How to build coding skills: coding 101

targetjobs sat down with two computing professionals to get the lowdown on how graduates interested in coding-related careers can build programming skills and gain the experience that employers look for.

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Emily Hall is an associate technical analyst at Sky and Charlie Brej is a principal modelling engineer at Arm . Combined, these two have a wealth of coding experience. However, they were both once aspiring programmers seeking careers the tech.

They spoke at the targetjobs coding 101 webinar to share their top tips for building coding skills and what employers look for in graduates trying to kick off their coding careers.

Jump to: Starting to code | Getting coding experience as a student | Extracurricular activities | The best programming language | Golden tip for new coders | Webinar video

A key piece of advice if you’re just starting to code

Charlie recommends throwing yourself in at the deep end by starting out with operating systems (OS) that require you to get to grips with code, while Emily recommends that you kick off with beginner-level coding tutorials.

The OS that Charlie suggests is Linux. He says that knowing how to use Linux on a basic level will eventually lead you to an understanding of how more complex, essential computing functions – such as compiling software and programs – take place.

An understanding of Linux can also put you in better stead as a graduate job hunter. A host of organisations worldwide rely on the OS, including tech giants such as Amazon and Google.

If you want to learn about what goes on under the hood of a computer from the get-go, then Linux may be the way to go. But if you just want to focus on learning a programming language and how to build projects with it, then consider what Emily has to say.

She warns that, ‘It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you start, so move forward step by step.’ Her advice is to dip your toes into tutorial platforms such as codecademy and beginner block-based visual programming languages such as SCRATCH .

Getting coding experience as a student

Prior to their coding-heavy careers, both panellists were interested in computing even before the world of work, spending much of their spare time on personal coding projects. Emily built a text-based Pokémon game in Python and Charlie’s early experiences of code were attempts at creating video games using the BASIC programming language.

These personal projects led to the beginnings of their coding success at work. Personal projects that you undertake out of interest or passion are one of the best ways to hone your skills at university. Such projects can then be used to demonstrate a real interest in coding to employers later down the line.

Now an experienced recruiter, Charlie adds that a candidate’s personal projects is one of the main reasons he hires them. ‘Personal projects show that you can apply the programming skills you’ve learned from courses,’ he says. One of Charlie’s top tips is that if you have a GitHub profile (populated with projects), you link to it on your CV.

Emily recommends that you ‘start small.’ By gradually increasing the complexity of your personal projects, you can build the logical thinking that underpins the problem-solving nature of coding.

To come up with project ideas, think about what interests you. Is there a simple game idea that you have and could reasonably build? Or maybe you’re more interested in creating something that you can use in your daily life, such as a note keeping application?

Using extracurricular activities to build coding skills

Both panellists are quick to mention open-source projects. These are software projects to which the general public can contribute.

Charlie highlights how open-source projects help you to build technical coding skills. You learn coding principles and good practices, such as how to follow the structure of a code base and write readable code – important skills that you develop by working as part of a team.

Charlie is also adamant that just having a computing degree isn’t enough. Competition in the talent pool is fierce, so open-source projects on your CV show that your programming experience goes beyond any coding you’ve done at university.

Emily shines a light on the soft-skills benefits of open-source projects. She says that they are a good way to develop the, ‘innate’ skills, which some employers, such as Sky, value more than your degree background. These include skills such as logical thinking, communication and teamworking.

She also says that open-source projects are a great way to develop your emotional intelligence, as you receive feedback on your code from other, more experienced contributors. ‘Developers can get very emotionally attached to their code, which is great for motivation,’ she explains. ‘But if you think your code is correct, and then it gets rejected, don’t take it personally – use the feedback to improve and try again.’

You can speak with your university’s computing department to find out whether they have any internal open-source projects, or which external ones they recommend you get involved with.

The best programming language to learn

Both panellists agree that there’s no single best programming language to start with.

Emily says, ‘It’s impossible to say which language is best for beginners because it comes down to personal preference.’ Her choice is Python. She thinks that Python is a good foray into coding because the syntax is easy to understand and that the language can be used for many different kinds of projects.

Charlie takes a project-first view, saying that the languages you learn will depend on what you want to build. ‘There’s a language for everything, and each has its own applicability,’ he adds. If you have a project in mind, then do some research into what programming language would best help you to bring it to life.’

When wearing his Arm-recruiter hat, Charlie keeps his eyes peeled for CVs that mention experience with either C or C++ programming languages. This may mean that in terms a coding career, the best programming language will depend on which roles interest you. For example, Python is often used by machine learning engineers, but JavaScript is the language of choice for web designers.

Researching the coding jobs that interest you is important. You’ll find out the programming languages that they require and this will help to inform your decision on which one to begin with.

A final, golden tip for students learning to code

Emily and Charlie talked about having an interest in computers and coding throughout the webinar, but passion, they say, is the real key when learning to code.

Charlie mentions a candidate who he recently hired at Arm. The recent hire had no formal qualifications, but had built a PlayStation One emulator. This project was fuelled by a love for the retro game console – a passion that Charlie believes to be what allowed the candidate to develop their software practices and coding skills hand in hand.

Emily says that ‘Building projects that you enjoy also makes it so much easier to understand what you’re doing.’ The beginning of any coding journey is a steep learning curve, so understanding problems will help to keep up the persistence and enthusiasm to solve more.

An enjoyment in understanding problems is also a fundamental skill to show employers. As Charlie puts it, ‘The way to spot a good programmer is to see whether they have an appreciation for what’s happening underneath their program.’

Watch the webinar on top tips to build coding skills

targetjobs chats with a Sky associate technical analyst, Emily Hall, and an Arm principal modelling engineer, Charlie Brej, about their top tips for students wanting to build coding skills and what experience employers look for in graduate coders.

Watch the whole webinar or jump to:

  • Charlie and Emily’s jobs and how coding comes into play (3:42)
  • Their experience of coding before joining their companies (9:20)
  • The background needed to get into careers such as software engineering (15:29)
  • The extracurricular activities that help to build coding skills (17:55)
  • Opportunities to build coding skills at work (27:15)
  • Key advice for students starting to learn to code (34:47)
  • The best programming language to learn (40:55)
  • How graduates with humanities degrees can compete with STEM graduates for coding jobs (49:40)
  • The coding-related terms and languages that should appear on a CV (55:05)
  • Good practices for working on team coding projects (55:15)
  • The golden tip for students learning to code (56:33)
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Webinar with Arm principal modelling engineer Charlie Brej and Sky associate technical analyst Emily Hall discussing how students can build coding skills.

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