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The goal of this guide is to help anyone teach themselves to build a modern web application. More specifically, I’m writing for people who have never programmed at all before, people who know some HTML and CSS, and Computer Science students who have yet to make something outside of the classroom.
From what I’ve heard, most CompSci classes are primarily useful for acing algorithm-driven interviews and gaining a deeper knowledge of computer science theory. But even if classes did a fantastic job teaching real-world modern technologies, as some do, they will still leave you unequipped for future technologies.
The web, and software development in general, change at a remarkably fast pace. Five years ago, PHP was the modern way to develop web apps, mobile apps did not exist, and there was no Heroku. Five years from now, the most popular web frameworks of today are likely to be woefully out of date.
That’s why learning how to learn to code is better than learning to code. I don’t want to teach you Django or Rails, but rather how to teach yourself Django or Rails. But I also want to tell you: for starters, learn Django or Rails. It’s important to know what’s current today, what’s coming up tomorrow, and what your path as a developer should be. I hope to give you as helpful and objective an overview as I can muster.
How to Learn
In general, the steps I have taken to learning to code are:
- Pick something to build
- Decide which language/framework(s) to use (ie; Ruby/Rails)
- For each technology/framework:
- Learn the basics in a tutorial
- Try to build a small piece of your project
- Google things you don’t know how to do
- Google errors you run into
- Repeat (i) and (ii). A lot.
- Repeat (b) and (c). Mostly (c).
- Repeat (1)
In other words: learn, build, google.
An important corollary: going through a few tutorials on a programming language does not mean you have “learned” that language! It means you (hopefully) understand the basic grammar and a few common words, but it’ll be awhile until you’re stringing together beautiful and powerful sentences.
That is as it should be: what’s important to get from the tutorials is a basic understanding of the purposes, functioning, and syntax of each language and framework. Trying to learn all the words/features/uses of the language will be a waste of your time: instead, try to build something and google the words/features/uses you don’t know. If you’re using a popular tool like Django, Rails, jQuery, or HTML/CSS, you won’t have a problem finding the answer.
When going through tutorials, never copy and paste. Always type out what you see yourself. For some reason, this really helps, and I’ve seen it recommended by a number of people.
What to Make
It’s important to have a solid idea of something to build in mind. The Ruby on Rails tutorial I’ll recommend walks you through building a simple version of Twitter. While a structured tutorial like this is important, and I recommend you follow it by the book, that is not enough.
You need at least one extra project that is not directly related to the tutorial. It’s important to have something that requires learning beyond the bounds of the code you’re told to write, and makes you apply the concepts learned on your own. It’s also important to have something to show (to employers, friends, your mom), and something built with code from a tutorial isn’t going to impress anybody.
As you follow along the tutorial, if you have epiphanies related to your app (web, mobile, desktop, whatever), feel free to write some code. But it’s more important to have something that you can hit the ground running with once you’re done with the tutorial.
So what to make? It should be something you genuinely want to use, and something you don’t think you can easily build. You want to push yourself; you can always google what you don’t know. It’s also fine if you switch projects multiple times; each project brings new challenges, which means more things to learn.
It’d be best to build something you and your friends would actually use, so you also learn how to build for users.
If you need some ideas, here are a few:
- re-do coursegrapher.com. Greg Terrono and I built it in 48 hours at a PennApps hackathon; it was his first web app and my second. People are still using it (over 2000 so far), but the data is old (it doesn’t pull automatically from the penncoursereview api). It’s also missing features: why can’t you load arbitrary lists of classes to evaluate, rather than just one major at a time? Why can’t you see course names rather than numbers, or link to the penncoursereview.com page?
If you’re not a Penn student, you might also think about making something similar for your school.
Bonus: If your work is great, I’ll consider passing on the reigns for coursegrapher.com.
- Make a visual apartment-searching site for your college area. Consider trying to sell it to a local real estate developer for a few grand. Or not.
- Simple site to check if a movie or show is on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Video. Consider including info from Rotten Tomatoes and/or IMDB.
- Campus event listing service
- Personal homework tracker (enter items from syllabus at the beginning of the semester, remind what’s coming up when, customized to how you’d want it to be)
- Real-time review of the dining-halls’ food tonight
- Whatever PennApps Labs doesn’t build from this list.
- Re-implement something from a prior hackathon (ask before copying someone’s idea!)
- If you want a real startup idea, I’d recommend this article.
Some tips for once you’ve chosen something:
- Have a coding buddy on your early projects. Not for tutorials, but for early projects you’re working on. Pair program (one person types, the other is like a backseat driver). I did this early on with somewhat more experienced people (me driving, them steering) and it helped tremendously. You’ll gain a better understanding of what you’re doing by explaining it to the other person, not to mention they’ll learn what you know and vice versa.
- Break your app down into the smallest bits and pieces you can, and then make them one at a time, testing to make sure they work every step of the way (I personally use one hell of a lot of print statements and console.log()’s). For example, if you’re making an app that gets movie ratings from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, I might have a flow like this: connect to IMDB -> get information on Anchorman -> process info on Anchorman -> display info -> get/display info for any movie (not just Anchorman) -> repeat process for Rotten Tomatoes -> get list of movies from IMDB -> get list of movies from RT -> find a way to combine them -> create completing searchbox for them -> deploy, smile.
What to Learn
I’m only going to focus on Web development (ie; not mobile), because that’s all I know and that’s where a majority of work gets done. If you’re interested in making mobile apps, PhoneGap allows you to build native mobile apps using the Web technologies described below.
So what does it take to build a modern Web Application?
- A good text editor (for writing your code)
- Front End (stuff that happens in your users’ browser)
- HTML and CSS
- Some Design sense and creativity
- Back End (stuff that happens on your server)
- A Language & Framework
- A Server
- Git (for keeping track of your code)
A Good Text Editor
I recommend Sublime Text 2. It’s super easy to use, lightweight, cross-platform (OSX, Windows, Linux), surprisingly powerful, has lots of great packages, and you can use Vim or Emacs within it. It has an unlimited free trial period, which I’m still using. When you start earning money, you can pay the $60 to remove the occasional “buy me” popup.
You don’t really have to learn anything to use Sublime Text, but if you start looking there are a lot of great features. Go download/install it, and when anyone tells you to edit some code, open it with Sublime.
Down the line:
Vim and Emacs are incredibly powerful text editors. They’re what the pros use. They also take a very long time to learn. When the time is right, you might want to use one of them inside Sublime or instead of it. That time has not yet come for me.
Each browser does things a wee bit differently, and some old browsers don’t do things well at all. Namely, Internet Explorer. IE sucks. The old versions mangle web pages in strange ways, and don’t adopt any of the new standards, like HTML5. Whether or not you’re going to support old IE versions for anything beyond your landing page is an important decision to make. It’s such a pain that I wouldn’t recommend it, at least for now.
HTML and CSS
HTML and CSS are not programming languages. They are code, and they are important, but they do not *do* anything other than declare the structure, content, and look of a web page. In part because of this, they tend to be very easy to learn.
In fact, many people reading this already know some basic HTML. That’s all you need. Because of fantastic front-end frameworks like Bootstrap (which I use in every project!) and Foundation, most of the heavy-lifting of proper positioning and responsive design are done for you.
If you really have no idea what HTML and CSS are, or if you’re a designer at heart and really want to understand this stuff, take a tutorial or two (don’t like those? Google!). But once you understand the basics, I find it far more efficient to build and google, build and google. Don’t waste your time reading more than you need.
Basic Design Sense
Design is important. Most projects you make starting out will ultimately just be for your portfolio: they’ll help you get hired or find other people to work with on new projects. Even though every other technical person out there knows that the most advanced projects can have the ugliest front ends, they’ll still subconsciously judge you if they see something without a pretty face.
You don’t have to be an artist to make a website look half-decent. To start with, use Bootstrap. But do not stop there! The look of vanilla bootstrap has lost its charm to most devs who have seen every new hack out there sport the signature black topbar and blue buttons. These sites have a good list of Bootstrap resources, and I also recommend you take a look at Google Web Fonts for headers and subtlepatterns for backgrounds. This article does a decent job of summing this stuff up.
Down the line:
The “Back End” is your server. Server code is protected from the public eye (unless it’s open-source) and, with proper security, from public fiddling.
Choosing a language
The nice thing about the server is you get to choose what language you run on it. You can choose anything you want. But there are only two languages you should consider to learn on: Python and Ruby. It doesn’t matter if you already know some Java from class or PHP from a project 5 years ago; they’re not the best tools for the job. Use Python or Ruby.
Go is also looking like the tool for pros; also not ready for beginners yet.
Python and Ruby are both modern, powerful scripting languages with clear, simple, concise syntax and terrific communities. Each has a large, tremendously popular and well-structured web framework at the core of their web communities: Django for Python and Rails for Ruby. I use and prefer Python, but that shouldn’t sway you. Here’s my attempt at an objective comparison.
Regardless of your initial thoughts after reading this, I’d recommend trying both out a little bit and seeing which you prefer. Both options are great; you really can’t go wrong. As my friend Dan Getelman says, your priorities should be: 1) just choosing one, 2) choosing what your friends / likely collaborators know, 3) choosing what gels with you personally.
Python, named after Monty Python, has a remarkably simple, clean, readable syntax. In part because of the ease of reading and writing Python, as well as its impressive speed and power (for a scripting language), Python has become very popular in a very wide variety of disciplines, including finance, science, data analysis, natural language processing, and statistics. Python tends to outstrip Ruby in these areas.
Django, Python’s most popular web framework, is generally regarded to be very “pythonic”: that is, the code is readable and things are transparent and logical. It is often easier to write maintainable code with Django than Rails, in part since the inner workings of Django are more transparent. Django is also often considered more of a library than a framework, because many of the modules are not interdependent; it’s easy to eschew Django’s Forms module in favor of another option without breaking the Models, for example.
Django can be a better choice when you’re starting a project involving lots of data analysis, or if you prefer a pythonic philosophy.
To be honest, I’ve never heard of Ruby outside of the context of web development. It’s my impression that the language was first widely popularized by Rails. I personally find the syntax less clean and pleasant than Python, but it still certainly beats languages like Java, C++, or PHP. There are Ruby Gems (libraries) for a tremendous variety of tasks, and they are supposed to be easier to install and use than Python libraries.
Ruby on Rails came out a year or two before Django and is more popular. It’s my impression that Ruby in general, and Rails in particular, can be said to live by the motto “easy is better than simple”. Rails is famous for doing a lot of “magic” for the developer, including some mysterious thing called metaprogramming, in which the framework literally writes code for you. This means getting started with a new project in Rails is supposed to be incredibly fast and easy. The downside is that once things move past the honeymoon phase, Rails can become more of a pain; the code can be less maintainable, and customizing Rails to do what you want can be more difficult.
Rails is probably the best choice if you prefer things to be easier and faster rather than simpler and clearer.
First, basic Python. Then, basic Django. Then, build and google, build and google!
(quick note: use Python 2.7, not Python 3)
If you’ve never programmed at all before, and you’re thinking about trying to have a serious go at development (which I encourage!), I’d recommend Udacity’s CS 101, taught in Python. Rather than just teaching the basic mechanics, it’ll thoroughly explain the underlying concepts as well. This means it moves a lot more slowly; the class is 7 units long, and each one takes several hours to get through. If you really like the course, you might consider taking Udacity’s Web Development course as well, which teaches Google App Engine’s webapp2 framework, before or instead of learning Django (the frameworks are pretty similar).
If you have a little bit of experience in another programming language, or you have access to a friend in computer science who’s willing to patiently explain all the concepts to you, I might recommend a less comprehensive beginning tutorial. Codecademy (interactive, new), Khan Academy (a bit faster, kind of scatterbrained), and TheNewBoston (funny, really breaks it down, where I learned Python) are all intended for beginners but are a bit faster-paced than Udacity.
If you’re an experienced programmer but don’t yet know Python, the above resources are likely to be too basic and might test your patience. Google’s Python Class is a decent resource for folks who just need to learn the particulars of Python syntax; for a more thorough introduction, consider Dive Into Python. You might also be able to just skip straight ahead to a Django tutorial and pick it up as you go; Python is a very straightforward language (it’s been referred to as “pseudocode that executes”).
In any case, don’t worry about thoroughly knowing Python. That’ll come through practice. All you need is enough to get you started.
Once you have a grasp of Python’s syntax, general use, and philosophy, it’s time to learn Django. Since Django is a large library that does a lot, you’ll want to follow along with a real tutorial, and spend some time on it.
I learned Django with djangobook.com. At the time, it was a wonderful resource; indeed, it was probably the most popular way to learn Django. Unfortunately, the authors have long since stopped working on the project. The most recent version the book covers is 1.0, but the current version of Django is 1.4 and 1.5 is due out soon. A recent shift has moved the book to be open-source, but not much has changed since then.
It used to be that there was a fascinating comment system that allowed users to comment on individual paragraphs, making it easy for mistakes to be noted, debated, and corrected by the community. When the new authors took over, they did not continue this feature. A few changes have been made to the new open-source version of djangobook, but not nearly enough for it to be up-to date.
So while djangobook.com is probably still a great resource, use it at your risk. If you choose to do so, you’re welcome to email me when you run into troubles.
Instead, you should probably head to the Official Django Tutorial. It’s a bit stodgier but a great resource nonetheless.
When you’re ready to deploy (eg; put your app on the internet for all to see), you’ll want a tool that does the annoying server work for you. Google App Engine is what I use; go here to learn how to use it with Django. Heroku is also quite popular, but doesn’t work as well for Django as it does for Rails. Amazon recently released a Python version of a free Heroku-like tool called Elastic Beanstalk; I don’t know anyone who has used it but it looks cool.
Down the line:
Flask is an increasingly popular Python microframework for the web. It’s far smaller and simpler than Django, and is regarded as an especially terrific backend for frontend-heavy, ajax-driven sites. I don’t recommend Flask for beginners, despite its simplicity and ease of use, because it expects you to know what you’re doing: it’s BYOB (bring your own batteries). Django comes with batteries included and has sound design principles built-in. Once you’ve made a large site with Django, you’ll know what to do with Flask, and learning it will take a few hours at most (trust me, I’ve been there).
Great Python libraries: requests (for interacting with APIs), numpy (math), scipy (science/data), opencv (computer vision), BeautifulSoup or pyquery (web scraping), Python Imaging Library, pandas (data analysis)
Learning Ruby on Rails
I don’t know Ruby, so unfortunately all I can offer is some resource I’ve heard great things about: ruby.railstutorial.org (where most folks get started), guides.rubyonrails.org (the official one), and railscasts.com (I think for more advanced usage).
When you’re ready to deploy, use Heroku. It was built for Rails and the two play together marvelously.
Down the line:
I hope this has been useful. I’d really appreciate any questions or comments you might have.
NOTES TO SELF on things I want to change (hey, why not make them public!)
- talk more about the role of codecademy and how they (and others) fit in
- emphasize Flask/Sinatra as viable options more. Look for relevant tutorials.
- talk more about value of pairing, coding buddies