My Answer To: I want to learn programming, should I attend a code school?

I recently had a reader ask me if they should attend a coding academy because they want to get into programming. Here is my answer:

There are many success stories involving code schools. In fact my grandmother was one of those success stories, but more about her later. Still, I’d be careful of code boot camps, code schools, hack schools, code academies and the like. Read the reviews and talk to grads who are a year or so ahead of you.  One code school in my home town recently shut down suddenly with no warning. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of code schools hiring their own grads as tutors or instructors just so they can claim a high percentage of their grads are employed in the field. At best that is called academic inbreeding, at worst it is a pyramid scheme. Aside from avoiding getting ripped off, you want to make sure of the quality of the curriculum. These schools often jump directly to frameworks and web development without providing proper fundamentals like what is a function, what is a variable, etc.

So yes, this equation is sometimes true:

$12k Code camp + $2k Mac Book Pro = Job in software @ $60-110k/yr

but this makes more sense:

The Knack + Enjoyment = A career you love that pays well

Software takes a special knack and to be good you must love it:

To succeed in software you need many things, but at the top of my list is an innate knack and natural enjoyment for it. I’d rule those out first before dropping money on tuition.

My first criteria is you must have the gift for coding, and that is probably genetic. What goes into the innate ability to code has been studied and blogged about. The bottom line is, there is no way to teach everyone to write code. It doesn’t work the in same way that almost all of us absorb language as infants or grow up and join Facebook if we want.

My second criteria is you must enjoy writing code. Know anybody who can concentrate on abstract details for long periods of time? A lot of people I know can’t believe I sit in a room for 10-12 hours a day doing what I do. They say it would drive them totally nuts. Even very gifted and intelligent people struggle and end up hating it. I once had a calculus teacher who despised writing code. He couldn’t get his program to run, even though he said it was mathematically perfect… It was probably just a syntax error.

How many people have ‘The Knack’ as a percentage of the population?

The short answer is somewhere between 1.5% and 3%, but the numbers are pretty fuzzy.


Based on the bureau of labor statistics, in 2014 in the US there were 2.3M jobs directly related to writing code. According to this infographic of the 17M people in the ‘nerd economy’ world wide, 44% were in the US. That is ~7.5M but may include some non-programmers. Let’s take a guess and say in the US it is 5M. Out of population of roughly 320M in the US, that comes out to ~1.5% of people who write code for a living.

If you walk past the average family on the street, you would see 1.8 children. If you walk past 100 people on the street, 1.5 of them would be employed in software development. Except in the bay area it would probably be closer to 50! The 1.5% estimate only reflects those who are active, not those who have the knack + enjoyment but do something else, nor those who were downsized. As a planet we can get that number higher if age bias goes away and more opportunity is provided for minorities, women, and people of low socioeconomic status.

What goes into ‘The Knack’ for writing code?

The following traits appear to be closely associated with coders:

  • Analytical skills
  • Problem solving
  • Rapid comprehension (fast learner)
  • Mathematical aptitude
  • Musical proficiency
  • More interest in truth than appearances
  • Good memory
  • Creativity
  • Do-It-Yourself (DIY) hobbies
  • Obsession with science fiction
  • T-shirt collections
  • Difficulty picking good looking color combinations


Software is a journey, it is cyclical, and the learning never stops:

The idea that anybody with $12k can become a great programmer in a matter of 5 months is so wrong. I’ve been programming for almost 20 years and I’m still improving. Who you work with and what you are working on matters. It may take a decade for everything to really start clicking.

We live in a golden age of technology expansion. Right now the world is experiencing another technology bubble. This one may not be as big or as violent as the dot com boom, but programmer demand is out of control. Overall I think demand for software will continue to grow for many years while being bridled by bust and boom business cycles. That is until self aware artificial intelligence gets loose and kills us all (software developers first no doubt).

I recall during the dot com boom my wages were artificially boosted which I thought was permanent at the time. I also found myself working around a bunch of yahoo’s who had no business in software. They were ultimately weeded out of the field. That pattern is peaking yet again.

A CS degree, or some kind of complimentary degree from an accredited university should be on your road map. To test the waters you might start with a free online course.

In software it is entirely possible to start off being self taught – like I was. My first paying gig was at age 16. I was literally the kid down the street. At the time I was very rough around the edges. Side projects and eventual part time employment allowed me to pay my own way through college. It was hard, I clocked 20-30 hours per week and took 8-16 credits per term including summers. I got into the habit of running through flash cards every night before I went to bed. Side note – it turns out memories are best formed right before going to sleep, so studying before going to bed helps with retention. What I learned in college wasn’t as immediately valuable as my software skills, but it ended up being the prefect compliment to my life. I learned how to write, how to analyze information, and grow up some. I also met my wife in college.

Your assignment:

To find out if software is the life for you, my advice is to get a cheap PC laptop, install linux on it (Ubuntu or RedHat), and start with (Python, Ruby or PHP), Javascript, and SQL. Online outlet stores like the Dell outlet  and the Lenovo outlet have good deals on refurbished hardware (which is basically an extended burn in test).

Start going to local meetups and hack nights. Get in the habit of learning all the time. Whenever you see a word or acronym you don’t know, google it and make a flashcard for it. Flip through video presentations from past software conferences like OSCON, InfoQ, etc, much of the content is made available for free!

Check out some books on programming from the library. The web is great for bits and pieces, but a published book typically has more depth.  The first chapter of most programming books will be about setting up your computer and installing the right programs (called your environment). Then you will write a program that prints ‘hello world’ on the screen. Note how you feel and how smoothly it went. If you are totally flummoxed this, you may need to some face to face help, which brings me to the next section.

Get a mentor:

There are many people out there willing to share their knowledge. Some will charge anywhere from $10-$100/hr, others ask nothing in return, and some work for pizza. Mentoring is something I plan to do in my twilight years to keep my mind healthy and to give back.

I wish I would have had more mentoring earlier in my career. My bosses were gracious enough to introduce me to a few senior people. I met with them every few months and emailed more often. I should have taken more advantage though!

It was a simpler world back then. There were fewer frameworks and languages vying for attention. In today’s work the ‘stack’ or the ‘tree’ of technology is really getting out of hand with dozens of options in each category. Talk through this with your mentor.

Some encouragement:

Anybody can get into the field of software, not just white guys like me. In the 1970’s my grandmother took a programming course, perhaps similar to today’s boot camps. She started on punch cards and later wrote Cobol for the IBM mainframe. They tried to bring her back out of retirement in the late 90’s to help fix Y2k bugs but she wisely declined. I suppose I got the knack from her. As a female, she was a pioneer in the tech industry. I’m really proud of her. Her department had a few female coders. I’ve always noticed companies hold onto their female coders. There is a huge movement out there to get more women and minorities in tech. I fully support that kind of thinking. Yes, at bad companies there is a glass ceiling, harassment, and the old boys club to put up with. Screw those kinds of places. Be like Grandma and go for it.

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