All your questions about coding answered in this in-depth guide about the basics of coding.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Learn to code,” but what does it mean? Just what is coding? How does it work? What is it used for? Why learn it? And how long does it take to learn?
If you’ve got questions about coding, read on to find the answers. In this article, we’ll walk you through the basic essentials you need to know about coding. We’ll start by looking at what coding means, how it works, and what it’s for. Then we’ll take a tour of the programming languages used in coding and the different levels of programming used to code. Finally, we’ll consider some of the reasons you might want to learn coding and how long you can expect it to take.
Depending on why you’re reading this article, you may be interested in a career in coding, or you may be looking for someone to help you with a coding project. In both situations, Ndiwano can help you. We provide online coding lessons from experienced coding experts, and many of our experts also offer coding services. Reading this article can provide you with background information to help you hire a coding tutor or consultant. But first, you need to know what you’re looking for
- What Does Coding Mean?
- An Example of Coding
- Other Examples of Practical Coding Applications
- The Purpose of Coding
- Coding Steps
- The Tools of Coding
- How Does Coding Work?
- What Is Computer Code Used for?
- Types of Programming Languages
- Levels of Programming
- Why Learn Coding?
What Does Coding Mean?
Coding can be defined as the process of creating instructions that tell computers what to do. The set of instructions is called a code. It also may be referred to as a program.
Because of this, coding is often a synonym for programming, or the process of writing a computer program. However, sometimes a distinction is drawn between the actual writing of a code and broader programming tasks.
Programs are written in codes called programming languages which translate human instructions into information computers can process.
An Example of Coding
To illustrate coding, let’s start with a straightforward example:
The Assignment: Writing a One-line Python Code
Let’s say that you’re taking an introduction to coding class and the teacher gives you an assignment to write a one-line code that tells a computer to have a screen display the message, “Hello!” You will be writing this code in one of today’s most popular programming languages, Python.
What You Need to Write in Python
To create the code, you would use a text editing program, which is a program that lets you enter plain text without the type of formatting you would use in a word processing program. A popular text editor for programming is Sublime Text, or you could use a free program such as Notepad++.
You also would need to have Python installed on your computer. Many computers already have it installed. If you don’t have it installed, you can download it free. Installing Python yourself and finding your file can get involved if you don’t have experience. If you want to see how coding works without trying to install Python, you can use an online interface that replicates a Python environment provided by web developer site W3Schools.
If you were coding with Python installed on your computer, you first would create a file in your text editing program by opening the app, giving your file a name, and saving it. For instance, you might name your file “Hello.py”. The “py” extension means that this is a Python file.
Creating Your Python Code
After creating your file, you would type these instructions into the file:
This is instructing the computer to perform an action called “print” on the variable “Hello!”
The action “print” is called a function, meaning a code that tells the computer to perform a specific task. The print function tells the computer to take whatever variable is entered into the parentheses and print it on a screen or on a printer.
The variable is known as a parameter or argument, depending on the context and who’s talking. (We won’t get into the difference between a parameter and an argument here, except to mention that many people tend to use the terms interchangeably, but technically they’re distinct. We don’t need to worry about that here though.) In this case, the variable is “Hello!”
So this instruction is telling the computer to take the variable “Hello!” and print it to a computer screen. Whatever text appears inside the quotation marks will be printed, so when this program is run successfully, the screen should show:
After typing this code into your file, you would save your updated file.
Running Your Python Code
Now you can close your file and run it using a text interface called a command line. A command line is a way of entering commands into your computer using text only, without using a mouse.
To run your file, you would open your command line program, navigate to the directory where you saved your file, and enter the command to run the file. (We won’t get into how to navigate directories or run files right now, but you can learn how Python handles these tasks from a tutorial such as that provided by Datacamp.)
When you run your program, if you did everything right, your command line interface should display:
Debugging Your Python Code
Your command line interface won’t display this if something was done incorrectly. For example, if you misspelled the word “print”, you might get an error message. In that case, you’d need to go back, check your program file, and figure out what went wrong. This part of coding is called “debugging”.
Other Examples of Practical Coding Applications
In the example above, the code you wrote only had one line with one instruction and one variable. In practice, programs designed to perform real-life tasks typically have many lines with many variables. Instead of writing a program telling a computer to print a line on a screen, someone with advanced programming skills might write a program to:
- Display a blog post on a website
- Forecast the weather
- Diagnose medical conditions
- Provide truck drivers with navigational instructions
- Translate languages
- Send text messages between smartphones
- Run a factory
- Process online credit card transactions
These types of tasks can involve complex data input and instructions. For example, to forecast the weather, a programmer would need to create a program that can:
- Accept input from multiple remote weather stations about multiple variables such as temperature, humidity, and wind speed
- Analyze the input for mathematical patterns
- Make predictions based on the patterns
- Display the results for users from different locations
To create this type of program, you’d need to know how to:
- Organize weather data in a format your program can process
- Run instructions that tell the program to perform advanced mathematical operations on the data
- Organize how results are displayed to make them useful to people looking for local weather forecasts
As this illustrates, the skills required for coding range from very simple to very advanced. Writing a program to run a website usually requires less training than writing one to run a factory, although this may not be the case for very complex websites. This is one reason people with advanced coding skills can earn a high income.
Now that we’ve considered some examples of coding, let’s flesh out our definition of coding by taking a closer look at the purpose of coding, the steps involved, and the tools used.
The Purpose of Coding
In general, the purpose of any program code is to tell a computer what data to use and what operations to perform on the data to achieve a desired result. A computer program may be used for tasks such as:
- Finding a file
- Displaying an image
- Solving a math problem
- Analyzing scientific data
- Forecasting a financial trend
- Planning a driving route
- Converting an electronic signal into an audio or video
- Running a machine
In general, coding may be used to program a computer for any task which involves repeating routine steps in response to input data.
The process of creating a program code involves several steps:
- Describing the task the program needs to perform
- Identifying what input data is needed to perform the task, how the data needs to be processed, and what output is desired
- Diagramming the steps needed to perform the task
- Translating the steps into a code written in a programming language that converts human instructions into instructions the computer can process (properly speaking, this is the heart of coding)
- Translating the original programming language instructions into instructions that the computer can execute as physical operations on hardware, such as storing a file at a specific location on a hard drive
- Reviewing your programming code to identify and fix any errors
- Testing your program to verify that it performs its intended task
These last few steps may need to be repeated to get a program to do what it’s supposed to do without mistakes. Coding is a process of continuous correction, improvement, and optimization.
The Tools of Coding
Programmers rely on a number of tools when it comes to coding. These include:
- Systems analysis: a method of analyzing tasks computers need to perform by breaking them down into steps that can then be coded
- Programming languages: codes that tell computers which instructions to follow and which variables to apply them to
- Text editors: software programs used to write code in programming languages
- Compilers: computer languages that translate programming languages friendly to human users into languages that computers can use to execute physical instructions on a machine
- Debuggers: programs used to test other programs and make sure they run correctly
- Integrated development environments (IDEs): software applications that combine multiple coding tools in a single interface
- Software libraries: collections of programming codes and data designed to help make programming more efficient
- Project management software: programs that let members of teams work together online
These are just a few of the tools used in coding. Programmers have developed many specialized tools to make the task of coding easier.
How Does Coding Work?
Now that we have some idea of what coding is, let’s take a look at how it works:
On and Off
To understand how coding works, you need to understand how a computer stores and processes information. Computer hardware storage devices typically use one of a few methods to store data:
- Semiconductor: storage locations are transistors that can be switched into on or off states to control whether electricity flows through a circuit or not
- Magnetic: storage locations are magnetized with a positive or negative polarity
- Optical: storage locations consist of indentations or lack of indentations that can be read by a laser beam
- Paper: storage locations consist of patterns of holes and lack of holes that can be read by a machine or optical device
What all these methods have in common is that they have two possible states. For instance, with semiconductor storage, a transistor can be on or off. If you have many transistors, you can have many combinations of transistors that are on or off, but ultimately, each individual transistor is either on or off.
In programming code, these on and off states are represented by using numbers:
- 1 for on
- 0 for off
This creates a code called a binary code.
Binary code is so called because each digit can have only two possible numbers: 1 or 0. A binary code can be used to instruct a computer to detect whether a hardware storage location is in an on or off state. It can also be used to tell the computer to turn a location on or off.
Binary code is what enables computers to store and process data. To do this, binary code needs to be translated into a code humans can understand and work with.
This is done by applying the binary number system, which represents numbers using a base-2 code instead of our normal base-10 code, meaning that each digit can only use two numbers: 1 or 0.
- In base-10, “10” means “one ten and no ones”, or “ten”
- In base-2, “10” means “one two and no ones”, or “two”
- In base-10, “11” means “one ten and one ones”, or “eleven”
- In base-2, “11” means “one two and one one”, or “three”
- In base 10, “100” means “one hundred, no tens, and no ones”, or “one hundred”
- In base-2, “100” means “one four, no twos, and no ones”, or “four”
Binary code can be used to represent numbers, but it also can represent other things, including:
- A letter
- A logical value of true or false
- A color to be displayed on a screen
- A sound to be played on a speaker
Binary code also can represent operations for a computer to perform on stored data, such as:
- Adding numbers
- Searching data or files alphabetically
- Sorting data numerically or alphabetically
- Deleting files
This enables computers to store any type of data or perform any task which can be symbolized in binary code.
However, binary code is not easy for humans to work with directly because long strings of 1s and 0s are hard to read. To solve this problem, computer programmers have invented languages that convert normal human vocabulary into coded commands that computers in turn can interpret as binary code. This is done by converting binary code into other codes which are closer to human language.
From Binary Code to Source Code
To get from binary code to something humans can read, let’s look briefly at another code binary code can be translated into: hexadecimal code.
Hexadecimal code uses a base-16 instead of a base-2. Each digit contains up to 16 possible values, including the numbers 0 through 10 as well as the letters A through F. Because each digit can contain 16 values, a hexadecimal code can store more information per digit than binary code. For example, to represent the number 16:
- Binary code uses “10000”
- Hexadecimal code uses “10”
To represent 10:
- Binary code uses “1010”
- Hexadecimal code uses “A”
Now because 16 is a multiple of 2, any binary code can be converted into hexadecimal code. This means that hexadecimal code can be used as shorthand to store binary code using a fewer amount of digits than you would need to express the same value in binary.
Using the same principle, programmers have developed languages that allow everyday human language to be coded into commands and variables which then can be translated into binary code. These languages are called source codes. For example, a source code might include the command “print” instead of a binary code representing this command. Software written in one or more intermediary languages is then run to translate the source code into binary code so the computer can execute physical actions on its own device or connected devices.
What Is Computer Code Used for?
Code is used for any application which involves a computer, smartphone, or mobile device. This includes:
- Creating software apps
- Building websites
- Running hardware, including smartphones, laptops, and desktops
- Running machines
- Administering networks
- Managing databases
As use of computers and mobile devices has become integrated into society, the range of industries in need of such applications has grown. Some of the types of employers in most need of programmers include:
- Retail, including brick-and-mortar brands expanding into e-commerce
- Businesses, schools, and nonprofits engaged in research and development
- Providers of IT and business services
- Technology companies
- Government contractors
Any business that depends on computers, maintains an e-commerce presence, or stores a large amount of data, needs programmers.
Types of Programming Languages
There are many programming languages and many ways to classify them. The simplest way is to classify them based on how close they are to binary code. Viewed this way, languages broadly can be organized into a hierarchy starting with ones that are designed for machines and ascending as they become closer to human language:
- Machine languages are written in binary code and designed to run hardware directly
- Assembly languages contain codes that correspond to machine language and are used to translate between machine language and languages closer to human language
- High-level languages use terms borrowed from normal human language and are written in source code
Machine and assembly languages together are often referred to as low-level languages.
There also are languages that translate between these different levels of programming languages:
- Interpreted languages translate one line of source code at a time into machine language and immediately executes the code
- Compiled languages translate entire programs into machine language before executing the code
- Source-to-source compilers translate one source code into another which can be translated into machine code more quickly
Within the category of high-level languages, there are numerous languages and many ways to classify them. One of the most important distinctions is between languages that use different programming paradigms (methods) to communicate instructions to machines:
- Imperative languages give machines instructions on how to change their states by either prescribing procedures (procedural languages) or combining data with procedures (object-oriented programming languages)
- Declarative languages instruct machines on the properties of the desired result without providing specific procedures for computing the result, expressing desired results in terms of functional tasks (functional languages), logical properties (logic languages), mathematical properties (mathematical languages), or data properties (reactive languages)
An example of an imperative language is Fortran, designed for scientific applications. An example of a declarative language is Lisp, originally designed for mathematical applications and often used for artificial intelligence. These aren’t today’s most popular languages, but they serve well to illustrate some basic categories of high-level languages.
Levels of Programming
Programming levels fall into two main groupings based on how close they are to machine or human language:
- Low-level languages, which include machine and assembly languages
- High-level languages, which include the various subcategories of imperative and declarative languages
Both levels of programming are necessary to run computers. Larger companies may have specialists in both areas. Demand for low-level programmers tends to be higher in fields such as computer engineering and electrical engineering, where programmers work more closely with computer hardware, while high-level programming is more closely associated with computer science and software development.
Why Learn Coding?
So why learn coding? There are a number of excellent reasons:
- Increasing your earning potential: the median pay for computer programmers in 2021 was $93,000 a year or $44.71 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Running a business: You may need to know coding to run your company’s website, design a customized app, or perform some specific business function
- Developing an invention: coding may help you achieve your entrepreneurial goals by giving you the skill set to invent an app or machine
- Exploring recreational interests: knowing how to code may help you express your creativity or explore hobby interests that require computer skills
- Hiring a coder: even if you don’t plan on being a full-time programmer, understanding coding may help you make smarter hiring decisions when it comes to hiring a programmer
These are all reasons you might want to consider learning coding.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Coding?
How long it takes to learn to code depends on your learning aptitude, how much coding you want to learn, and what your goals are:
- If you have the aptitude to learn coding on your own, you can pick up the basics in as little as six months, or less if you have some relevant background in computers or math
- Attending a coding boot camp for a crash course in the basics of coding may take three to nine months
- Earning a degree in a field related to coding may take two to four years, or more if you’re seeking a more advanced degree
As a general rule, if you’re learning coding to do a specific task, it won’t take as much time as if you’re learning coding to go into a programming career. However, you can learn enough coding to make a career transition before earning a computer science or computer engineering degree.
Learn to Code Online at Ndiwano
With today’s growing need for technology by employers and entrepreneurs, learning to code can be a step toward increasing your earning potential or starting your own business. Ndiwano provides online coding lessons where you can learn how to code from professional programmers. Connect with experienced coders who can help you start learning to code today.