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Getting started with programming

Interested in learning to program computers but don’t know where to start? Read on for some tips.Interested in learning to program computers but don’t know where to start? Read on for some tips.

Know the basics

Before you start, there are a few basics you need to know about.

Programming languages: Programming is done using a programming language, a way of writing instructions for the computer to carry out. There are lots of different languages you can write in, such as C, Java and Python. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, but you should aim to start with something relatively simple and well-known.

There are some languages designed for beginners – for example, Blitz Basic. Even though you will probably want to move on from these, they can teach you useful principles for whatever other languages you learn.

Help with choosing a first language

Command line: Most people are used to using computers with windows, menus and a mouse. However, another option is the command line, where you do things by typing in commands and the computer responds only using text. Since this is so much simpler, it’s much easier to start out by creating text-only programs for the command line, so taking some time to experiment and work out how the command line works will make your life much easier.

Introductions to the command line: Windows | Mac | Linux

What do I need?

What you need depends on the kind of programming you want to do, but if you own a computer you can learn without having to spend any money. Here are a few basics you might need:

A text editor: this is a program that edits plain text files, like Notepad on Windows or TextEdit on the Mac. There are many text editors created specially for programmers. These include features like automatically colouring text to make code easier to read (“syntax highlighting”). Examples are jEdit, vim and Notepad++ (Windows only)

A compiler: Many programming languages must be “compiled” before they can be run. This means translating the source code you write into a language that the computer can run. If you want to use one of these languages, you’ll need a compiler. For most popular languages, compilers can be downloaded for free. C compilers | Java compilers

An interpreter: Other languages, including Python, are not compiled. Instead, they are run using another program called an interpreter. The interpreter reads the source code and then runs it straight away. Like compilers, interpreters for many languages can be downloaded for free.

A guide: You could try guessing how the language you’ve chosen works, but you probably won’t get very far. There are lots of free programming tutorials on the internet, or you could buy a book or borrow one from your local library. C tutorial | Python tutorial

Start small

Lots of beginner programmers want to make complex games or a money-making iPhone app. Be warned: you will have to learn a lot before you get to that stage! Don’t be disheartened, though: the simpler programs you’ll start out with might not seem as exciting now, but the satisfaction of making the computer do what you want it to can be enough to start with!

Once you’ve learned the basics, one good way to improve your programming skill is with programming challenges. These give you a seemingly simple task and challenge you to write an efficient program to complete it.