Help, I just graduated but I don’t feel like I know how to program!

July 30, 2012 by . 2 comments

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to LinkedIn Post to StumbleUpon Post to Digg Post to Delicious Post to Technorati

There was a great question on Programmers about graduating with a programming degree, but not knowing how to program. I see this kind of question a lot, and I felt the same way when I first got my degree, so I thought I’d write about my experiences and what I learned when first started programming.

Start with baby steps

First off, don’t expect to be able to code enterprise-level applications or the next Facebook right away. You really can’t become a good programmer without a lot of practice, so practice any way you can. This can include hobby projects, reading books or source code, or even answering questions on Stack Overflow.

The book Outliers: The Story of Success frequently states that to become a master in any field you need to practice it for a total of 10,000 hours. In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s about 3.5 years of programming 8 hours every single day. If you only program during business hours at work, that’s almost 5 years.

Don’t discount your education

Rachel - Graduation picture When I first started working, I felt my education was worthless; that it just taught me stuff that was never used in the workplace. I soon realized it provided me with something better than syntax: it provided me with a good foundation for programming. For example, it didn’t teach me design patterns, but it did teach me what design patterns were and how / when to use them. And I might not have built a data access layer in my class projects, but I knew what they were for and when to use them.

It also provided me with resources such as books, an online library, and networking contacts in the industry. In addition, it gave me a fancy piece of paper which can be very useful for getting your foot in the door when you don’t have experience.

Of course, it didn’t teach me everything. Looking back, I wish I had been taught about things like Version Control and Unit Testing. But the institution did their best to provide me with a solid foundation to build upon in the short time I was there, providing I was willing to go out there and keep learning.

Always be learning

One of the first things I got taught in college was that to be an IT professional, you really need to be a life-long learner. You can’t just graduate and expect you’ll have everything you need to get a high-paying job for the rest of your life. You’ll need to be willing to spend the rest of your life learning new technologies and languages.

Whenever I come across something new, something I don’t understand, or something I’m not sure of how to do, I Google it. Most of the time I can find a simple definition or samples, and I can start from there. If I do start from samples, I hate just blindly copying/pasting. I always take the time to understand what the code does. It might be slower to start with, however once understood it makes me that much better of a programmer.

Remember, N years of experience means nothing if it was simply 1 year repeated N times. There are plenty of jobs out there that are that will let you accumulate years of experience without you ever needing to learn anything new, however I feel you simply cannot be a great programmer without continuing to learn.

Steps to success in programming projects

Here is a list of steps to success in any project as a new programmer:

  • Be positive when asked if you can do something.

    If someone asks you if you can do something, be positive in your response. Answering negatively, or even indecisively, will often result in a lost opportunity to learn and grow, so avoid that unless the task is truly outside the realm of possibility.

    I usually use terms like “I don’t see why not” or “shouldn’t be too hard”. You may not know how to do it right away, but you should have the tools (Google!) and intelligence needed to figure out how to get it done. I like to avoid actually saying “yes” unless I know I can actually do what is being asked.

  • Determine requirements.

    Sit down with your client (boss, customer, etc) and figure out what they want. I’m not going to go into details of gathering requirements here, but do take the time to draw out the screens they expect to see, and to determine the expected input / output. My favorite tool for screen mock-ups is Balsamiq.

  • Figure out how to build it.

    This is one of the most important steps. A huge part of programming (especially early on) is figuring out what your client wants, and then learning how to do that. Don’t just stick with your own knowledge base!

    For new programmers, I would suggest just focusing on just getting the desired results. Don’t get bogged down trying to learn design patterns, architecture, test-driven development, etc. Learn the basics of how to program first, then expand on that knowledge. And remember, keep it simple! You don’t need an enterprise-level solution for the FizzBuzz problem.

    At this point, if you determine that the project is completely out of your scope, say so. Even if you determine the project is far too large or complex for you to build, you will have at least increased your own knowledge, so I always see it as a win-win situation.

  • Build it.

    You might think this is the hardest step of all, but in reality it will eventually become one of the easiest ones. Gathering the requirements and figuring out how you’re going to build the application are much more important, and if done right, it will make this step a breeze.

    Of course, early on in your career this step will be the most time-consuming and frustrating one. It will likely consist of a lot of trial and error, but don’t be disheartened because this means you are learning! We learn much more from our mistakes than from our successes, and the more you learn, the better your programming skills will become.

Summary

So to summarize, don’t worry too much about not being able to build/understand enterprise-level applications straight out of college. Start small, and keep an always be willing to learn. Work on programming for results first, and worry about best-practices later on. Hobby projects are a great way to gain experience. And remember, don’t ever stop learning!

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to LinkedIn Post to StumbleUpon Post to Digg Post to Delicious Post to Technorati

2 Comments

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  • Mark says:

    Great blog post! I think you summarized what a lot of CS graduates feel when they get out of college and are suddenly places on an enterprise-level software project.

    My story is one of frustration and grief. Out of college, I immediately worked on an enterprise-level implementation of Oracle Identity Manager. This application is wickedly complex and nigh on impossible to understand without being taught many of the concepts by a long-time practitioner.

    Fast forward one year and I am much more comfortable with coding on an enterprise level and learning lots of new things every day. It helps to remember that no obstacle is insurmountable. You have to buckle down, never stop learning, and never be discouraged.

  • Sedaition says:

    Great post, I’d just add one little thing -

    “I usually use terms like “I don’t see why not” or “shouldn’t be too hard”. You may not know how to do it right away, but you should have the tools (Google!) and intelligence needed to figure out how to get it done. I like to avoid actually saying “yes” unless I know I can actually do what is being asked. “

    I would usually avoid overconfidence if at all possible. I’m a fairly recent grad and it seems as if everything is a crash course on a new technology. In addition to expanding my Java Ive had Struts 1 & 2, Spring, Spring MVC, Hibernate, CVS, subversion, Maven, oracle Db’s, as well as becoming certified in Jboss AS and becoming a lead design for our new portal platform. It is a lot to keep up with so chances are you will feel overwhelmed. One problem I have noticed is that often people say “No problem” then come back days later with not much to show. I usually respond with a “Well, I’ve never done that before but I’m sure I can figure it out. If I have any questions I’ll let you know.” It is all about managing expectations while getting the tutelage you need to succeed.

    Also, on a side note Meetup is a great place to connect with tech oriented groups to discuss more professional level technologies that can’t be gotten from books.

  • Leave a comment

    Log in
    with Stack Exchange
    or