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Programming has one of the steepest learning curves of any creative endeavor. Until the concepts click in your head, it’s going to be rough sailing. There are a few ways to ease that learning curve, however, and one of the most effective ways is to get your hands dirty with a few side projects of your own.
Nothing will help you absorb and retain programming concepts more than straight practical experience. After you’ve stocked up on these free programming books, you should fire up a new project and start playing around.
And if you really want to quicken your progress, make sure you cultivate the right mindset for learning how to program without the stress.
Create A Web Or Mobile App
Coding for the web is one of the most popular forms of programming today. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the various web programming languages available out there, you should consider creating a functional web app that serves a real purpose in your life.
If you aren’t interested in web development, then how about mobile development? The actual technologies that are used across Android, iOS, and Windows Phone may differ — sometimes drastically so — but don’t be afraid to pick one and jump right in. The concepts you learn will likely be relevant from platform to platform.
What sort of apps should you make? Honestly, make an app that excites you. It could be as simple as a personal to-do list or as complex as a brand new social network, but whatever it is, make sure it’s exciting enough that you can’t help but think about it throughout the day.
But if you’re really stumped for ideas, here are a few in no particular order:
- Personal to-do list
- Content link aggregator
- URL shortener
- Media hoster
- Media optimizer
- Social network
Create A Browser Extension
Admittedly, creating a browser extension is similar to creating a web or mobile app, but the former often seems to be overlooked for some reason.
Nowadays, people spend most of their online time with their faces buried in their web browsers. A browser-based tool could prove extremely useful — so why not try creating one of your own as a way to supplement your learning?
In fact, one of our MakeUseOf editors created an in-house Chrome extension that boosted writer productivity by a noticeable margin. That’s the kind of real-world benefit that’s possible with something as simple as a browser extension.
For idea inspiration, browse through our lists for Best Firefox Addons and Best Chrome Extensions. Some are browser-specific, such as these awesome Firefox-only extensions, and are ripe for someone to come along and create a clone on other browsers. Maybe you can be that someone.
Create A Video Game
Game development is a unique beast in the programming world. Some of the fundamental concepts that you learn — e.g. the game loop — are radically different from what you’d learn in a field like web development or business software engineering. However, some things are transferrable — e.g. the language — so you can still apply some of what you learn elsewhere.
That being said, game development can be a fantastic way to learn programming. The game development tools have all evolved so much over the years that any newbie could have a simple but playable game ready within weeks. Plus, video games are fun, and nothing is a better motivator than fun.
We recommend that beginners start by learning the Unity Engine, which is the most powerful free game development environment available at this time. Once you’re comfortable with the tools and languages, try cloning these popular classics:
- Flappy Bird
Contribute To Open Source
One of the best ways to improve as a coder is to get involved with an open source project. The benefits are threefold:
- You can study the code and learn from it directly.
- Others can critique the code you submit for improvements.
- You can expand your network of coding friends and mentors.
The great thing about an open source project is that you don’t have to deal with pressure — not much, anyway. Unlike when working for a company, you won’t be beholden to deadlines and milestones if you aren’t a main contributor. Plus, open source projects offer a foundation and structure that you might not have if you were to work on something else by yourself.
As always, choose an open source project that excites you. If you aren’t skilled enough to contribute code that meets the standards of the project, you can still study the code that’s publicly available but you can also give back by contributing in other ways.
Participate In Coding Jams
Are you the type of person who’s driven by competition? Then you should be on the lookout for jams and contests for programming. These competitions have a ton of educational value simply because they force you to grow and adapt as fast as possible. Deadlines tend to have that effect.
Here are some notable competitions to get you started.
Google Code Jam. This online contest, which has been running for 12 years, consists of multiple rounds that involve difficult algorithmic puzzles to be solved with code. It’s one of the more famous competitions from around the world and is definitely worth competing in.
CodeChef Competitions. CodeChef is a global community that provides a place where programmers can come together, learn together, and compete against each other. The site runs multiple contests all throughout the year and competing in them can be great for keeping your mind sharp.
Project Euler. Though it’s not a competition in the traditional sense, Project Euler is a fantastic way to challenge your coding mind. They provide a series of increasingly difficult mathematic and computational puzzles that will surely expand the limits of your mind.
If those aren’t enough for you, check out these other online programming contests. They’ll keep you busy for a while yet.
Programming doesn’t have to be an endless chain of textbooks and lectures. Once you start working on a few practical projects, you’ll find yourself improving faster than ever. If you’re ever stuck, try consulting these free programming resources and try employing these unique ways to practice coding.
How did you learn programming? Know of any other project ideas that might prove helpful? Share your tips and advice with us in the comments below!
Image Credits: Laptop Coder Via Shutterstock, Mobile Apps Via Shutterstock, Browser Extensions Via Shutterstock, Angry Birds Via Shutterstock, Source Code Via Shutterstock, Keyboard Hands Via Shutterstock