How to Prepare for a Computer Science Career When Your High School Doesn't Even Offer a Computer Science Class

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While growing up in Arkansas, Jed McCaleb says he started tinkering with programming any way he could. “It started in third grade with writing a few games,” he says, and he eventually went on to build the first Bitcoin exchange and co-founded Stellar.org, where he leads technical direction of an open financial network.

Nowadays, he says, there are so many more resources for kids who want to learn to program but might not attend schools that offer computer science classes. “Girl Develop It, where all genders are welcome, is wonderful for a younger demographic, and teens will find Codecademyhelpful in their pursuits.” He also recommends online programmer communities where people can trade ideas and find mentors.

According to a study by Microsoft, only 2,100 of the 42,000 high schools in the United States were certified to teach the AP computer science course in 2011, and only a little over 21,000 students actually took the exam. “While computer science should be made an integral part of the high school curriculum, it remains a fringe offering at best,” says Bruce McCully, founder and CEO of Dynamic Edge, a tech-support firm with offices in Michigan and Tennessee.“Fortunately, there are a lot of online resources nowadays that make learning about theory and practical programming possible for young learners.”

Looking to prepare yourself in high school for a major in computer science? Here’s where to start.

ONLINE COURSES

McCully recommends courses offered through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), such as Coursera or Udemy. They offer offer introductory and specialized courses free of charge that are taught by professionals.

Ryan O'Donnell was a high school teacher who taught himself modern programming and web development before becoming a tech marketer. He’s now director of marketing at AvalaraTrustFile and recommends Codecademy, Stack Overflow and Free Code Camp for young people looking to build a foundation in programming.

YOUR PUBLIC LIBRARY

Your local library can help you get your hands on almost any programming book you want to read, O’Donnell says. “Consider using Amazon to research which books are highly rated and then check them out from the library.”

PRACTICE

“The only way to get good at anything is to do it — a lot,” O’Donnell says. “You'll have to write a lot of code. Start simple and build from there.”

Working with online communities who share your ambitions can help, he says. “Learning to write code is a challenging endeavor and having the support of like-minded friends can't be overstated. Resources that cultivate a community of users with profiles mean participants are vested and putting in time and effort to build their local persona.” In addition, Stack Overflow lets participants vote answers up or down, bubbling the best answers up to the top.

“Question threads with commenting leads to answers that are more of a discussion and less of an answer,” he says. “This leads to the opportunity for the reader to gain a deeper understanding of a specific topic.”