Over the past decade or so, learning to code has been somewhat synonymous with paving the way to a well-paid and stable career. Coders, or programmers, have found jobs at numerous tech companies in Silicon Valley and beyond, working for the likes of Apple, Google, Meta, and many, many others. But these days, companies of all stripes hire coders and programmers, meaning it’s a skill that’s more ubiquitous, and in demand, than ever.
But learning to code, like many other disciplines, isn’t exactly easy. Many people learn to code by earning a computer science degree, and it’s even taught in some forms to children in middle schools and high schools across the country. So, if teenagers are learning to code, how hard can it be?
That question is a bit more difficult to answer than you might think.
Is coding hard to learn?
Learning to code can be difficult to learn, but many factors need to be taken into consideration to determine just how difficult it may be for any individual. But experts who teach coding say that it’s more or less a trial-and-error process.
“There’s a lot of failure—you’ll learn through failure,” says Sandra Hartman, the Computer Technology and Media Design teacher with the East Stroudsburg Area School District in Pennsylvania. Hartman teaches middle school students (grades 6–8) some basic coding skills, and says that coding comes naturally to some students, but not to others. With that in mind, there’s no way to say whether learning to code will be easy or difficult for any individual—it just depends on the individual.
That holds true for students of all ages, too. But a student who may have a natural talent for mathematics or problem-solving may find learning to code easier than a student who does not.
“A person who’s probably going to have an easier time is someone who likes solving problems because at the end of the day, that’s what programming is,” says Dr. Sriram Mohan, Ph.D., head of our Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. “If you’re naturally curious and like learning,” Dr. Mohan says, “you’re going to naturally gravitate to computer science.”
While not everyone will have a knack for coding, it’s clear that a lot of people have been willing to learn it over the past decade or so. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nationally, there are more than 147,000 programmers or coders earning a median annual wage of nearly $98,000.
So, even if coding may be a difficult skill to learn for some people, the prospects of a relatively well-paying job may be enough to push through.
How long does it take to learn to code?
For those who are coming to coding as absolute beginners, it may be reasonable to expect that you’ll get the hang of it within several months. But again, there are a lot of variables at play.
Hartman says that a majority of her students can do some simple programming or coding after a semester in her computer science class, for example. Arjun Chandrasekhar, an assistant professor of computer science at Southwestern University, says that many undergraduates in the classes he teaches are able to build interactive games after a semester—which would entail a few classes per week.
As such, it’s probably going to require that students dedicate several hours per week to learning to code, and they’ll also need to take into consideration if they have any background at all in coding or programming, and how much of a natural knack they have for it. Again, some students will learn faster than others, but for the others, it may just take some additional time and practice.
3 ways to learn how to code
Like any skill, there are several ways that prospective programmers can learn to code. A few of the main ones include taking a class, using one of many online learning platforms on the market, or through self-study.
Take a class
Younger people may end up learning computer science and coding as a part of their educational path. Some states, like North Carolina, even mandate it. But for people who may have graduated or are older, colleges and universities nationwide teach coding and computer science classes, and there are also coding “bootcamps” that may be of interest to some prospective students.
Use an online platform
There are also numerous online platforms designed to teach coding—a list that includes Codecademy, Treehouse, Khan Academy, and more. Your mileage may vary when using these platforms, of course, and it’ll require students to have some self-discipline to stick to the program and practice. But many of these platforms are out there, and many of them are free to use, too.
For students who are really disciplined, they can learn on their own—download some software, consult a book or YouTube tutorial, and start pounding away at the keyboard. There are numerous tutorials and manuals out there for those who want to try and teach themselves, but again, it’ll require that students are disciplined and can stick to a schedule; they’ll want to make sure they’re getting in enough repetitions per week that they’re actually learning something.
3 coding languages that are easy to learn
Experts say that there are some languages that may be a bit easier to learn than others, including Scratch, Python, and Java.
Hartman says that her students start playing around with Scratch to get a feel for coding. Scratch is a visual programming language, and involves users connecting “blocks” which can help some people learn more effectively. Scratch was developed by MIT Media Lab to help teach kids to code, and Hartman says that visually, “it’s almost like puzzle pieces,” which may be more intuitive for young coders.
Python is another ubiquitous, and relatively easy programming language to learn. That’s mostly because it’s a “high-level” language, which means it’s more similar to the English language that learners speak than it is to the binary code that computers use to communicate. “Python closely resembles human language,” says Chandrasekhar, and is thus used a lot in coding courses and educational materials.
Chandrasekhar says that Java is another language that is used a lot in his classroom, as a high-level language it may be easier for some students to pick up. “It’s a pretty easy language,” he says, and “it’s what the AP (high school) test uses, and it works nicely because students who take CS1 (in college) will have some knowledge” of it. Java is an older language, having first been developed in the mid-1990s. It’s also widely used in commercial settings, too—not just educational ones, like Scratch.
3 coding languages that are difficult to learn
While languages like Scratch or Python may be geared toward early-stage coders, there are other languages that are more advanced, such as C, C++, and Assembly.
C is what is called a “low-level” language, which means it’s effectively closer to binary than it is to the English language. “It speaks more directly to the hardware,” in other words, Chandrasekhar says. As such, it can be difficult to learn and understand, especially for beginners. Originally created in the 1970s, C is used in a number of industries, but students would probably find it too advanced for learning purposes.
Despite the name, C++ is not the same as C, though there are some similarities. And like C, C++ is a low language, meaning it’s going to be more difficult to learn and understand than higher-level languages. “It’s much closer to binary,” says Hartman. “You’ll have a lot more punctuation and a lot more short, brief descriptions” when writing code in C++. That can be difficult for students still finding their sea legs when it comes to programming.
An assembly language is “one step above binary,” says Chandrasekhar. Using an assembly language means you’re basically having direct correspondence with a computer’s hardware, rather than running your instructions through another language. “You need to be really granular” when writing code in an assembly language, he says. There isn’t a single assembly language, but for students’ purposes, they should know that assembly languages are likely going to be the most difficult programming languages they come across.