Python: What to do after you've finished Code Academy?

One of the most common beginner questions I see in Python programming forums is from people asking what to do once they’ve completed Code Academy’s Python training course. The possibilities are virtually limitless and may seem overwhelming at first, especially if you have little prior programming experience. It’s a bit like finding yourself in a foreign country where you know enough of the local language to just get by, but not enough to really find your way around. I certainly don’t claim to have the map, but in this post I’ll try to point out a few landmarks that might help some folks get their bearings. 

The Code Academy course covers the basics of Python syntax and data structures, and provides a quick introduction to more advanced topics like the use of list comprehensions, bitwise operators, classes, file input/output etc. Along the way, the student also completes a handful of small projects to demonstrate how this newly acquired knowledge can be put to use, for example, a pig latin translator, a Battleship game simulator and so on.

But the big question is: what next?! There is no straightforward answer to this question, as it depends on a number of highly individual variables such as your level of prior programming knowledge and experience, your interests, your goals and motivations for learning programming in general and Python in particular, not to mention the amount of time you are able to devote to study and practice, to name just a few. For the sake of simplicity, what follows is targeted to a beginner who has recently completed an introductory Python crash course such as Cody Academy’s Python Track, or Learn Python the Hard Way, has little or no prior programming experience, and can devote a modest amount of time to study and practice on a regular basis. 

As a natural language instructor, I can almost always tell when a student has not done any homework or practice over a long weekend: they are already starting to get rusty! Probably the single most important thing to do after an introductory course like Code Academy’s is to reinforce the lessons learned, and to do it on a consistent basis. This will help to shore up all that newly acquired knowledge and provide a sturdier basis to extend it and expand on it. This could be anything from reading a textbook to watching a series of lectures, or following along with another tutorial, exploring other areas of the Python universe, tinkering with your own little programming projects, or some combination of these, or even all of the above. 

You’ll likely also find that these activities are themselves mutually reinforcing: while working on your own projects, you’ll realize when you’ve hit a wall and need to consult some documentation or a textbook, or seek out a new library or framework to help achieve your goal; reading through a textbook you’ll be exposed to new ideas that you can experiment with in the interpreter or in your own little projects; working through a tutorial, you might find a piece of code that interests you and which you start to tweak on your own to see how it works and to experiment with extending it or expanding on it in some way, shape or form.  

If Code Academy was your first exposure to programming in general, it might be a good idea to consider working through a general introductory textbook (or even an introductory course!) on computer science. This will provide you with a basis in the fundamentals of the discipline as a whole, things that are more or less the same across all programming languages. 

So far as introductory textbooks go, many people, myself included, highly recommend Think Python: How to Think Like a Computer Scientist, which is freely available online.   This book is required reading for a number of well known introductory computer science courses such as MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming, and was written for the express purpose of introducing students to the field. It is highly readable, provides a review of basic syntax and covers intermediate as well as more advanced topics, along with a series of chapters on object-oriented programming and design. 

Along similar lines, if you have the time to devote to it, I highly recommend MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science class. All the lectures, recitation sections and course materials are freely available online in their entirety, and the course uses Python as its pedagogical language of choice. For more information on this course, see our previous post Teach Yourself Python in Less Than Four Months, which provides a learning plan that uses the MIT course as its guide.  

Okay, but what if you are not the type who likes to curl up with a good textbook, and don’t have the time to slog through a college level introduction to computer science course, but want to delve more deeply into Python itself? What then? In this case, you might consider working through another general introductory tutorial on Python programming, this will help consolidate the knowledge you’ve already gained and also likely expose you to more beginner and intermediate level aspects of the language and the programming process. There are tons of such resources available online. Here are a few that I've found quite helpful:
"Bah," some may say, "I'm bored of mechanically typing out tutorial code! I want to experiment, but I'm not sure where to begin!" Not to worry, there's tons of stuff out there, you just have to know where to look. For those who want to jump right in to real problem solving, your first stop should be the Programming Mega Project List. This is a list of around 100 practical programming projects that can be solved in any programming language. The difficulty level of the various projects ranges from beginner to advanced and the list broken down into basic categories such as math, algorithms, networking, text, web, and so on. Find one that interests you, tackle it and repeat.

Other people may find it rather uninteresting to solve problems for the sake of problem solving, and would rather explore Python itself. The standard library is your friend! One of the great things about programming is that it can make your life a whole lot easier. If you stick with programming, one thing you will learn rather quickly is that programmers are lazy and proud of it. If I had a dime for every time I’ve come across a talk or article on programming which proclaimed that programmers are lazy, I’d probably have like $10 by now.  I guarantee there is some absurd, repetitive task that you have to complete on a regular basis that can be automated with a relatively simple Python script. For these everyday routines, there is also very likely a standard library module that can aid you in your endeavor. Relevant xkcd:

Maybe you work in an office and have a tedious spreadsheet task you have to complete on a regular basis. Automate it with the csv module. Perhaps you’re in a band and hate writing up set lists, write a random set list generator with the random module. Maybe you like sports or finance, and are constantly looking up scores or quotes. Write a command line app to grab them from your favorite online source using urllib without having to open a browser.  If you’re a news junky, you could consider writing your own RSS headline aggregator with urllib and one of the XML modules. The possibilities are literally limitless. 

Last but not least, as a beginner Python programmer, you will most definitely want to begin checking out the many great frameworks that have been built around the language.  "A software framework is a universal, reusable software platform to develop software applications, products and solutions," says Wikipedia. At the most basic level, a software framework is a library or set of libraries that provide generic functionality for routine tasks to aid in the development of applications and programming projects. In the Python universe there are tons of frameworks to explore, such as web frameworks for the development of web applications, GUI frameworks for development of graphical user interfaces for desktop applications, and so on. Some of my favorites:
Well, that concludes our tour of some noteworthy landmarks in the Python programming space. As always, feel free to provide your own favorite resources or suggestions in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. Another resource: Treehouse has just published his introductory Python course. Treehouse's approach can be perceived as patronising at first, but it's worth sticking with it. Fyi: it's not free, but it's cheap!