How to code - year of code

There’s a strong demand for talented programmers right now and, since it’s the Year of Code, we show you how you can become an expert

Coding – or programming - is everywhere and in everything around us. All computers run code: it’s what makes them burst into life when the power is turned on and what makes things happen when an icon or menu is clicked.

Code isn’t just for PCs: smartphones wouldn’t be nearly as smart without code for the operating system and apps. Tablets require similar code, as do TV boxes from Sky, Virgin media and others. Websites are powered by code (see How to build a website), even cars rely on code these days; enthusiasts use this fact to boost an engine’s power by reprogramming it – there’s no need to even reach for the toolbox. (See also: Responsive vs Adaptive - why a responsive website is best for your business.)

Learn to code - Tado thermostat

You can even control the heating in your home using a phone app and the phone (see Tado thermostat review), app and heating are all powered by code. Someone has to write it, couldn’t it be you?

With so many smart devices, gadgets and internet services all requiring code in order to function, there’s a demand for people that can code and a shortage of people that are really good at it. This is the reason why the Government announced that this is the Year of Code and it has provided £500,000 to train teachers to show children how to become programmers.

From September 2014 all children from the age of five will be taught to program. Education Secretary Michael Gove said “The new computing curriculum will give our children the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.”

The scheme was set up with the best of intentions, but it quickly ran into problems and one of the scheme’s advisors, Emma Mulqueeny, quit after just one week. Its launch was a PR disaster and there were many critical stories in the news (BBC and Guardian to mention just two). Jeremy Paxman quizzed Year of Code director Lottie Dexter on Newsnight and she admitted that she and some of the other advisors couldn’t code:

The government has the right idea, though, and everyone should try coding. Not everyone will like it or need it, but a few will take to it like a duck to water and will become the expert coders that are needed. Do you have what it takes to become a coder? Why not try and see.

The Fizz-Buzz test

Coding is skill that takes a lot of hard work to master. If you think you can code already, try the Fizz-Buzz test: Write a program that prints the numbers 1 to 100, except for multiples of three print “Fizz” and for multiples of five print “Buzz”. If you’re good, you’ll have a finished and working program in under five minutes. Start Notepad and create a web page that prints Fizz-Buzz using JavaScript. The answer is at the end of the article on the next page - no cheating!

Introducing programming to children at school is essential if we are to fill the demand for skilled programmers in the future and the earlier you start programming, the better you will be. Five-year-olds won’t be looking for jobs for another 15 years though, so who’s going to do the coding in the meantime? Could it be you?

Learn to code: Which programming language?

There are many computer programming languages and although some are similar, many are quite different. Some languages are only used in certain niches and these are fairly easy to spot and to avoid. You don’t see many programmers using Lisp, Forth, Prolog, Smalltalk or Fortran these days. Learning them is pointless unless you are looking for a job in a niche that still uses them.

Programming languages can become popular for a while and then disappear. Pascal was once popular, but isn’t used much these days. The only people using BBC Basic, Sinclair Basic, Z80 and 6502 machine code are people writing retro games for Sinclair Spectrum and BBC emulators.

You should learn the most popular programming languages, but you must be aware that what is popular this year might not be next year. Programmers frequently have to learn to program all over again when some new language takes off. Earlier this year Facebook announced it had created its own programming language called Hack because other languages could not cope with its billion members. If you want to work as a developer for Facebook you need therefore need to learn Hack.

So which language should you learn? The best way to discover which languages are the most used is to look at job adverts. Job sites have large numbers of listings and the most commonly requested skills are for C++, C#, .Net/VB.Net, Java, PHP, and web technologies like JavaScript, HTML, SQL, Asp.Net and others. Most jobs require knowledge of several programming languages and knowing just one won’t cut it. Many job adverts are aimed at computer science graduates with degrees and this is typical: “Graduate / Junior Software Developer - C# / ASP.Net / MVC / SQL Server / Degree.”

Learn to code: Programming for fun

You don’t need to be a computer science graduate to become a programmer and not everyone wants to do it as a full time career. Learning to program can be fun and for some people it can simply be a hobby. It can also be useful too and you might find yourself needing to tweak a web page or add some functionality to a site, such as adding PayPal buttons so people can buy goods. A little knowledge of how to code for the web can make it a lot easier to build a website. You don’t need to know how to build complete Windows applications and simply recognising a few key commands and functions can provide sufficient knowledge to tweak someone else’s code, such as a WordPress template. Although a site can be built by pointing and clicking, knowing how and where to paste in the code for a PayPal button in the HTML or PHP of a web page is really useful.

Occasionally apps for mobile phones are created by a single programmer working on their own on their home computer. Flappy Bird, the most downloaded app for the iPhone in January, was created by Nguyen Ha Dong in just a few days. It was rumoured to be earning $50,000 a day in advertising revenue but even a quarter of this would be very nice.

Learn to code - Flappy Bird

See how easy it is to create a playable Flappy Bird clone at

Next page: Tools which can help you learn to program