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Ask Slashdot: How Does an IT Generalist Get Back Into Programming? 224

Posted by Soulskill
from the one-leg-at-time dept.
CanadianSchism writes "I've been in the public sector for the past 6 years. I started off doing my work study in web design and a bit of support, eventually going through the interview process to fill in a data processing technician post, and getting the job. The first four years of my work life were spent in various schools, fixing computers, implementing new hardware, rolling out updates/ghosting labs, troubleshooting basic network and printer problems, etc. I was eventually asked to work on the administrative information systems with an analyst, which I've been doing for the past 2 years. That's consisted of program support, installing updates to the pay/financial/purchasing/tax/energy systems, taking backups on SQL servers, etc. I've never had the opportunity to take time for myself, and jump back into my first love: programming. I've picked up Powershell books (have two here at the office), but haven't gotten anything down yet, as there are always other projects that come up and whittle my attention to learning a language down to zilch. This new year will see a change in that, however. I'll be setting aside an hour every day to devote to learning a new language, in the eventual hope that I can leave this company (take a sabbatical) and hop into the private sector for a few years. My question to you all is, what language should I start with, to learn and get back into the principles of programming, that will help me build a personal portfolio, but will also lend to learning other languages? At this point, I'm not sure if I'd like to make/maintain custom applications, or if back-end web programming would be more interesting, or any of the other niches out there."
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Ask Slashdot: How Does an IT Generalist Get Back Into Programming?

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  • You won't be dong it for a living anytime soon, but you could at least do something fun and personal. Try writing a game or app for Android. You can cover a lot of ground in an environment that is easy to use like that.
    • by Nutria (679911)

      Or he could use PowerShell to automate routine drudge tasks.

  • Python (Score:4, Insightful)

    by HaZardman27 (1521119) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @04:54PM (#42330031)
    It's easy, it's fun, and it's versatile. It would be useful to all of the field you mentioned and would also be useful for scripting if you do end up going back to IT.
  • by ios and web coder (2552484) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @04:56PM (#42330059) Journal

    I do it for free; usually for NPOs that can't afford programmers. Helps me to learn.

    I don't particularly care whether or not it ever becomes "famous" (it won't because it addresses a very small, select audience). I just care whether or not it is the best quality I can do.

    The nice thing, is that there is minimal pressure, which is good, as my "day job" gets first dibs on my time.

    I don't watch TV. I don't hunt. I don't tweak cars, and I don't like to spend much time tending a server.

    I just like to code. I also make sure that I don't write stuff that competes with my "day job." I like my company, and they could easily make my life miserable if I did. I also don't spend much of my "day job's" time on my personal stuff. I don't mind spending a bit of it, though, as they DEFINITELY benefit from my extracurricular work.

    That works for me.

    • by Kjella (173770)

      I also don't spend much of my "day job's" time on my personal stuff. I don't mind spending a bit of it, though, as they DEFINITELY benefit from my extracurricular work.

      Just don't ever let the company lawyer see that post...

      • Good point, but I'd tell them anyway (I am very much a good company man). It would be their choice whether or not it was worth doing anything about it. If they made enough of an issue about it, I'd quit. I don't have a real problem with making a living. I don't make a secret of my FOSS work, but I don't advertise it, either. Remember, I do this for free, for very altruistic organizations (not my church). They would make themselves look like serious, serious crudmuffins, if they did, as they would be doing
  • Python (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cinghiale (2269602) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @04:58PM (#42330071)
    http://xkcd.com/353/ [xkcd.com] Results may vary but yes it is that simple and powerful.
    • Agreed. I've used a fair chunk of languages and you can learn from each of them (although sometimes what you learn is 'don't do things this way', I'm looking at your early versions of Visual Basic and all versions of brainfuck (i still prefer brainfuck to VB though). Python isn't perfect and it isn't for everyone (some people get real grumpy about meaningful white space), but if you haven't programmed before then it is a good place to start. If not python then something designed with teaching in mind, say P

  • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:00PM (#42330103) Homepage Journal

    Pick something you love, or an itch you're dying to scratch. If it's a passion you'll stick with it.

    Then pick a language that fits the niche that you're working in. If you're gluing unix bits together that's one thing, if you're going to be pushing out a big web app, that's another, and if you're making meatspace things go "Bing" then that's a third.

    As you said, an hour a day is a great way to get yourself to be serious about it.

  • Python... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MarcoPon (689115) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:04PM (#42330163) Homepage
    Take a look at this Google Python Class video: it will get you immediately up & running: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKTZoB2Vjuk [youtube.com]
  • by Midnight_Falcon (2432802) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:05PM (#42330187)
    My opinion here is you've developed skills in IT, but now you're looking to do a bit of a "paradigm shift" and go into Development. However, there's big money these days for Sysadmins who can code well, e.g. python, powershell, ruby, and use it it some type of framework like Puppet or CFEngine etc.

    You can become a rockstar DevOps Sysadmin if you get this down

    I'd suggest Ruby first, then Python...but of course, you'll want to make sure your Linux/unix sysadmin knowledge is top notch too. I'm self taught so I'm not very good at telling people how to learn it besides "eh figure it out", but I'm sure you are industrious enough :)

    In conclusion: Stick with IT. Also add Programming. Collect $$ for being a DevOps specialist.

  • 1. Get an FPGA devkit
    2. Learn Verilog [fpga4fun.com]
    3. Live on the bleeding edge between hardware and software. Dream of being a hardware guy that dreams of being a butterfly in the software world, and vice versa.
    4.
    5. Get chicks
    6. Profit!
  • I find it hard to learn dense material (specific kinds of math, etc.) unless I care about the problem that needs to be solved.

    So how about trying to find (or start) some project which develops an app you'd like to use?

  • by Danzigism (881294) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:18PM (#42330333)
    I was in a similar situation a few years ago. After working various IT positions for the past 15 years, it wasn't till about 4 years ago I decided to get involved with web development. I picked up a book from O'Reilly called "Head First in to PHP and MYSQL" which taught me an incredible amount of web fundamentals and seemed to have been geared towards people that already have a background in technology. Without meaning to give them a free plug, I really appreciate the "Head First" series of books that O'Reilly publishes. They are definitely fun and exciting. Not just for PHP and MySQL, but tons of other languages like Python, C#, Java, and more. I thought I was a lost cause when it comes to programming thanks to only having minor experience in HTML and QBASIC hehe. Needless to say, it definitely got me interested in programming again. Worked for me. Might work for you too.
  • by erp_consultant (2614861) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:18PM (#42330335)

    Sounds simple but that's really all there is to it. Pick a language with a good support community and dive in. Python is a good choice because of it's versatility and support. Perl is still around and is a great scripting language. The important thing is pick something and stick to it. I've seen so many people with bookshelves full of programming books and they never got to the end of any of them. Professional dabblers. It's better to pick one or two languages and really know them well than to dabble in lots of them without any real expertise. Once you do that then picking up new languages will be easier because the core concepts will be familiar to you.

    I used to work in the public sector so I'll share something with you. There is a stigma attached to being a public sector employee. I've been told this by more than one recruiter. It's a great training ground but at some point you have to make up your mind whether you want to stay there your whole career or venture into the private sector. The longer you stay the harder it will be to get out. Some recruiters will look at someone with 10-15 years of public sector experience and be reluctant to hire you for a private sector job. I met some smart people in public sector but I also met more than my share of lazy pricks. You sound like one of the former so just make the right choice for you. Good luck :-)

  • PHP. Classic procedural programming, object-oriented programming, & (as of PHP 5.3) functional programming...it's got it all. In addition, the syntax is very C-like, so making the transition to other popular languages such as C/C++, Java, C#, and Javascript isn't too difficult. Also, the documentation for PHP is very good (http://php.net/docs.php).
  • by Spazmania (174582) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:20PM (#42330351) Homepage

    The current learning language for Computer Science is Java. It used to be Pascal. Switched to Java because of the importance of object oriented programming.

    The language of choice for Linux/Unix system administration is Perl. Windows admins don't generally code though one of the dot-net's would likely be the choice if they did.

    Pick one. Then buy a book and work through writing and running the example code. Then come up with an idea for a simple program you want to write. Then write it, referencing your books and Google search.

    • by tsm_sf (545316)
      Windows admins don't generally code though one of the dot-net's would likely be the choice if they did.

      I think VB has moved out of the red-headed stepchild category at this point.
    • by Atzanteol (99067)

      PowerShell is what a Windows IT admin would be using these days.

      I would recommend Java or C# for the questioner. Both are easy to find work in.

      • C# has the added benefit (for a Windows Admin) of being able to easily import and manipulate COM+ objects. Basically if it can be automated in Windows there's a COM+ API for it somewhere. Excel sheets, databases, you name it. Plus if you need .NET or actual Win32 API (*shudder*) you can hack that in too. Double plus added bonus: C# is syntactically similar to Java so if you need to go all platform independent on something a lot of the concepts will transfer nicely.
    • by mikael_j (106439)

      It's been a while since Perl was The language used by sysadmins. It's still around, sure. But shell scripts never really went away and Python has been growing steadily as well.

  • C and/or C++ will get you further than any other "modern" language.

    Join an open source project that strikes your fancy, or find a niche and start your own.

    • Probably won't get you a job though. The relatively few C/C++ jobs will be filled by experienced people.

  • by NewWorldDan (899800) <dan@gen-tracker.com> on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:23PM (#42330387) Homepage Journal

    It's been my experiance that good programmers always have a project in the works. It's almost a disease. I can't go 2 weeks without writing something. So if you've gone 6 years without writing anything, I've got to wonder if it's really your thing.

    That said, the next question is where to start. Pick something with high demand where it's relatively easy to get your foot in the door. The biggest problem you'll encounter is that everyone wants 5 years of experiance. If you can work programming into your current job, great. That's how I switch from systems administration to programming. I'd recommend learning C# and MVC. The tools are excellent and there's huge demand for it right now. The HTML and Javascript side of it will translate over to anything else you want to do.

    • by loufoque (1400831)

      Of course programmers code every day, it's their job.

  • One of the big changes I've seen in the past few years is the gradual disappearance of "or related work experience" in job requirements. A lot of positions now require a BS.

    There are still plenty of positions available without one, but if you're thinking about a career in development you should give this a lot of consideration.
    • by PRMan (959735)
      Go through a recruiter and just go to the interview anyway. I have a BA in another field of study and not Comp Sci and nobody cares. I know high school dropouts that have no trouble getting work because they are awesome coders with great recommendations.
  • If you want to be a web developer, learn HTML, CSS, JavaScript, a web backend language, and SQL. If you want to do sysadmin type stuff, learn a scripting language or three (PowerScript, Python, Perl, UNIX shell scripts (ick!)). If you want to get into heavier programming, pick up languages used in the direction you want to head; that might be a scripting language or it might be a "real" programming language.

    If you can, work your programming skills in to your current job. It's much easier to get a job progra

  • I've been lurking in /. for years, and I'm absolutely certain that this topic is nearly, if not exactly, word-for-word identical to another /. post from either last year or the year before.
  • by Synerg1y (2169962) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:34PM (#42330539)
    First of all, I feel like I'm wasting my time writing this because I have no idea what kind of learner you are.

    Your type largely determines your approach to learning... anything, especially something more complicated like programming. I'm a kinesthetic & how I've picked up new computer concepts and programming languages either by jumping right into them (work related and situational mostly), or by reading a book and doing the examples. I'm dead serious, it's that simple (+/- motivation), read the chapter, put what you learned into a compiler, debug it (if you need to), play with it, try new methods, whatever... I picked up jquery & ajax mostly this way, the latter mostly through implementing on business systems, the former I read a "missing manual" series book on.

    If you're feeling cocky, you can fake it till you make it, land a beginner programming job and get paid to learn it! I know it would work for me, but that's largely cause I'm a hands on learner (kinesthetic) and I learn by doing. If you're an auditory learner, you'd probably get chased out with fire with this kind of approach and would benefit more from online, or class lectures.
    • Learning styles have been shown to be irrelevant: see Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D.; Bjork, R. (2008). "Learning styles: Concepts and evidence". Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9: 105–119.

      Note that they don't say that learning styles "don't exist", just that whether they exist or not, nobody has been able to demonstrably improve teaching or learning by conscious application of learning styles.

      Good teaching is better for everybody, regardless of learning "style".

  • by johnwbyrd (251699) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:34PM (#42330545) Homepage

    Instead of following the pattern on here of recommending this programming language or that, I'll suggest a different course.

    First, choose a very specific field of work. Video games, insurance, pinnipeds, ASIC design... something.

    Second, look at the development technologies and tools that exist in that field and are used frequently and common. Games use C++ and assembly, ASICs use Verilog, pinniped databases are written in .NET.

    Third, focus on learning the technologies that are used in your particular field of interest.

    This will permit you to have a marketable skill in precisely the area of programming you want to accomplish.

    I am aware that many programmers consider themselves "generalists" -- and heck, I do too. But the field of programming is now sufficiently wide that ALL programmers must, to an extent, specialize. Of course you can always apply your generalist knowledge to solving one-off problems. Instead, I suggest you focus on a particular area of expertise related to your dream job.

    Best of luck.

  • by 1s44c (552956) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:37PM (#42330575)

    Seriously - It's better as a generalist. Or do you really want to swap having a new problem every day to having the same one for years?

  • At 1 hour a day you might be competent programmer in 10 years. You'll need to spend HOURS per day, assuming you don't have some type of practical background in programming already.
  • My question to you all is, what language should I start with, to learn and get back into the principles of programming, that will help me build a personal portfolio, but will also lend to learning other languages? At this point, I'm not sure if I'd like to make/maintain custom applications, or if back-end web programming would be more interesting, or any of the other niches out there."

    Several languages are good and refreshing the basic principles of programming and as stepping-stones to learning other languages. If you need a list, just ask several high school or college CS department what languages they teach as 1st and 2nd languages.

    You narrowed things down by saying you want to build a portfolio. What kinds of projects do you want in that portfolio? You don't seem to have decided yet.

    Once you decide, that will be a major factor in choosing your language. You'll want to pick a lang

  • by kwerle (39371) <kurt@CircleW.org> on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @05:46PM (#42330673) Homepage Journal

    By and large, languages don't matter. It's the frameworks that do. Nobody* is looking for a ruby programmer - they're looking for a ruby on rails programmer. Nobody is looking for an Objective-C programmer - they're looking for iOS (and/or MacApps) programmers.

    * yes, there probably are 3 ruby jobs, but you don't qualify and they are not near you/flexible enough/whatever.

    I don't happen to like Java. I found python annoying when I last tried it (which was long ago). I think I'd like it more, now. php was meh. I really enjoy ruby and I liked Obj-C 15 years ago. Find out what you like to work with.

    Check out the Seven Languages book. It's fun to take a few languages for a spin. If it's not fun for you, maybe you should stick with IT :-)

    But you're really asking about finding a job.

    By and large, jobs don't matter. Yes, you need/want to make enough to live comfortably, but it's amazing what you can be comfortable with. What really matters is what you work on, who you work with, and what you work with. Find a job in a field that interests you, working for/with folks that you get along with. Once you're there, fix the kinds of problems you enjoy fixing. Do some of the ones that need fixing, too. You do both software and IT - it should not be hard to find a great place to work and make it work for you.

  • 1.) Something you won't get bored with.
    2.) Something that's popular and not a niche language.

    3.) Something that's platform independent.

    I asked myself the same question several years ago. Because I was a hard care Unix admin at the time, I picked C# and DirectX development. I wanted something "easier" than my 50 hour a week job and different enough that I did not get sick of it. Also, I remembered Visual Basic from college and it was fun. I wrote about 40% of a pretty impressive game, all while teaching my

    • I wrote about 40% of a pretty impressive game

      Oh, you too? :D

      Seriously though, the cool thing about making a game, creative app or random "effects" is that you're totally free to experiment, while still learning a LOT, especially the higher you aim. Making a simple game or a starfield is easy, but there is just no ceiling to that stuff; while there are usually limits to how crazy you can get with "serious" apps etc.

  • My background included a significant amount of C and some assembly as well as a variety of other stuff including (not Visual) BASIC (workplace need, not my choice). I finally decided on JavaScript and probably also Node.js. I'm happy with the language itself and being useful in so many places and platforms and situations made it a no-brainer for me. I'd choose to use Linux everywhere, but being stuck with Windows also means that I can do a lot with WSH JScript, which is supported on everything from XP on (m
  • It's all well and good if you're learning but if you don't get to do it on the job then people might not think much of you practice as there is no one to vouch for you or verify your code is good. Put your stuff on Bitbucket or some other source sharing site or contribute to open source. At the very least you can then always point people to your repos when you're looking for a job.
  • We have a couple dozen computer user groups in our town. About a third focus on coding. Java, web-services, mobile computing, gaming are fairly hot topics these days. User groups are often in meetup.com. If you still have a computer print monthly in your town, they may list computer groups too. Some user groups are lecture oriented while others are show-and-tell their projects. Many of these project are more or less open-sourced on the github cloud code-base server. So you look for a project someone ha
  • College (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dennis Sheil (1706056) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @06:39PM (#42331235)

    Do you have a Bachelor's degree? I began working as a systems administrator before completing my Bachelor's degree. I have always done some amateur programming, but wanted to improve my skills to where I really was a "programmer". So I killed two birds with one stone and started taking one course a semester at a local college. I would go either at night, or on the weekend. Some semesters I took more than one course.

    As I said, I already had written programs. I did not have the deeper understanding to write better, bigger and more complex programs though. The computer science program laid a foundation of calculus, statistics, and discrete mathematics. Then it went deeper into graph theory, and the theory of computation. Then we began learning C++. Then we learned more advanced C++, how algorithms and recursion and so forth worked. Then we learned Java. Then we learned about data structures, and the relationship between data structures and algorithms.

    If you just want to learn a little Perl to write some simple scripts, you don't need to do all of this. It sounds like you want to have a deeper understanding of programming though. So this is necessary. I think it is best done at a college, although theoretically someone can learn much of this on their own.

    I think the idea of learning programming by "I want to learn one language well" is an amateur mistake. Our learning initially was almost purely mathematical. If you read volume I of "The Art of Computer Programming", he doesn't get into (M)MIX programming until pretty far into the book, the beginning is math. The cursory learning of a programming language was just a byway to then teach us about recursion, backtracking and the like. We immediately moved onto Java instead of going deeper into C++, to see that there were different ways of doing programming by different languages. We later learned radically different languages using different paradigms like logical programming (Prolog), functional programming (Lisp) on top of the object-oriented programming (C++, Java) languages we had already learned.

    Eric Raymond once said "Lisp is worth learning for the profound enlightenment experience you will have when you finally get it; that experience will make you a better programmer for the rest of your days, even if you never actually use Lisp itself a lot." Other experienced programmers have agreed with this sentiment. As you said you're still an amateur, it's probably beyond your capacity right now to understand why someone should "waste time" learning a language like Scheme Lisp which they might end up never using. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure though. The opinion of most expert programmers is that understanding the core ideas of computer science and programming is more important than domain expertise in a particular language. You say "I'll be setting aside an hour every day to devote to learning a new language, in the eventual hope that I can leave this company (take a sabbatical) and hop into the private sector for a few years." You should ask yourself if this is enough. Yes, knowing at least one commonly used programming language is important to get a job as a programmer. You will never really understand that language, and its limitations and advantages, until you learn some other languages, and some of the general concepts behind all programming and computer science. You said you were a novice programmer, and I think putting too much emphasis on learning one language well is an amateur mistake. There's a lot of steps you should be doing before deciding to become an expert in one language.

    I'll give a personal example. I do a lot of Android (Java-like) programming. I also need a web API for some of the programs. A server-side Java solution is just too expensive for what I'm doing - sites like Bluehost and Dreamhost don't really support Tomcat and the like for $9 a month. So I use other languages for my web API than Java. Do a Google, or more importantly, a Craigslist job search for "full s

  • If you want something that will help you learn other languages, don't make the mistake I made. Don't learn Perl.

    If you learn Perl, you will rapidly lose all interest in other languages, because any time you try to pick one of them up, you'll be reading through the documentation and examples, and your brain will go, "All THAT just to accomplish THAT little thing? That's, like, eighty lines, and in Perl it would be, like, three lines. I'm gonna just go do it in Perl. Yep, see? Three lines, like I said.
    • After you've written enough Perl you feel like doing it any other way is an uphill battle. Nevertheless, once you grok/accept its peculiarities, Python is a pretty good replacement. You can even be as concise as with Perl after a while. Plus the young'uns like Python more than Perl because Perl's sigils freak them out and make them want to cry.
  • This book teaches you to think like an experienced programmer.

    It's a great way of refreshing your algorithm skills and an easy ready compared to other (heavier) algorithm books.

  • Just don't jump into projects involving involving the technologies (i.e. platforms and tools) of the now. The number of subjects you have to "learn" about are so fragmented it's an utter nightmare. You'll get lost, feel incompetent, and give up; I've seen it a hundred times. What you are going to do is reinforce and awaken your incommunicable knowledge of programming fundamentals; not in a formal, theoretical way, not with simple practice (though consistent routine is required to turn this into a habit agai

  • The dirty little secret of the programming world is that the vast majority of jobs aren't really all that different than what you're doing now. Sure a few folks work in C on the bare metal, and a few people do some really high level stuff for companies like Google or Microsoft, but the vast majority of people working as programmers are making LoB apps used by maybe a few hundred people accessing a dozen or so tables from either an existing LoB system or a custom database. For the most part these apps are ac

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