactly how to behave. 

Basic principles

Anyone can learn to code. It’s just like learning any language — with enough time and practice, even a complete beginner will start to get the hang of it. As with anything, it’s good to start with some basic principles. Let’s look at a few of those now.

Human languages are often vague and organic and leave plenty of things unsaid. If you ask a friend to “buy some milk,” they know exactly what to do. You won’t need to give them any extra instructions, like “bring the milk home” and “put it in the fridge.”

But computers need those extra instructions. If you really wanted to code a computer to collect some milk, you would need to say something like this:

> open the door
> leave the house
> walk to the shop
> buy some milk
> bring the milk home
> put the milk in the fridge

Unfortunately, these instructions wouldn’t actually work. They’re written in English, so a computer wouldn’t understand them. 

But they’re still a useful way to demonstrate the principle of clear, step-by-step instructions. In the context of coding, we call a set of instructions an алгоритм. If your algorithm misses an important step, the computer will crash, or do something it wasn’t supposed to. It might try to leave the house without opening the door, or forget to come home after buying the milk.

The order of the steps is important too. Computers will always follow instructions in the order they were given, exactly the same as following a recipe in a cookbook. This principle is known as последовательность действий. If the steps of the algorithm are in the wrong order, that could also cause the computer to crash.

If the computer does crash, you’ll probably need to look back at the code and identify the cause of the problem. Maybe one of the steps is unclear, or arranged in the wrong order. This process is called отладка: searching for errors in a failed algorithm, then trying to fix them. 

Now, let’s make this a bit more complicated. What if we only wanted the computer to buy some milk when the previous bottle was empty? We’d have to use something called a conditional statement:

> IF the previous bottle is empty
> THEN open the door
> leave the house
> walk to the shop
> buy some milk
> bring the milk home
> put the milk in the fridge

Using IF and THEN takes an algorithm to the next level. Suddenly, your instructions feel a lot more dynamic. This is how a lot of devices are programmed. IF this button is pressed THEN start a 10-minute wash cycle.

What if we wanted the computer to buy a new bottle of milk, not just once, but every single time that the previous bottle was empty? We’d have to use a loop, which is when we tell the computer to return to the start of the algorithm: 

> IF the previous bottle is empty
> THEN open the door
> leave the house
> walk to the shop
> buy some milk
> bring the milk home
> put the milk in the fridge
> REPEAT

Visual blocks

Now that you know some basic principles, it’s time to put them into practice. Visual coding blocks are an essential tool for any absolute beginner. You can find them on websites like Царапать а также Blockly. Both of these sites are free.

Visual blocks let you play with code without having to worry about typing. You can drag and drop them into different positions, working out how different functions interact. This is a great way to explore those basic concepts, like sequencing, loops and conditional statements.

In theory, visual coding blocks are designed for children, but don’t let that put you off. All of us need to start somewhere. And don’t forget that the basic principles of visual blocks are also applicable to higher levels of coding. Even the most advanced programmers will be constantly thinking about algorithms, sequencing and debugging.

It’s like reading a book. You’re still using the same basic alphabet that you learned when you were small. Coding works in the exact same way. No matter the project, the basic principles will never change.

Языки программирования

When you feel comfortable with the principles of visual coding blocks, you’ll be ready to graduate to something more advanced. 

Earlier on, we compared code to a language, but it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. There isn’t a single coding language, and different people write their code in very different ways. Some people use a language called Python. Others use JavaScript or C++. There are plenty of options, which are known collectively as programming languages.

There’s no such thing as a ‘best programming language’. They all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some of them are simple, and great for beginners. Others are complex, and perfect for someone more advanced. Some of them are better for game development, or web development, or app development. It really depends on personal taste, and what you’re looking to achieve.

We won’t get into the nuances here, but if you’d like to learn about the different languages, you can read our post from earlier this year. In summary: JavaScript is always a good place to start. Another option is CoffeeScript — the language we use at CodeMonkey.

student learns coding

Coding resources

Once you’ve chosen a language, it’s time to learn how it works. One of the great things about coding is the sheer amount of resources. Whatever your favorite style of learning, you’re sure to find something that matches your tastes.

One of our personal favorites is Khan Academy. Its coding courses are clear, concise, and completely free. Each lesson is delivered using a ‘talk-through’, a kind of interactive video which lets you pause at any time and play with some code on-screen. In terms of programming language, Khan Academy teaches JavaScript, HTML/CSS and SQL.

Codecademy is another option. It’s very similar to Khan Academy, but with a wider range of courses, which include computer science, software development, game development and more. Codecademy offers courses in 15 different programming languages, including JavaScript, Python and Ruby.

YouTube is also a great place to look for coding tutorials. FreeCodeCamp.org has a great channel, with a wide range of series dedicated to different programming languages. You can check out The Net Ninja and WebDevSimplified too.

If you’re looking for something a little less formal, there are plenty of educational coding games, which will help you to learn the basics of coding without feeling like you’re back at school.

There are mobile games out there too. LightBot is pay-to-play, but maybe you’ll decide it’s worth it. Throughout the game, you’ll be asked to complete a series of puzzles, learning programming logic along the way.

If you’d prefer to learn your coding offline, you might be able to find a face-to-face class in your local area. Failing that, you can always try a good old-fashioned book. The Head First series of programming books offers excellent advice, as well as giving you plenty of activities and exercises to help you hone your coding skills.

Or maybe you can combine any number of these things. Buy a book on JavaScript, watch some YouTube videos, play some Code Monster on the side. Sign up to Codecademy, join a class, play some LightBot in between. There’s no right or wrong approach here. You just need to try some different options until you find what’s best for you.

Final words

Whichever route you decide to take, there’s one more thing to remember: you won’t get far without some grit and perseverance.

Like any new skill, coding can be frustrating. Your algorithms will fail, and sometimes you’ll find it impossible to spot the bug. You’ll feel the urge to give up, to forget about coding, to delete your projects and never think about them again.

Don’t give up. When your algorithms finally run as planned, the rush of triumph will make all those struggles feel worth it. That’s why so many people get into coding in the first place. It’s an amazing feeling to write a set of instructions, then to watch your computer transform those instructions into action.

Coding can be daunting. We understand that. But by reading this article, you’ve already taken the first step. Now, it’s time to take the second step. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and dive into the world of code.

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