Twelve Tips to Master Programming Faster

December 4, 2009 โ€” Do you want to become a great coder? Do you have a passion for computers but not a thorough understanding of them? If so, this post is for you.

Saying #1: 10,000 Hours

There is a saying that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to master it.

So, to master programming, it might take you 10,000 hours of being actively coding or thinking about coding. That translates to a consistent effort spread out over a number of years.

Saying #2: No Speed Limit

There is another saying that I just read which inspired me to write this, that says "there is no speed limit".

In that post, Derek Sivers claims that a talented and generous guy named Kimo Williams taught him 2 years worth of music theory in five lessons. I have been learning to program for 2 years, and despite the fact that I've made great progress, my process has been slow and inefficient.

I did not have a Kimo Williams. But now that I know a bit, I'll try and emulate him and help you learn faster by sharing my top 12 lessons.

I'll provide the tips first, then if you're curious, a little bit more history about my own process.

The 12 Tips

  1. Get started. Do not feel bad that you are not an expert programmer yet. In 10,000 hours, you will be. All you need to do is start. Dedicate some time each day or week to checking things off this list. You can take as long as you want or move as fast as you want. If you've decided to become a great programmer, youve already accomplished the hardest part: planting the seed. Now you just have to add time and your skills will blossom. If you need any help with any of these steps, feel free to email me and Ill do my best to help.
  1. Dont worry. Do not be intimated by how much you dont understand. Computers are still largely magic even to me. We all know that computers are fundamentally about 1s and 0s, but what the hell does that really mean? It took me a long time to figure it out--it has something to do with voltages and transistors. There are endless topics in computer science and endless terms that you won't understand. But if you stick with it, eventually almost everything will be demystified. So don't waste time or get stressed worrying about what you don't know. It will come, trust me. Remember, every great programmer at one time had NO IDEA what assembly was, or a compiler, or a pointer, or a class, or a closure, or a transistor. Many of them still dont! That's part of the fun of this subject--you'll always be learning.
  1. Silicon Valley. Simply by moving to Silicon Valley, you have at least: 10x as many programmers to talk to, 10x as many programming job opportunities, 10x as many programming meetups, and so on. You don't have to do this, but it will make you move much faster. The first year of my programming career was in Boston. The second year was in San Francisco. I have learned at a much faster pace my second year.
  1. Read books. In December of 2007 I spent a few hundred dollars on programming books. I bought like 20 of them because I had no idea where to begin. I felt guilty spending so much money on books back then. Looking back, it was worth it hundreds of times over. You will read and learn more from a good $30 paperback book than dozens of free blogs. I could probably explain why, but its not even worth it. The data is so very clear from my experience that trying to explain why it is that way is like trying to explain why pizza tastes better than broccoli: Im sure there are reasons but just try pizza and you'll agree with me.
  1. Get mentors. I used to create websites for small businesses. Sometimes my clients would want something I didnt know how to do, simple things back then like forms. I used to search Google for the answers, and if I couldnt find them, I'd panic! Dont do that. When you get in over your head, ping mentors. They dont mind, trust me. Something that youll spend 5 hours panicking to learn will take them 2 minutes to explain to you. If you dont know any good coders, feel free to use me as your first mentor.
  1. Object Oriented. This is the "language" the world codes in. Just as businessmen communicate primarily in English, coders communicate primarily in Object Oriented terms. Terms like classes and instances and inheritance. They were completely, completely, completely foreign and scary to me. Theyd make me sick to my stomach. Then I read a good book(Object Oriented PHP, Peter Lavin), and slowly practiced the techniques, and now I totally get it. Now I can communicate and work with other programmers.
  1. Publish code. If you keep a private journal and write the sentence The car green is, you may keep writing that hundreds of times without realizing its bad grammar, until you happen to come upon the correct way of doing things. If you write that in an email, someone will instantly correctly you and you probably won't make the mistake again. You can speed up your learning 1-2 orders of magnitude by sharing your work with others. Its embarrassing to make mistakes, but the only way to become great is to trudge through foul smelling swamp of embarrassment.
  1. Use github. The term version control used to scare the hell out of me. Heck, it still can be pretty cryptic. But version control is crucial to becoming a great programmer. Every other developer uses it, and you can't become a great programmer by coding alone, so you'll have to start using it. Luckily, you're learning during an ideal time. Github has made learning and using version control much easier. Also, Dropbox is a great tool that your mom could use and yet that has some of the powerful sharing and version control features of something like git.
  1. Treat yourself. Build things you think are cool. Build stuff you want to use. Its more fun to work on something you are interested in. Programming is like cooking, you don't know if what you make is good until you taste it. If something you cook tastes like dog food, how will you know unless you taste it? Build things you are going to consume yourself and you'll be more interested in making it taste not like dog food.
  1. Write English. Code is surprisingly more like English than like math. Great code is easy to read. In great code functions, files, classes and variables are named well. Comments, when needed, are concise and helpful. In great code the language and vocabulary is not elitist: it is easy for the layman to understand.
  1. Be prolific. You dont paint the Mona Lisa by spending 5 years working on 1 piece. You create the Mona Lisa by painting 1000 different works, one of them eventually happens to be the Mona Lisa. Write web apps, iPhone apps, Javascript apps, desktop apps, command line tools: as many things as you want. Start a small new project every week or even every day. You eventually have to strike a balance between quantity and quality, but when you are young the goal should be quantity. Quality will come in time.
  1. Learn Linux. The command line is not user friendly. It will take time and lots of repetition to learn it. But again, its what the world uses, you'll need at least a basic grasp of the command line to become a great programmer. When you get good at the command line, its actually pretty damn cool. Youll appreciate how much of what we depend on today was written over the course of a few decades. And youll be amazed at how much you can do from the command line. If you use Windows, get CYGWIN! I just found it a few months ago, and it is much easier and faster than running virtualized Linux instances.

That's it, go get started!

Actually, I'll give you one bonus tip:

  1. Contact me. My email address is breck7 at Google's mail service. Feel free to ping me for personal help along your journey, and I'll do my best to lend a hand.

My Story, briefly

Two years ago, in December 2007, I decided to become a great programmer. Before then, I had probably spent under 1,000 hours "coding". From 1996 to 2007, age 12 to age 23, I spent around 1,000 hours "coding" simple things like websites, MSDOS bat scripts, simple php functions, and "hello world" type programs for an Introduction to Computer Science class. Despite the fact that I have always had an enormous fascination with computers, and spent a ton of time using them, I was completely clueless about how they worked and how to really program.

(If you're wondering why didn't I start coding seriously until I was 23 and out of college there's a simple and probably common reason: the whole time I was in school my goal was to be cool, and programming does not make you cool. Had I known I would never be cool anyway, I probably would have started coding sooner.)

Finally in December 2007 I decided to make programming my career and #1 hobby. Since then I estimate I've spent 20-50 hours per week either coding or practicing. By practicing I mean reading books about computers and code, thinking about coding, talking to others, and all other related activities that are not actually writing code.

That means I've spent between 2,000-5,000 hours developing my skills. Hopefully, by reading these tips, you can move much faster than I have over the past 2 years.




  1. The saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master something may or may not be true but is indisputably popular (which is often an attribute of true ideas).
  2. I added the quotes around "coding" when describing my past experience because it was simple stuff, and it felt funny funny calling it coding just as it would sound funny calling a 5 year old's work "writing".
  3. I still have a long way to go to become a "great programmer", 2-4 more years I'd say.

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