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The Four Layers of Programming Skills

kev_mcg profile image Kevin McGillivray Updated on ・5 min read

When learning how to code for the first time, there's a common misconception that learning how to code is primarily about learning the syntax of a programming language. That is, learning how the special symbols, keywords, and characters must be written in the right order for the language to run without errors.

However, focusing only on knowledge of syntax is a bit like practicing to write a novel by only studying grammar and spelling. Grammar and spelling are needed to write a novel, but there are many other layers of skills that are needed in order to write an original, creative novel.

Similarly, to be developer and write original, creative code we need other layers of skills in addition to syntax. Here is one way to organize these skills into what I call the four layers of programming skills:

Syntax skills

This is the layer that is most often focused on in the early learning phase. Syntax skills essentially means how to read and write a programming language using the rules for how different characters must be used for the code to actually work.

Being the first layer doesn't mean it's not important! This can be deeply challenging to master and is an essential skill that needs practice to build fluency and apply the other layers.

Programmatic thinking skills and programming concepts

Programmatic thinking means how to think like a computer and translate a process into a specific set of instructions that a computer can understand. It also means understanding programming concepts like data, variables, functions, objects, etc. This isn't about writing the correct symbols in the right order, it's about how to communicate a specific series of steps to the computer that it's capable of completing.

Humans are capable of both intuitive/visual thinking and logical/verbal thinking. If you were asked to identify the tallest person in a room, you could scan the room visually and quickly pick out the tallest person. Computers can't do that (yet). So, for a computer to do the same thing, we'd need to come up with a more specific and logical process for identifying the tallest person.

Coming up with that logical process is programmatic thinking. In this example, you could ask everyone to write down their name and height, and then you could sort through the thousand slips of paper to put them in order. You could ask everyone to line up, and then compare the height of the first and second person in line. Take whoever is taller from that comparison and compare their height to the third person in line. Whoever is taller in that comparison, compare their height to the fourth person in line, and so on until the end.

To write code, you need to be able to define this type of logical process, and then understand how that translates into the way a computer processes information. The syntax is then simply the standard used to communicate the process to the computer.

Creative skills

If you know the syntax for a programming language and you have programmatic thinking skills, you still might run into difficulties writing code. When you're faced with a programming problem, you still need to answer the question, "how exactly do we get from point A to point B?" Even with a mastery of syntax and concepts, you'll still be faced with a blank page when you sit down to write.

Just like with the tallest person problem, there is typically more than one way to do something, and the more complex the problem is, the more ways there are to solve it. Syntax has one right answer—it either works or it doesn't. Programmatic thinking has many possible answers. There often isn't an answer you can simply copy and drop into your code, and even the problems that do have common solutions with examples you find online may have even better solutions that haven't been created yet.

At some point in the process, in order to write original and unique code, you're going to need creative skills. There's a myth that creativity is something you're born with and that it can't be taught, practiced, or learned. The truth is that creativity is a skill just like any other skill, and it can be practiced and improved. Creative skills include things like:

  1. Experimenting
  2. Rough drafting/sketching code
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Editing
  5. Outlining
  6. Taking breaks
  7. Researching

These creative skills are necessary to figure out an answer when it's not obvious what it should be—to navigate going from a rough draft to a final draft with all the bumps and detours in between.

The best thing about these skills is that they don't just apply to programming—they can apply to anything you're doing from cooking to writing to playing a sport, and if you have other areas where you practice creativity, that can help you apply more creative skills to programming.

Interdisciplinary skills

Writing code is never just about writing code—writing code is always connected to something else. Maybe you're making a website about tea, or a fitness app, or a website for a local car maintenance shop—code always exists in a way that's connected to other topics, not in a vacuum by itself. Having skills and knowledge in lots of other areas besides programming not only helps you make projects related to those areas in a more thoughtful way, skills borrowed from other fields can influence the way you write code and help you come up with solutions you wouldn't have considered otherwise. Balancing programming with curiosity and exploration of other topics makes programming even better!


As learners and teachers, it's important to identify all of the skills we need to learn in order to be a developer. Different students find different layers easier or more challenging than others. Many people who have no problem remembering syntax struggle with programmatic thinking. Many people who have no problem with programmatic thinking have a very difficult time remembering syntax. As learners, recognizing this makes it easier to get unstuck when things are difficult because we can identify the area that is most challenging at the moment. As teachers, when we recognize the whole spectrum of skills that need to be developed, we can make sure we create exercises that cover the entire range.

Thoughts, questions, comments? Let me know what you think on Twitter or in the comments below!

This post was originally published on my personal site.


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Discussion

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kev_mcg profile image
Kevin McGillivray Author

Great question—it's a big challenge to develop exercises to specifically practice this. But, it is still a process that can be defined by a specific set of skills that can be practiced. The typical process I use and the one I help students learn goes like this (but there are variations so don't take this as the One True Way):

  1. Pick a problem, either an exercise you find online or a specific problem in a project you're working on.
  2. Understand the problem – Make sure you actually know what you're trying to do. This can be half the problem.
  3. Sketch out the logic – Use pseudocode, plain English (or your fluent language of choice) descriptions of what the logical steps might be. This is where you really get practice with programmatic thinking. You're writing down the steps in a way that you think would make sense to a computer if it could understand the pseudocode. This step is helpful especially when you're a beginner because you don't have to think about logic and syntax at the same time (which are two different skills of course). If you have to do both as a beginner, it's way, way too complicated. This way you can focus on one at a time. The important thing to remember is that this is a rough draft (see the next skill layer, creative skills). It most likely won't be perfect, but you have to get an idea down anyway.
  4. Write the code – Translate each line into the actual programming language you're using. If the pseudocode was written in a "computery" way, then each line should translate to one line of code. But, often a line of pseudocode requires a few more sub-steps.
  5. Test each line as you write it – Make mini tests (printing to the console) for each line and make sure it's doing what you think it's doing (this is also building a solid base for eventually learning test driven development).
  6. If you complete this process and you haven't solved the problem, revisit the pseudocode and syntax back and forth, experimenting with different approaches until you get closer to something that works. Don't be afraid to research other people's solutions to similar problems online as well.
  7. Eventually you'll narrow down the problems to details until it works. At this point, there's still one more step: refactoring. Typically you'll end up with a solution that works but is a bit messy. Or there might be a better solution that ends up with the same result but is more organized or efficient. Look at your rough draft and think about performance, flexibility, and readability of the code.

I have more thoughts on this written here: Writing Code From Scratch. Wrote it a while ago and might need updating. Thanks very much for your question, I might write a post about this!

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk

Great list; nice decomposition.

The there might be another level out there that includes skills like:

  • communicating with the users
  • project management
  • feature prioritization
  • user interface design
  • engineering trade offs between various project characteristics (readability, maintainability, robustness, correctness, fault-tolerance, etc.)
  • life cycle considerations
  • testing
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blonkm profile image
Michiel van der Blonk

Creative skills are overrated. Almost everything that can be solved has been solved. Being literate in the language means you can read an existing solution, figure out the concepts behind it, and implement it yourself.

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chris_codes profile image
Chris Mendoza

Breathtaking UIs probably need those creative skills.

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blonkm profile image
Michiel van der Blonk

True. That has little to do with programming though.

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davidhaile profile image
David Haile

Excellent list! I'd add one more - FOCUS. I've sent a few new hires packing who had trouble digging hard into a problem to find its source. As a matter of fact, it is the first thing I'd be looking for in a newly hired programmer.

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abderrahim96 profile image
Abderrahim Taleb

Great !! I like it

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daviaugustos profile image
Davi Santos

Man! Awesome approach. I totally agree, the art of programmig is much more that typing simple scripts and codes.

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald

Fantastic!

Don't forget communication, though. That's key, even more than basic syntax skills.