Keep Your Sanity While Learning to Code

Learn to code? The question populated headlines this year. The Atlantic‘s Olga Khazan set journalists a-Twitter after pronouncing that journalism schools should not require students to “learn code.” She insisted her opposition extended to HTML and CSS, not data journalism, data analysis, or data visualization, making her post’s headline feel misleading given that those can require learning code.

Sean Mussenden of the American Journalism Review concisely expressed what I thought when reading Khazan’s piece. I fact-checked AJR articles in college, and tricking my brain to think I was fact-checking is the only thing that saved me from hurling a rock at my laptop while coding.

Four months ago I was a coding newbie. My crowning achievement was a Python script that determined whether a given string of text was of Tweet-able length. By December, I had cleaned and manipulated datasets in Python, created heat maps and scree plots in R, designed map visualizations in D3, and analyzed my Facebook and Twitter data. I needed the structure and graded homework assignments that graduate school courses in data manipulation, exploratory data analysis, and information visualization offered, but I wouldn’t have survived those classes without the wealth of resources on the Interwebz. These lessons I absorbed may help you meet your code-learning resolutions.

1. Find a tutorial that works for you

Free online tutorials abound. Shop around, take what works, and leave what doesn’t. I’m not suggesting giving up at the first sign of difficulty. Coding is hard, frustrating, tedious, and time-consuming. But it won’t always be. Rewards, even just the personal satisfaction of overcoming challenges, await those patient enough to try. Sink your time into a tutorial that fits your learning style and avoid wasting time on one that doesn’t. Last January I enrolled in a Coursera class on data analysis in R. The description said a programming background was helpful but not required. A week into the course, it was clear: a programming background was definitely required. I couldn’t afford to spend 10 hours on assignments I didn’t understand, so I stopped.

This September, I needed a crash course on Python. I had one week to complete a homework assignment that incorporated everything I learned in a year of basic coding courses. My lifesaver: Learn Python the Hard Way. Just like learning to write the alphabet by tracing over letters, this tutorial teaches the logic of coding by having you type code that’s in front of you. Another assignment required programming in D3, but I had no knowledge of JavaScript. Scott Murray’s D3 tutorials on Aligned Left and his O’Reilly book (which comes with sample files) were a life raft.

2. Google is your friend

Tutorials won’t give you all the information you need, but Google can help. Paste your error message into the search bar to get a sense of what went wrong. Or, (and I found this more effective), type what you’re trying to accomplish. Even the craziest phrase (“after splitting elements in lines in python, keep elements together in for loop”) will get you somewhere. People often share snippets of code on forums like Stack Overflow. Test their code on your machine and see what happens. Debugging is a random walk, requiring you to chase links and try several strategies before that glorious moment when the code finally listens to you. Don’t worry. You’re learning even when you’re doing it wrong.

3. But people are your best friend

I tweeted my frustration with the Coursera class last January. To my surprise, digital storyteller Amanda Hickman responded to my tweets and set up a Tumblr to walk me through the basics of R Studio. People want to help, and their help will get you through the frustration of learning to code. This semester I saw the graduate student instructor nearly every week during office hours, bringing him the specific or conceptual questions that tutorials and Google couldn’t explain me. When you get stuck, reach out. Ask that cousin who works in IT to help you debug something. Post on social media that you’re looking for help. Use Meetup to find fellow coders with whom you can meet face-to-face. Find groups like PyLadies (for Python) and go to their meetings. Don’t let impostor syndrome, or the feeling that you’re not really a “coder” stop you. You are a coder.

4. Take breaks

My first coding professor said, “Don’t spend hours on a coding problem. Take a break and return when your mind is fresh.” LISTEN TO HIM. More than once, I sunk six or seven hours trying to debug code, only to collapse into bed and then solve the problem within an hour the next morning. When coding threatens to consume your life (or unleash dormant violent tendencies),  say, “Eff this for now” and take a well-deserved break.

Happy coding!

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