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Please learn how to code

You’re much better off using code as your secret weapon in another profession. People who can code in the world of technology companies are a dime a dozen and get no respect. People who can code in biology, medicine, government, sociology, physics, history, and mathematics are respected and can do amazing things to advance those disciplines.
Zed A. Shaw

This page will attempt to convince you to learn to code and how you can get started. For LaTeX stuff, see FAQ’s on LaTeX. For more advanced thoughts like why Vim or why Linux, see FAQ’s on Unix.

Prologue for beginners#

If you found my website, you are presumably someone who likes learning and thinking. If you are such a person, and you don’t know how to code, here is my advice for you:

This Saturday at noon, sit down and learn it. (Or use the next Saturday you are free at noon.)

Seriously, learn to code. Learn. To. Code. Learn to code god damn it!

Tiny Evan knows Python. You can too!

I don’t think everyone should be able to solve IOI problems. But I am adamant you should at least have a basic understanding of how computers work, and be able to automate trivial tasks. For example, you should be able to write a script that batch renames the files a1.out, a2.out, …, a100.out to output001.txt, output002.txt, …, output100.txt. Or to hack together a program that reads the data from a google form, and sums the result into a table that you can send out.

Not made by hand

Unlike something like quadratic formula or differentiation, most careers directly benefit from some computer literacy1. I think every single job I’ve had for the last five years, from working at the Duluth REU to running MOP to Mystery Hunt to teaching OTIS, involved some amount of programming. So it’s insane that we teach precalculus before programming, if we teach the latter at all.

Evan’s suggested learning path#

If I was personally teaching computer literacy, I would break it down into the following steps (this is obviously not the only layout):

  1. Learning how to use a command prompt to navigate files and folders and execute commands. You can learn this in a day or two from Zed Shaw or djangogirls or whatever you find on Google.
  2. Be able to open, edit, and save an arbitrary text file. (This is likely to be covered in step 1 already; LaTeX users may also know this step already.)
  3. You should then learn your first programming language. I grew up on this Python book and recommend it; there are tons of other free Python tutorials if you decide you want to pick another one.
    You can also choose a different language too; in particular, if you’re looking into competitive programming, then C++ is a better choice than Python (much faster). If you’re not interested in competitive programming, you can pick any language other than PHP or vanilla JavaScript.2 (TypeScript or similar are fine.)

That’s the baseline. I do not recommend AP computer science because it omits steps 1 and 2 and does a bad job of 3. You should just teach yourself, it’s much faster this way.

There are also a few optional additional things you can do if you find yourself having fun and want more. (Do not do these before getting the basics down.)

  1. Learn git.
  2. Switch from Windows or OSX to a Linux system.
  3. Learn an advanced text editor like Vim or Emacs.

I’m not going to talk about the expert stuff here because if I do people will give up. For now, your job is to follow some of the links in steps 1-3. Alternatively, if you want some more continuity or just prefer video lectures MIT has a long series of material that covers 1+2+4+6 and much much more.

Once you’ve done that you can check FAQ’s on Unix for elaborations on the advanced stuff.

  1. I, and several others, also suspect that knowing programming changes the way you think. But this is harder to measure or prove so I only stated the weaker claim. 

  2. The reason I specifically anti-recommend PHP and vanilla JavaScript is that as a beginner I think you shouldn’t get in the habit of writing code like "You have " + n + " dollars" when you are first starting out. (Okay, I also hate both languages, but that’s unrelated.) 

Updated Mon 23 Aug 2021, 16:00:19 UTC by fbd4283eb3c1