How to Improve Programming Skills
Programming skills across all levels of experience from beginner to expert require a focus on continuous, sustained growth. To become better at writing new code, developing new software, building new applications, debugging, and picking up new programming languages, programmers must constantly seek out strategies on how to improve programming skills.
This continuous concentration on technical and professional growth has real-world ramifications. Recently, companies have begun to create an infrastructure that will gauge the programming skill and level of candidates. This model, and others like it according to research recently published in the scholarly journal IET Software, “has formulated criteria for novice and expert developers and carried out such criteria to discover the level of coding expertise of software developers using three different models of deep learning.”
With these new kinds of metrics that more businesses will likely adopt, it’s necessary for computer science professionals to constantly improve programming skills as a means of staying ahead of the curve in the job market. And when programmers and data scientists maintain a general sharpness and motivation to improve programming skills, they can solve problems and adopt new tools to advance the field.
Engage with the Fundamentals of Programming
Before programmers can begin to chart definitive tactics in advancing their coding abilities, it’s important to master the basics. The foundational principles of computer science transcend any specific programming language, and when programmers give these elements more attention, they’ll have a smoother time building a stronger skill set in programming.
The popular industry voice known as “Damsel in Data” and self-described “data scientist with imposter syndrome and bad jokes,” translates this into plain English saying, “I think of coding and programming as getting computers to do something by speaking their language. When you write code, you are communicating with a computer by giving it instructions on what to do. Just like humans communicate in many different languages and ways, there are many different ways to give instructions to a computer based on what you want it to do.” Tying this to topic, she adds, “In the case of data science, we need to know how to write code to communicate with the computer exactly how it should be crunching through the data in order to analyze it, process it, or use it to train machine learning models.”
- Variables — Establishing and referencing variables efficiently will dramatically make any programmer’s life easier. Variables give coders the opportunity to label or give a title to specific data or data sets. When programmers use variables effectively, their code will be cleaner and easier to read. Additionally, when programmers determine clear variables, they will be better able to reference that data in case of any bugs or errors in their code.
- Functions — Arguably the cornerstone of modern programming, functions should be considered problem-solving commands or tasks. To use functions in the best way possible, programmers should view writing functions as the most straight-forward, simplest way to tell a program to complete an action. As Preethi Kasireddy of FreeCodeCamp explains, it’s best to think of functions as “building blocks,” where one central function gives way to supplemental functions that result in the complete program. Depending on how complicated or complex the code, functions that are carefully and directly executed will help programs run more smoothly. And when programmers spend more time focusing on how to deliver more refined and pointed functions, they will have an easier time learning and practicing every other facet of programming.
- Loops — It’s probably easiest to think of loops as conditional statements that are used to ensure programs run as intended. Put differently, loops can be viewed as instructions for a program in case a specific or variable situation comes up. While functions can give specific commands for programs to run, loops can be viewed as a structure running in the background that’s only spurred into action when a condition arises. The two dominant loops in most programming languages are “for” and “while” loops. The difference between the two kinds of loops is pretty simple. For loops are reserved for instances when programmers want an instruction to run through code a set or defined number of times. On the other hand, while loops are necessary when the set of instructions needs to be executed, an undetermined or variable number of times. Programmers who use the loops appropriately and effectively are able to create more efficient code ultimately, which is why practicing this foundational principle will help improve programming skills in the long run.
- Boolean Logic — Boolean logic, also known as binary logic, is a fundamental key to understanding how computer programming works. To build functions or program-defining software, programmers must “use Boolean values to control selection and repetition in programs,” according to the BBC’s Bitesize. Boolean values appear as “true” or “false” or as 0s or 1s in computational logic. Programmers must always be careful to maintain this logical framework in their code, and by returning to the most basic of programming fundamentals, programmers can continue to grow in their software development and problem solving.
- Frameworks — Programming frameworks, which contain specific languages that operate within them, often carry unique syntax and require special attention to use appropriately. In order to make the best use of different programming frameworks and their corresponding languages, programmers need first to identify what kinds of programs or scripts they wish to develop. For example, programmers looking to automate different tasks or actions would probably first look into relevant scripting frameworks and languages, while others who want to create something more object-oriented like a phone app would be better suited to explore languages like C#. Additionally, for programmers aiming to dive into database communication, SQL would likely be the best route. As developers practice or adopt new languages to be used across frameworks, they will be able to improve programming skills by engaging with new syntactical requirements.
In addition to focusing on these fundamentals, programmers should also be careful of how they choose to work. While some bare-bones programmers may opt to write code in Notepad, many find opportunities for growth in other integrated development environments (IDEs). Popular IDEs include Microsoft Visual Studio, PyCharm, and Eclipse. Choosing one can be a difficult task in its own right, and many choices will come down to taste and to the specific language that the programmer will be writing in primarily. One of the keys to improving programming skills is choosing an IDE that’s comfortable for the programmer.
To help pick the right IDE to learn new languages and concepts and practice familiar ones too, programmers can look to the ways that educators have historically guided their students. The University of Texas at Austin’s STEM Center offers direction on how choosing the right IDE can help with learning programming tools. John Owen, a computer science teacher with more than 20 years of experience, offers advice on which IDEs best support learning and will help programmers of all levels take their coding skills to the next level.
Owen states that IDEs serve two major roles in programming: giving a text editor that houses coded programs, and providing the programmer a chance to compile, debug, and ultimately run a program at any time. Additionally, because he states that different IDEs are sometimes appropriate for programmers at different experience and skill levels, he encourages both novice and expert programmers to try out IDEs that include JCreator, Eclipse, and Jeliot. By focusing on how to best optimize writing code, programmers can understand more about their work preferences and ultimately, how to improve programming skills.
Read, Read, Read
In order to improve programming skills across a variety of areas, coders must engage with good code. The best way to absorb the best practices from industry leaders is to read different kinds of resources and materials. From breakdowns to how different programmers developed code or debugged software to examples of suboptimal coding, reading books, blogs, and other materials will give programmers of all levels outside perspectives on how to write better, cleaner code.
Steve McConnell’s Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction balances the creativity and technical sides of software development to help programmers of all levels expand their coding toolkit. Specifically, the guide offers straightforward instruction, real-world code samples, and industry-standard techniques. McConnell’s programming companion will help programmers of all experience levels:
- Write code simply and creatively
- Utilize techniques that can predict bugs
- Employ forward-thinking debugging practices
- Revise and refactor old code for more efficient code execution
- Plan appropriately for programming projects of all sizes
Additionally, The Pragmatic Programmer by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt offers a more comprehensive overview of what it means to be a programmer. Even though it was originally published in 1999, it continues to be relevant to both aspiring and established software developers. Topics in the book cover:
- The personal responsibilities of programmers individually and in teams
- How to write flexible and malleable code
- Ways new and veteran programmers can remain aware of potential security vulnerabilities
- How to learn new problem-solving techniques and programming languages
These two texts are especially helpful for programmers because they aren’t confined to any specific coding language. Instead, the material contained in them invites readers and learners to begin thinking like a programmer, software developer, or data scientist. And while other guides on the market may prove useful for specific frameworks or languages, Code Complete and The Practical Programmer are excellent entry points for programming at a higher level.
Practice Makes Perfect
Arguably the most effective measure in learning or sharpening new programming tools, practice is necessary to improve programming skills. When programmers practice in areas of comfort alongside new and unfamiliar exercises, they will be able to learn what aspects of programming come easily and what parts need more attention.
Studies have continued to show how beneficial it ultimately is for both new and experienced coders to improve programming skills by practicing with the fundamentals of programming, new languages and frameworks, and different problem-solving approaches.
A good way to practice object-oriented programming and/or scripting is by writing code for a Raspberry Pi, which essentially acts as a small computer. These vessels offer developers the opportunity to write programs in scripted and object-oriented languages, resulting in a customizable environment that supports both creativity and learning.
A chapter in Derek Molloy’s 2016 monograph Exploring Raspberry Pi explores “why object-oriented programming (OOP) is appropriate for the development of scalable embedded systems applications.” Raspberry Pi systems are relatively affordable ways for programmers to try OOP languages like C, C++, and Python to improve programming skills. While Raspberry Pis certainly have their limitations as far as computational ability goes, they are excellent for beginner programmers learning the syntax of new languages and for experienced coders grappling with more advanced programming techniques.
Revisit, Revise, Refactor
A difficult exercise for many programmers involves going back to code they’ve written a long time ago. Almost like reading an old entry in a diary, revisiting old code can propel programmers into a more reflective position. When programmers face this potentially daunting task, they get an opportunity to learn how to avoid future mistakes.
For most programmers, learning involves doing. Revisiting old code and introducing new code is not only one of the best practices in striving to improve programming skills, but when programmers return to previously created code, they’re approaching a familiar text with an expanded knowledge base, able to apply instincts and information that only comes with practice and more time in the field. This means that for programmers to continue growing, it’s essential to refactor their old code to ensure their practices continue to improve and evolve or “develop.”
One of the most exciting aspects of programming and software development is the creativity that it offers. Different programmers can write different code that reads and looks differently but still solves the same problem and accomplishes the same goal. Still, there’s ultimately a difference between efficient code that’s easy to understand for other programmers and unclear, verbose, and cluttered code.
Collaboration and How to Improve Programming Skills through Teamwork
When considering how to improve programming skills, coders of all experience and skill levels should seek opportunities to collaborate with others on projects of all sizes. When programmers work with each other, they can identify problem areas in their own practices and find ways to bolster them as well as learn from this discovery process happing for their teammates. In this context, collaboration can be considered an extension to revising and refactoring old code – only here, programmers are learning mutually from one another.
Collaboration among programmers is one of the best ways to grapple with industry best practices. According to scholarship presented at the 2020 International Multidisciplinary Information Technology and Engineering Conference, researchers found that hackathons can be excellent tools for beginner and novice programmers to learn from each other in a low stakes, engaging environment.
These researchers found that “students were satisfied with their collaborative learning experience and believed that the Hackathon approach will help them in developing computer programming technical and soft skills.” From a group of 80 students involved in the study, an overwhelming majority reported that their computer programming skills were positively affected as a result of the collaboration brought on by the hackathon.
More research has identified the overall learning benefits of collaboration in programming. An academic article titled “The Case for Collaborative Programming” focused on how collaborative programming is more effective than when individuals program on their own.
John T. Nosek, the principal researcher of the study, wrote that “Findings revealed that all the teams (of collaborators) outperformed the individual programmers, enjoyed the problem-solving process more, and had greater confidence in their solutions.” While programming has gained a reputation where programmers must work in isolation on projects individually, research has suggested that software development in team-based environments leads to the best results.
Today, in our constantly connected culture, programmers have the tools to collaborate at any time or place in the world. Through platforms like GitHub developers are able to write code independently, upload new software, comment on drafts of code submitted by others, and maintain overarching projects. As a cloud-based repository host, GitHub promotes collaboration at every stage of the programming process.
Kickstart Your Career in Data Science
While the workplace can certainly present opportunities for collaboration, some of the best collaborators can be found in the classroom. From peers, faculty, or mentors, programmers of all skill levels are uniquely equipped to engage with new approaches to coding.
In the context of learning how to program in data science environments, direct instruction from experienced professionals and collaboration opportunities in the online classroom will give programmers a competitive edge when entering the job market or when seeking out career advancement options. An undergraduate or graduate degree in data science will open doors to new programming capabilities. Request more information about degree options and begin your journey in improving your skills and adopting new data science programming strategies today.
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