<aside> 🔗 Originally published on CodeDay Blog.


Hi there, I’m Mingjie, and I’ve been working with CodeDay for almost 3 years! During the past three years of running events, mentoring students, and hearing from different mentors, I found out that one of the most frequently asked questions by beginner students is... “Which language should I learn first?” While this article won’t answer that question completely, I’d like to share how I got started with this programming thing.

This could be a very long piece to read... but please bear with me (obligatory “go bears!”) as I tell my story.

Contrary to what a lot of people who know me personally believed, I didn’t grow up thinking that computer science is my destiny. Thanks to my mom who was getting her accounting certificate online — yes, online, and that was like more than a decade ago — at the time, I had access to a very old IBM Aptiva computer when I was 8. I didn’t do much with it, though, mostly because my parents didn’t want me going online so the only “toys” on that computer that I can play with were PowerPoint 2000 (Word, Excel, and Access didn’t look as fun as PowerPoint), Windows Media Player (mostly for the visualizer), and Paint. But even though I had almost zero access to online resources (not that there were a lot of those back then), I still somehow managed to create a little maze game with PowerPoint animations and events. It was janky, and it took me about summer to get almost everything I wanted working.

[IBM Aptiva, from the Computer History Museum](https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/1FCb-nReuudrJExRILiPtE0i48-Ce2yCfSPnE4__wSZg8lTY3iDkcwOND690aOEIVF2TpEwLP7RZsmA6HURPoCrxoMroGN5NsAeQPfXEgpRbnuk-CY51tzJLnEDR33fe_c6Sk_R8)

IBM Aptiva, from the Computer History Museum

And then my parents decided that since I was “very good” at computers, what better are there than sending me to an after school class that taught me how to write programs? (I wrote briefly about this culture in China in my blog about my education.)

Little do they know, that course almost completely destroyed my interest in computers at all. Every Saturday, I would sit in a small computer lab with 20+ other kids of my age, looking at one of those boring, 8-bit colored screens. We were taught how to program in Pascal, and since there obviously wasn’t VS Code or Repl.it at the time, we had to code inside a very boring looking compiler called Turbo Pascal.

[Turbo Pascal 7.0 from Wikipedia](https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/aweoBdfEEpMUvBbL4HqiNf8bsybNcI4a43x9w8Z6Zs092SzQ7yToWP7ck05_KvXDa1ptb-vaLHIdyKYV9DJ9-4fR9JbFTsSDuGf5cnXTeJdULcy9LNRjAbM6bo5tW6HgHwQ3ib8P)

Turbo Pascal 7.0 from Wikipedia

I hated that experience. Of course, I was too young to start thinking about my career choices, but I just knew that I would’ve hated my life if this is what I have to do all day. I even wonder if my teacher, a mid-aged man who almost seems to be living in that computer lab, actually liked programming at all — to me, it was too boring of a task for anyone.

Things didn’t get better for the computer-nerd side of me even after I went to middle school when a “helpful” friend pulled me into creating a tech club that failed miserably. But one thing I did like was writing, so as I wrote more and more things, I wanted to have an online blog where I can keep records of my random pieces of journaling.

Initially, I was just like everyone else — I wrote on commercial platforms like Weibo (literally “microblogs”, a Chinese combination of Twitter and Facebook). But as I wrote more and more things, I figured that these platforms were really bad at keeping track of my work. There was no tagging, no categorization, and I can’t even search for something I wrote unless I knew exactly when I wrote the piece.

So I started looking for alternatives. Honestly, there weren’t many of those because of the limited internet access in China (anything that uses Google APIs is off the charts, so that leaves... nothing). And as I looked more into self-hosted solutions, I found WordPress, the platform with way too many installation tutorials on the internet.

And me being me, instead of starting to write and publish more articles right away with the default theme, I found myself in the middle of a dark corner in WordPress’s theme development documentations. And you know what happens next — after an entire year of trialing different themes, attempting to modify small chunks of PHP here and there, breaking the site completely, re-installing WordPress completely, and starting all over again, I wrote a total of zero pieces, but I fell back in love with making custom things with code. It felt cool — a few lines of non-human-readable code can generate a webpage that can be published to anyone on the internet. This is something that math, sciences, music, or anything they’ve been teaching at school can’t do.

Here’s a picture of happy me

Here’s a picture of happy me

Since then, I started learning to write websites bits by bits — starting from using frameworks like Bootstrap and writing static sites, to learning how to render things on the client-side with JavaScript, then to NodeJS and databases... And these things became handy to me, as I have always found myself working for and with very small teams who need software solutions that everyone can access everywhere.

So now that I am finished telling my cliché story, let’s go back to the question I posed first — what should you learn first?

Programming isn’t just a simple course like algebra that you learn at school. Unless you explicitly learn it the conceptual way — which is what I am doing now, but not everyone has to do that — it is always heavier on the application side. Languages, on the other end, are like the tools you use to tackle the specific problems that you face now and then.

There is a very common metaphor that I really liked — that programming languages are like various forms of sharp tools. Think about it this way — when were you taught how to use a knife? Did you learn how to use a bread knife, steak knife, and a Swiss knife all separately, or did you learn them all the same way?

Then think about this: if you already knew how to use a chainsaw, are you going to cut a loaf of bread with it? Well, it accomplishes the same task, doesn’t it? And are you going to chop down a tree with a bread knife? Or filet down a fish with a screwdriver (idiot sandwich warning)?

[Devrant summarizing my entire blog in a picture](https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/R5qxLTGg1_3wGTGFRUq6bJfnwQFbzLw0znUgmauskpyiG9f3-BgvQIGmacEhvT7aGg7HcwVDP5qQFcAmYoDAw5Pi43EbOgmR68r2hj29sLX2KjKJZJLs93qvVm3dk-4t8ABZYlKG)

Devrant summarizing my entire blog in a picture