My (hard-won) list of resources for new programmers

There’s a nebulous space in courtship, where “casual” becomes “serious”, and words like “dating” give way to heavier terms like “relationship”. Remember the first time you called someone a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend”? Remember the awkwardness of saying it? It’s like trying on a shirt that doesn’t fit right.

In that same vein, I’m a Ruby programmer. That’s the first time I’ve ever said or written that. It feels just as awkward and forced as the first time my now-wife rolled her eyes at me when I tried to label her as “my girlfriend”.

So as a sort of follow-up of my last 2 posts, I want to express utmost gratitude to the people who do the hard work of remembering the inner turmoil of the newbie and creating help, handholding, and support for the profoundly intimidating process of learning to program. Some of them have been friends and colleagues, but many have helped by publicly sharing their knowledge.

It took me 18 months to assemble this list. I hope that by collecting these resources in one place, someone out there that’s struggling like I did (and still do) will have a shorter path through the inevitable tough parts of learning to program.

As a very green Ruby developer (dabbling with C# and Python), this list is going to be pretty heavily biased. If you want to see anything added, hit me up in the comments or on Twitter and I’ll try to keep the list updated.

Zero Experience

To people with no programming experience, it looks like a black box, and the number of people that holds true for saddens me. Anyone who wants to someday run a business should understand the basic precepts of programming, just like anyone planning to drive across the country should know how the basic components of a car work together.

Learn to Program by Chris Pine: When my friend Jarom showed me this book, it was the start of a new, happier course in my life. I can say without hyperbole: everyone should read this book. You’ll know after a couple of weeks of reading and coding whether it tickles your fancy. The book is free online, but buy a copy. I’ve given two away to people who are happier because of it.

Learn Python the Hard Way: Zed Shaw (@zedshaw) is a controversial figure, because like me, he’s got a big mouth, and his intentions are often misinterpreted (sometimes, I think that’s his actual intention). But there’s no question that he’s given and given to the programming community, and really understands and cares about new programmers.

Python for Non-Programmers: It’s a bit of a cheat to post a list inside a list, but like Ruby, Python is a great language for new programmers, and this is a great place to get started.

Ruby in 20 Minutes: It’s not the best tutorial out there, but it is lovely to look at and should give you a hands-on feel of what it’s like to write code in Ruby.

Humble Little Ruby Book: Jeremy McAnally, who is a dog that wears glasses, wrote a delightful book for Ruby beginners. It’s a great supplement to Chris Pine’s book, and chock full of quirky personality.


I still count myself among the newbies, but that protective cocoon won’t hold me much longer. This is the time when you can write and read straightforward, simple code, and ask questions like “what the heck is a lambda?”

Ruby Koans: The brilliant, incomparable Jim Weirich came up with a way to train semi-new developers on the joys of Test-Driven-Development. The Koans comprise an incredibly clever, fun interactive programming puzzle. I failed to complete the last full exercise, so I need to go back and try again soon.

Ruby Inside: Peter Cooper’s blog is the definitive Ruby news source, and I’ve discovered many, many helpful tips and articles. Plus, Peter is an amazingly cool guy who wrote the book…

Beginning Ruby: From Novice to Professional: This is the book that helped me take the step beyond Ruby’s scripting capabilities. Peter Cooper’s writing style is delightful, and the book came highly recommended, with good reason.

Roadmap for Learning Rails: If nothing else, Wyatt Greene’s Techiferous blog reveals how deep the rabbit hole goes when learning Rails. Most people learn Ruby to get into Rails, and this is a good plan to get your first project built if that’s your goal.

Railscasts: Ryan Bates is the Karl Malone of the screencast world: he just delivers. There are few meaningful subjects he hasn’t yet covered. He’s no-nonsense, giving you just the short-and-sweet facts, then moving on.

Teach me to code: Charles Max Wood is an up-and-comer, with well-done screencasts (as well as podcasts and interviews) for coders of all skill levels. It’s nice to get a different viewpoint, and he tends to inject more depth and personality into the topic at hand than Railscasts.

Pragmatic Programmers: What can be said about PragProg? It’s the best independent tech publishing house on the planet. You can very, very rarely go wrong picking up any book out of their library.

Rails Dispatch: Engine Yard has spun up a great Rails blog with posts and screencasts by Rails luminaries like Yehuda Katz. It’s not always newbie-friendly, but the screencasts are worth a watch.

But who can I ask for help?

The programming world is full of people who, while busy, are happy to help new programmers. Here are a few places to find them:

Google: Google is the king of the hill, and answers about 80% of my questions. Please, don’t bug people with questions that a quick Google search would have turned up. More importantly, don’t be embarrassed to ask questions that Google doesn’t answer for you. Where do you think Google got those answers in the first place? Your question could help future newbies get out of the same jam!

Stack Overflow: Don’t get sucked into the BS “communities” that charge to answer questions. Look for solid, community-driven Q&A sites to get your programming questions answered.

User Groups: Aside from Google, joining a local User Group is the most valuable thing you can do. They’re filled with people who have struggled just like you. Even if you work with other developers, it’s extremely helpful to get outside of your own circle once a month. And someday, you’ll be able to contribute back to the group.

Hackfests: I went to a Hackfest and felt so out of place that I snuck out the back. Don’t do this! Say you’re new and ask if you can pair with someone (likely, this will just be watching them code). Better yet, bring a dinky, sad project of your own and don’t be embarrassed to ask questions about why it’s not working!

Conferences: If you fall in love with programming, be prepared to attend 3 or more conferences a year, and not corporate-driven booth-babe-fests like CES or Macworld. Conferences run by and for the community are so packed with insight, I’m still absorbing lessons from one that I went to 6 months ago.

Mailing Lists: Historically, mailing lists are a nightmarish, labyrinthine mess. But then Google came along and helped them regain sanity. For most projects, you’ll find answers (eventually) in Google Groups.

Freenode IRC: Sooner or later, every programmer has to become familiar with the “crazy old grandpa” of the Internet: IRC. It’s dated, painful to set up and use, and oozing with geek credibility. Hackers love it because it can’t be regulated, controlled, or put out of business, and it’s a key form of communication for many open-source projects. Have a question you want answered? Get to know Freenode.

Rails Mentors: RailsBridge has created a place to learn and eventually, to teach. Pick a topic and find a mentor who will help you, at no cost.

Twitter: I’ve curated what I think is the world’s best list of Twitterers. Rather than list them here, just follow everyone I do and gradually unfollow the people that annoy you. You’ll connect with some astonishingly bright, talented, and helpful people.

Ruby Mendicant University: Lastly, Gregory Brown’s RMU has been like strapping a rocket engine to my learning process. The community has been unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I cannot thank Greg enough for dedicating time to educating people through the hardest phases of learning to program. Please support this endeavor when he’s accepting donations again.

If I’ve missed anything, and I assuredly have, leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter (I’m @tehviking).