My week learning a new language: how to code

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Thibault J.
By Tessa Weinberg

Coding, HTML, CSS and JavaScript are just a few of the words that makes most traditional print journalists cringe. Just right-click and inspect the elements of any webpage and you can get a glimpse into the confusing strings of code that govern the site you’re using. One of the items on my summer bucket list is to grasp the basics of coding, in the hopes of one day building my own website. Over the course of a week I tried out two popular coding sites: Codecademy and Free Code Camp. Below I’ve included what I found to be some of the pros and cons of each as well as a little bit of what I learned along the way.

Price: Free (Pro features available for purchase)

  • Room to explore – features 13 interactive tutorials (with more on the way) covering a variety of web developer skills. In addition, there are tutorials available to learn language skills such as HTML, Python and Ruby, APIs used by companies like NPR, Soundcloud and Twitter and fun goals for you to practice.
  • Clear diagrams make it easy to understand what each element in a piece of code means. Who knew there were “parents” and “children” that make up a little code family?
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A screenshot of one of the diagrams featured in a Codecademy lesson.
  • They spell things out for you, literally. Throughout the lessons they make sure you know what acronyms like HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) mean.

  • While it’s easy to understand, Codecademy at times lacks depth and fails to be quite as challenging as it could be by only glossing over the basics.
  • Extra quizzes and small projects that will help you improve are only available if you purchase Pro, which isn’t worth the $20 per month when there are free alternatives out there.

Free Code Camp
Price: Free

  • Not only are the tutorials in-depth, but you’re motivated by cute cat references throughout as you try and build a Cat Photo App as your first project.
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Adorable cat-related screenshots from Free Code Camp that will bring out your inner cat lady.
  • Cats aside, Free Code Camp provides you with a large support system so you don’t feel alone in your daunting coding journey. Chat rooms allow you to seek instant help online if you hit a snag and the site connects you with other users in your area so you can coordinate coding meetups to learn with others.
  • In the more advanced levels, you will help nonprofits by doing pro bono coding work on their projects. According to their website about $850,000 in pro-bono code has been done by users. A win-win!
  • Offers four free verified certifications in front end development, back end development, data visualization, and full stack development and helps you prepare for interviews for coding jobs if you find coding is your passion.

  • Free Code Camp estimates it would take the average user a year of full-time coding to complete their program. The tutorials may be too in-depth and time-consuming for what you’re looking for if you just want some basic knowledge.
  • During tutorials it can be difficult to figure out what went wrong in the code, and Free Code Camp doesn’t offer any hints or advice. That’s up to you to find a solution through Google or the chat rooms, which may not be your style.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which site best fits your needs. Personally, I find Free Code Camp to be more immersive and challenging, and I plan on sticking with that (even though it may take 2,080 hours to complete). Also, these are just two free tools available for you to learn and there are many more resources out there that you can utilize. But don’t just take my word for it.

Here’s some trusty advice from a much more experienced coder, Reiker Seiffe. Reiker is a junior majoring in computer science at MU and works as The Maneater’s Online Development Editor where he maintains and designs the website and special projects. Reiker shared how he started to learn to code and has a few tips for beginners.

Programing was something I had no idea I liked until my junior year of high school, where I was lucky enough to take an extremely in-depth engineering course that let me experience a different field of engineering each month. We were able to program small robots and have them complete simple tasks. This opened up a whole new world for me. The next year, I took a formal class in web development and I knew that it was what I wanted to pursue in college. When I got to college I immediately started programming classes along with all of my general-ed requirements, but I was pretty bored since there wasn't much of a challenge. In about late April of my freshman year I was approached by a friend who was working on an Android app for a business major and he asked if I would like to help. I jumped on the opportunity as fast as I could. We spent the summer building two different apps, a website and all of the supporting code that the users don't see running on the backend.

The summer after freshman year is where I learned the key to programming. Your classes and professors will give you the most basic foundation and teach you some fundamentals, but if you really want to learn something you need to think of projects or challenges and just go do them. This goes for people who are not pursuing programming as a career as well. You can learn the basics from websites like Codecademy and Free Code Camp, but to really get good you need to dive into something that you have no idea how to solve. I'm so happy to have learned this when I did. I spent my sophomore year programming every single day. I built a few different websites, another iPhone app and attended a weekend programming event called Hack Illinois. I started at MU’s student newspaper The Maneater working on their website during the winter and I currently have an internship at one of the world's largest medical companies writing iPhone apps this summer.

Programming is really hard and one of the most unintuitive things you will ever experience when you are starting out. These are some tips I've learned over the last few years to hopefully help you out in your new programing journey.

  1. Google and are now your best friends in the whole wide world. If you have a question or hit a problem, search for it. Chances are other people have had the same problem you are.
  2. You will hit problems, lots and lots of problems. Your code usually won't work the first time or will work in some unexpected way. Think fully through your problem, look around the internet for some pointers and don't give up!
  3. There are loads of programming languages and most people don't have any idea where to start. A great place to start is by learning HTML (this is the language to make websites). You can find some great beginner tutorials at and
  4. Experiment, try things, and have fun. With programming, the saying “the sky's the limit” is really true. If you can imagine it, you can go make it a reality.

-Reiker Seiffe

I wish you the best of luck, and happy coding!

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