A Good Programmer is like a Good Chef
Learning programming is like learning how to cook. At first it’s daunting, and best left to those that know what they’re doing. But the day will come when you need to learn how to do it yourself. That is, if you don’t want to keep paying other people to do it for you. So you start with something small and easy that’s been done before and has a lot of very detailed instructions. When it’s done you feel amazing! You have something tangible, right in front of you, that you made and can be proud of. An unnoticeable victory for the rest of the world but a milestone for you!
Then you get the itch to do it a little better next time so you try cooking something a little more challenging. It has a few more steps to it, some of which you have to get a second opinion on to make sure you’re doing them correctly. You make a few mistakes and learn a couple things along the way but you make progress. You keep trying again and again, each time adding a step or two you’ve never done before. Sometimes you go back to the easy recipes because you need that confidence boost, that reminder that you can do it. And then you move on. Eventually you’re using ingredients you didn’t even know existed and cooking dishes with names you could barely pronounce. Then comes the real joy. You’re bringing your own ideas to reality and inspiring others with what you can do! And you help out the beginner because you remember what it was like the first time reading those detailed instructions for that simple meal.
Programming is a lot like cooking. It is learned in the same way. Day by day it doesn’t feel like you are getting any better but look back over the last year or two and you can see you’ve learned things you used to only dream about. Now you laugh when you look back at some of your old code you thought was unbelievably clever at the time. That compiler error that had you tearing your hair out for an entire weekend once, you can now fix in a matter of seconds. Every program you write is a little more sophisticated than the last. Of course, there were still those programs that were abandoned because right as things were starting to look good, they got way too far out of control. It’s all a part of the process.
I haven’t met many people who say they can’t cook at least a simple meal. Why do I keep running in to people that say they could never create software? It just takes time and determination. You just have to sit down and do it. Yet I see so many posts with the titles of “Is it too late for me to start programming?”, “Can a man in their 50’s learn to create a web page?”. The answer is that it is never too late. Is it too late to learn how to poach an egg? No. Can a man in their 50’s learn how to make a pot roast? Yes. Stop putting it off and sit down and do it.
I didn’t start programming until I was 22. I was terrified of it actually. I was in school to be an engineer and I had to take an introductory programming class in the upcoming semester. The only exposure I had to writing software was when I was really young, maybe 10 or 11. My dad showed me a simple C program because thought I might be interested in coding. As smart as he was, my dad was never supposed to be a teacher. He was a brilliant man, but as with many brilliant people, they forget what it was like to be a beginner. They forget that some things of the things that are so trivial now pose the biggest obstacle to the newcomer. So after an hour of watching this text on screen cause this other text to turn a different color, I was thoroughly confused, disappointed, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with this horrific topic.
So now I had to take this class. I bought a C++ for dummies book and went to town on it. I spent every night of a winter break learning how to use variables and functions, how to create a program that converted Fahrenheit to Clausius and back again. I didn’t want that horrific experience again. And the class wasn’t horrific. In fact I got an A. I sat down, did the work, figured out the parts that went wrong, asked questions when I got confused, and just did it. How is that different from learning any other skill?
For an entrepreneur, having at least a little knowledge of programming is essential. Even if you’re not going to do the coding yourself, it’s important to know what can be done with it. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that when I tell them what a piece of software can do for them, they respond with “I didn’t know that was possible!”. I have saved hours each day at jobs by automating simple tasks. And this was usually done with programs that were no longer than fifty lines. That’s when I found out what I really wanted to do.
My passion has become Android programming. Why? Because it is a perfect combination of resources, accessibility, and practicality, along with a little fun, too. I just published my first app a few months ago and I love seeing that another person has downloaded my app. I have created something and shared it with the world. But it wasn’t easy. It took three years of failed attempts before I landed on something I actually could finish. Maybe failed isn’t the right word. A lot of my previous apps just weren’t app store worthy. I created a lot of apps that I personally used that just weren’t polished enough to publish. I’m not saying that out of modesty, they really weren’t finished. They were buggy, had features that wouldn’t work, and were visually displeasing. The problem was that I would get really excited about an idea so I would start programming it. There would be a couple features I needed to implement that took a little longer to learn than I had expected. Then another feature would pop up that I didn’t know how to do so I would have to learn something else. Inevitably, I would let the frustration take over and abandon the project, telling myself that I just wasn’t meant to create an Android app.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth. First of all, most people don’t even get as far as a failed attempt because they don’t even try. Second, you learn a lot more by your failures than you do your successes. The first time I made macaroni and cheese, I forgot to drain the water from the noodles before I added the cheese. Don’t laugh, I was young (not that young). If I would have told myself then that I was never supposed to cook, I would be a very hungry and/or poor man today. And let me tell you, I can make some mean mac n’ cheese today. The best thing you can do is learn from your failure and try again.
Android is a great platform to learn on, fail on, succeed on, and keep going because of it’s awesome community and abundance of helpful resources. That’s why I develop Android apps and teach Android programming. The thing that sets me apart is that I teach the hard stuff. Everybody and their brother has a tutorial about getting started with Android and I am no exception. But when the beginner tutorials end, it’s difficult to find quality resources to learn from about the harder topics like providing services or streaming content. That is what I aim to solve. So after asking if it’s possible to become an Android developer, the next question might be, “is it worth it?”.
Let’s do the math
Near the end of 2015, there were over 1.4 billion Android users that accounted for over 53% of mobile devices. That is an insane amount of technology. The internet is a fascinating place and never has it been easier to get your ideas out to the world. The best part is that you need only need a tiny chunk of that 1.4 billion to make even a meager profit. Say you have an app that sells for $2.99 and you want to make an extra $1000 a month. That’s 335 downloads per month. That’s 0.000024% of the Android user population! That’s it! You only need a relatively few amount of customers to make even a little extra income each month.
Obviously, there is no guarantee that you can just write an app and have it take off. Rovio only found success with Angry Birds after 51 previous attempts at other games. 51 tries! That means they put in work, time, and effort only to have it not go as planned. Then they got up and tried again. Did I mention they did that 51 times? Giving up so early is the easy way out. Success belongs to the one’s who don’t let failures get to them. Let’s apply the Pareto Principle here. The Pareto Principle states that roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of the work. Now let’s apply this to writing apps. If your first app doesn’t work out, you need to try at least four more times before you give up. The one that matters just might not have been written yet.
Anything can be learned. And anything learned can be improved upon. You just have to want it and be willing to put in the work. If people say it’s not possible, prove them wrong. If you hear that it’s too late for you to accomplish something, prove them wrong. Even when it comes to developing software.
Instead of asking if you can be a programmer, or a chef for that matter, try one thing first. Start.