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How to Learn to Code When You’re an English Major

It’s that time of year again — college students have just gone back to school and English majors everywhere are settling into a big chair, pulling out their favorite pen, and underlining every other sentence in Bleak House. If those English majors are anything like me, they’re also simultaneously reading Ulysses, everything about Derrida they can get their hands on, and A Picture of Dorian Gray. They’re taking over 18 credits, and they’re already exhausted.

I worked hard on my major. I thought I was going to go to graduate school to get a Ph.D. I wanted to be a professor, and I never wanted to leave academia.

I started my job as a junior developer two weeks ago.

If I Could Do It Again, I Would Do It Differently

I’m happy with how my path has turned out. I achieved my goal of becoming a junior developer, and even better, the company I work for is only 15 minutes away from my apartment. I’m excited to be able to walk to work and I’m thrilled that I get to live in Brooklyn. I’m also happy to be making a higher salary than I could have expected had I stuck with more traditional job roles for an English major.

There are a lot of ways to become a web developer. The path I took was probably not the most efficient or cost-effective. I think it’s possible to achieve the same results less haphazardly.

Start Now

One of my regrets was that I filled my schedule to the brim while I was in college. I took as many classes as I could. This meant that I didn’t have time to pick up other skills that might have been more useful than my Italian major, (like web development). If I had been smarter about it, I would have set those hours aside to start building websites on my own or to have tried to find a CS student to show me how to build an app.

While you’re in college, you have access to tremendous resources. You are constantly surrounded by people who have different skill sets from you and who aren’t going to charge you exorbitant amounts of money to learn those skill sets. I can’t even tell you how many friends I had who studied computer science in college. I never even considered that it might be something I’d like to pursue.

Alternatively, spend the summer teaching yourself to code. Although you’ll probably be working, you’ll have more time to devote to learning a new skill and you won’t be getting in the way of your other homework. Even better, spend time during the school year learning to code and then get an internship at a startup for the summer. Tech internships are often paid and they’ll hire you even if you have very little experience.

Another option is just taking a CS course. Learning the fundamentals is crucial and they can be easier to learn when you have problem sets, especially if you’re someone who craves structure. You probably have a Quantitative Reasoning requirement anyways — use it effectively and discover whether you might be interested in Computer Science. And remember, even if you don’t enjoy your CS course it doesn’t mean you won’t be interested in web development.

Explore

When I was in college I never even wanted to try computer science. I thought it seemed boring and I told myself I wasn’t smart enough to do it. I thought I was bad at math. Don’t do this to yourself. You don’t know if you will like it until you try it. Don’t try to convince yourself that you can’t handle it or that you will be bored. I promise that you don’t know enough about it yet to make that decision.

Play around with HTML and CSS. Watch someone build a webapp from scratch on YouTube and just let it go over your head. Look at stories of other people like you learning to code for inspiration.

Google It

As an English major, I was taught to use specific databases to find what I was looking for. I never, ever typed a question into the search bar. Learn to do this. If you want to learn about web development, just “google” it. Ask the question: “How do I learn web development?” You’ll find plenty of resources, and it will help you to plan how you’ll manage your schedule and what you’ll focus on.

The first step is to pull all of these resources together and to explore the ones that seem most interesting to you. Everyone learns differently. For example, you might find that YouTube videos are most effective for you, while your friend might enjoy following tutorials and reading documentation.

I have one friend who is always suggesting books to me. He’s a great developer, so I always look at the resources he suggests. Often, the books are self-published and written by foreign developers which means a lot of typos! I can never get through a page without editing the whole thing, and end up having to put it down. It’s okay that his resources don’t work for me, and vice versa!

The research you do will also introduce you to the many technologies and languages developers use. Don’t feel overwhelmed. Treat it like you’re reading a novel or a critical theory text and “google” words you don’t understand. Get used to feeling like you’ll never learn everything you need to know. That feeling doesn’t go away (at least not in my experience).

Here’s a resource. And here’s another one. And another one.

Find Someone to Pair With

Ask your friends if they’re interested in learning to code too. Just like going to the gym, it’s best if you have a buddy. Plus, a big part of coding in a company is working with others. Coding really is not a solitary endeavor, which actually makes English majors enjoyable developers to work with, as opposed to devs who are used to coding alone in their basement.

When you pair you talk through your solutions, learn to work as a team, and solve problems more quickly. Ultimately, you’ll learn faster, plus it will encourage you to learn about technologies like Git and Github.

Even better, you might be able to find people at a few different levels to work with. That way you’ll have someone of your own technical ability to work with as well as someone to ask tougher questions to. Again, all of this advice is to help you speed up your learning.

You Don’t Have to Actually be a Developer

Realize that many jobs are tech-related, and knowing even a bit about development will make you a better candidate for Project Manager, Product Owner, Technical Writing, and Technology Sales positions. Even learning to build out basic email templates in HTML will land you a marketing job in no time. You don’t have to become an expert and you don’t have to build anything amazing, but being able to show that you can talk tech and manage developers will make you a more desirable candidate for any job in technology.

Use Your Time Wisely

While you’re in college you’re still spending time preparing for what is hopefully a fulfilling career. You might not have to pay for housing or to even make your own dinner. There is less risk for you than for people learning to code who are even just two or three years older than you, and you can still reap major future rewards.

I made the mistake of waiting to learn to code until after college, so it took me a bit over a year after graduating to find a job I really wanted to do and a company I really wanted to work for. If you learn as much as you can while you’re still in college, you can speed up this process and leave school with a steady job, a healthy paycheck, and confidence that you are on the right track.

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