The Challenge: You know you need to keep up with the times, but you’re too intimidated to learn how to code.

The Wonk: Sisi Wei, News Applications Developer at ProPublica and co-founder of Code with me.

The Tip: Keep it simple. Take it in steps.

Step 1: Pick a project. “Learning to code” is too broad a goal, making it feel unobtainable, when, in fact anyone can do it. Think about what you want to do and what interests you. But pick just one among the many things code can do, for instance : build a website, scrape data from the Internet or make a map. Pick one.

Step 2. Stay focused.  Don’t make your first project ”build the best website ever.” Start small with “build something simple.” If that works, pick something else you want to learn. Rinse and repeat. Your first website might, say, just show a picture of the ocean. Once you get that done, maybe put up audio of waves on a beach. If you’re feeling confident, challenge visitors to do nothing else but listen to the waves for 2 minutes. Well, turns out someone made that page.

Step 3. Google it.  When you get stuck, ask the Internet. A good search engine will turn up a site like stackoverflow.com, dedicated to answering questions about code. Most of the time, someone has already asked your exact question, and the answer will just be sitting there waiting for you. The trickiest part, is making sure you’re as specific as possible when you search, and that you’re using the right terminology. Don’t worry, the more you search, the more you’ll catch onto the jargon.

  • Rookie search:  image doesn’t show up

  • Smarter search: background image doesn’t show up

  • Wizened Veteran search: css background image doesn’t appear when div is empty

Step 4. Talk to people.   Part of the reason we have a 2:1 student:mentor ratio at Code with me, is because sometimes you just need a human nearby, or even a learning group or study buddy to keep yourself on track, bounce ideas off of, and do quick troubleshooting with. Depending on what you’re trying to learn, and where you are, look for meetups dedicated to that purpose (ex: NYC Ruby Women) or create your own group with your colleagues or friends.

About the Author

Sisi Wei
Sisi Wei is a News Applications Developer at ProPublica. Previously, she was a Graphics Editor at the Washington Post. She is also the co-founder of the programming workshop for journalists, Code with me.