Is it easy to learn to program?

woman at laptop biting a pencil

I recently found a old blog entry written by Scott Hanselman. Scott Hanselman is a programmer, teacher and speaker who works for the Web Platform Team at Microsoft. The title of the blog topic is “Stop saying learning to code is easy”.

Google (not) to the rescue

I did a quick search on Google using the phrase “is it easy to learn to program”. The results were wondrously confusing:

The top search result was this: Is Coding Hard to Learn? (Answer:No!) from CareerKarma

The next five search results had these headings:

A warning to myself and all of us who rely on Google:

  • There are no guarantees with Google. You might get different results when you search.
  • There are no guarantees with Google. Don’t believe everything you read.

When search results give conflicting answers, most people choose the result they want to believe. It’s called confirmation bias. I’m guilty of it, and so are you.

So is programming easy or not?

I know some of you will disagree with me. But after much thought, my answer is “No”. I don’t think it’s easy to learn to program. And I think it’s even more difficult to move from basic programming skills to becoming a professional programmer.

This is my personal opinion, based on my experience:

  • I learned to program. I consider myself of above-average intelligence, and I didn’t think it was easy.
  • I have taught our Introduction to Programming course many times. So I have seen how novices struggle with basic concepts like loops.

Should we discourage people from learning to program?

Again, my answer is “No”

But I agree with Scott Hanselman that it is wrong to tell aspiring programmers it will be easy. Because then we create unrealistic expectations, and we set them up for failure.

A while back I wrote about ICT graduates who can’t program. I think that one reason is that students are told that, regardless of aptitude, they can easily become amazing programmers and earn a fabulous salary.

Nobody tells engineers or lawyers or doctors or vets that it will be easy. Because it won’t be. Those students know that they are going to work hard, and that it will take time and effort. Programming should be no different.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts, even if you disagree with me.

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One thought on “Is it easy to learn to program?”

  • Birgit Smythe says:

    Hi Jacqui

    This is something that we debate a lot in our office. We need people who understand programming logic or basic programming and some people just get it and some just don’t.

    I believe that basic programming is easy for people who are logically minded. This is an aptitude like having ball-sense and being an artist. I have terrible ball sense, I could improve by practicing but I will never be close to as good as people with a natural affinity. I am still debating whether some of these skills have to do with what you were exposed to in the first 5 years of your life (whether you were kicking around a soccer ball with your family as soon as you could walk or whether your family put logic puzzles and LEGO into your hands).

    I learnt programming at the age of 10 (I am 46 now, so that is a long time ago) and it was the BASIC kind of basic programming. I was also in the first class in the Free State to have Computer Studies as a matric subject. I studied Electronic Engineering and we were the first group at UCT that did 2-3 years of Computer Science. And all the programming I did tantalised my love for logic.

    When I was young, the IT world was young and generally only people with an affinity for IT and logic went in that direction. These days it is an option like accounting or law or medicine – although you don’t need a degree to go into IT. And some of the youngsters that I have had work for me, who had computers as matric subject and then could not understand even the simplest For Loops have shown me that anyone can take programming as a subject or course. But it does not come easily for all. The affinity for programming is generally aligned with your Maths ability but not always.

    I really respect you guys at Incus, taking on that challenge of training all who walk through the door, those with and those without the aptitude.

    So my answer to “Is learning to program easy?”, is yes and no, depending on your aptitude!

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