Rod Garcia: Learning to Code for Lucrative Careers

Learning to code isn’t just about mastering syntax; it’s a gateway to a lucrative career in software development. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, software developers earned a median annual wage exceeding $127,000 in 2022 and is projected to rise by 25% by 2032.

Rod Garcia, VP of engineering at Slack, succinctly captures the allure: “It’s awesome—the way humans can communicate with machines.” This communication between humans and computers happens through programming languages. Even though the two terms have subtle differences—they are often used interchangeably.

Choosing where to begin is like selecting a real-life language to learn. According to the government-run website ShareAmerica, there are between 350 and 430 languages spoken in the United States alone. Similarly, there are hundreds of programming languages out there to choose from.

Whether it’s Python’s versatility, JavaScript’s ubiquity, or the elegance of SQL, your choice will shape your journey into the intricate world of code. Some languages, like the meme-filled LOLCODE, live in relative obscurity, while others are in high demand, like the leading players JavaScript and Python.

4 programming languages that are worth learning

JavaScript

JavaScript simply makes web pages interactive and is also where many other languages stem from. There are more than 80 JavaScript frameworks, including Node.js, Dart, and TypeScript.

“Not only is [JavaScript] the front-end language of the web, it allows folks to create back-end solutions. If you want to learn one language, JavaScript is great in the early stages of learning how to create full-stack solutions,” Garcia says.

Classification: JavaScript is a high-level object-oriented scripting language.

Usage: JavaScript allows you to manipulate HTML and CSS, allowing you to create smooth animations, transitions, and visual effects. On the technical side, JavaScript can validate email addresses in web forms. It can also be used to create web-based games, such as Words With Friends 2 and 2048. And with newer frameworks like React Native and Ionic, you can use JavaScript outside the web to create apps for iOS and Android.

Places to learn it: Fortune found intense bootcamps to teach you how to code JavaScript for less than $21,000. You can learn for free on sites like Udemy, Coursera, and Codecademy.

Python

Python is the most popular programming language on GitHub because of its robust ecosystem of libraries and its general enough nature to fill a variety of programming needs across AI, such as machine learning, deep learning, and computer vision. Its libraries are collections of open-source code modules, which save developers time and effort.

Garcia says that Python has been one of the top languages in the industry for a long time, “but now more than ever, it’s paramount to interact with AI applications or train your own models. It’s the default choice.” According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 “The Future of Jobs Report,” the artificial intelligence boom will create around 97 million new jobs.

Classification: Python is a high-level object-oriented scripting language

Usage: Back-end web developers use Python to create web applications, analyze data, and automate tasks. Companies in various industries use it—NASA, Google, and Netflix—to handle big data, perform complex mathematical calculations, and read and modify large files.

Places to learn it: Bootcamps like General Assembly and CodingNomads teach the language, and you can also learn via the official Python website. Codeacademy’s free course, Python 2, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Python are free resources to learn. Beginner projects include creating secure password generators and games like Rock, Paper, Scissors.

SQL

Structured query languages or SQL (pronounced “sequel”) give both analysts and programmers access to data stored within databases. Programmers call SQL “Turing complete,” which indicates a language’s power. The more powerful a language, the more complex equations it can perform.

SQL gives developers access to common table expressions (CTEs) and Window functions (such as SUM, AVG, and COUNT), making it a powerful database management system. It’s widely used by mid-to large-sized organizations, such as the tech giants Facebook and Microsoft, to organize and retrieve information.

Classification: SQL is a high-level data-oriented language.

Usage: For developers creating mobile or web apps, when a new user inputs their username and password, it goes into a database—most commonly MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQLite—and then retrieved with an SQL query.

However, many different industries use SQL. For example, marketing teams can create promotions targeting customers based on data stored in databases and retrieved with an SQL query. Financial organizations can organize sales data with the language, and healthcare clinics can build dashboards to organize patient reports.

Places to learn it: Codecademy and DataCamp provide courses for learners of all levels. Additionally, eCornell, the online platform affiliated with Cornell University, offers certification programs in data management using SQL and data visualization using Tableau.

Java

Java, an almost three-decade-old programming language, remains one of the most popular choices for developers. It is widely used in customer relationship management (CRM) software applications and financial management platforms because of its robustness, cross-platform capabilities, and security. According to IBM, the language is easy to learn, write, compile, and debug.

Garcia says Java is used in large enterprise organizations: “Where there are complex legacy systems, there is a certain special type of language you need to manage those systems. Java is one of the most used architecture languages in that context.”

With Java’s Abstract Class feature, you can hide intricate, outdated code to only see the necessary information you need. This tool helps you maintain and manage older systems. According to Garcia, this hideaway capability is a massive part of dealing with old code. “It helps engineers abstract complexities.”

Classification: Java is a high-level, object-oriented language.

Usage: Java is a backend development tool used to build web applications with common ones, including Spotify and X (formerly Twitter). Tools like Spring Framework and Hibernate ORM make it easier to construct these newer applications using Java. Sectors like AI, fintech, e-commerce, and gaming benefit from the robustness of language. 2023’s most popular video game, Minecraft, sold more than 300 million copies and was built with Java.

Places to learn it: Sites like Codecademy and Coursera offer ways to learn Java—each teaching topics like design patterns, data structures, and simple algorithms like sorting. Devmountain’s part-time, remote Java Software Engineering Course costs $9,900. The 16-week program covers Java, Git, frameworks, data structures, and SQL.

Difference between front-end and back-end programming languages

There are different types of programming languages, but understanding the difference between front-end and back-end languages is essential for anyone interested in web development.

Front-end languages involve user interfaces and client-side development. Think HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Front-end languages create the site you’re looking at right now.

Back-end languages handle server-side logic and data processing. Think Java, Python, and Ruby on Rails.

Difference between high-level and low-level programming

The other two main categories for programming languages are high-level and low-level.

Despite the name, high-level languages are designed for human readability and ease of understanding. They can run on any platform and are widely used.

Low-level languages are closer to machine code, less human-friendly, and more efficient for specific tasks. However, they are machine-dependent and less commonly used.

So, what is the best programming language to learn?

There isn’t a definitive answer to the question, but Garcia argues that you have to start somewhere.

“Programming languages share common structures, have similar workflows, patterns, and things like that,” Garcia says. “Once you get more experience, you’ll start seeing common themes across languages. Motivation will propel you to learn and go deep.”

There are thousands of languages to learn and lines of code to type—so it may sound daunting to take the first step. But learning something new can be exciting, so focus on the problem you want to solve and then find the language that best suits you, he advises. For more information on software development skills to get you hired, Fortune compiled the most in-demand programming languages for 2024.

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