Advice for high school programmers
by Randy Gingeleski
15 minutes to read
If you're ~14 to 18 years old, in American high school, here's all the advice I have on programming and beyond.
This post is seriously meant for people in high school to slingshot them ahead in life as much as possible, happily.
The tech career field is all I know so this is what you’re getting from me.
Any other posts of mine or resources I link will be restated again at the end of this. Focus just on reading this post first instead of branching off and getting distracted on those.
We’ll talk about that actually — distraction, focus as a present-day superpower, and honing your ability to focus.
Each section is a bigger piece of advice that gets broken down better.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
For some reason beginners seem to obsess over what language to learn. I say start here.
Python is my recommended language for anyone starting out with coding, in tech, et cetera.
You can write single
.py scripts with Visual Studio Code — my recommended text editor — then just run them simply like
Learn the command line
python myscript.py or have no idea what I’m talking about there?
You need to learn the command line. Especially Unix/Bash stuff.
If you’re on a Windows computer, use Powershell as it has aliases for many Unix/Bash commands and thus you can still learn that, to an extent.
Try to do as much as possible on the computer without clicking.
This rounds out the big things you need to know on the computer.
- Comfort with the command line/terminal
- Knowledge of a beginner-friendly language with awesome packages available to throw projects together
- This is Python
- Git and version control
Now, I am not going to teach you any of that stuff myself. There are better resources out there.
I am about to point you to one.
The Odin Project
Later we’ll talk about human connections as a vehicle of success in the tech world.
This is another big thing though. The Odin Project taught me Git, and helped me on the command line, but is not based on Python scripting.
If you only take one thing away from this whole post, it’s to go through The Odin Project as much as you can.
This is a linear path to knowing “full-stack development” and being able to write web-based projects. Afterward, try swapping Ruby for Python to power the backends of your web apps.
You’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
Do security/hacking later
You might look at what I do now, which is computer security, and think that’s cool. You may want to do it too.
Chances are you don’t yet know enough about how computers work to be good at security. You’d just parrot talking points.
Since my specialty is application security, you need a firm grasp of how software/applications work too. “Layer 7” in the overall computing curriculum.
You get that from being a programmer/developer for a while. I know some people who are exceptions, but they’re just that. Exceptions.
The reason Aspect Security was such a great place is that most of the other engineers there followed this path too —
- Be a developer
- Somehow get interested in security and start learning that
- Transition to being a security person
This is fairly proven for success. We’re not going to really touch it in this post because you, as a high school person, have so much work to do learning computers and programming first.
You might think if you do a good job with those while in high school that you should then elect a “cybersecurity” major in college. ❌
I cannot recommend that either. Below is what I do recommend around “college” though —
- Skip college entirely through a hiring avenue like Triplebyte, or freelance work
- In lieu of that, I’d attend the Bloom Institute of Technology and sign their income-sharing agreement
- Least preferable, go to “traditional college” while avoiding debt and adopt computer science as an undergrad major instead of cybersecurity
The whole point of this post is to help high schoolers blow away their peers, if they get this post early enough in life…
… and they follow the advice. DO THE WORK.
Most readers of this article won’t do that because it’s hard. The same goes for most all advice from my blog.
Actually, the same goes for most all of life. The thing you most need to do right now for growth is probably the hardest, most uncomfortable thing you can think of right now.
Stay off social media
My first thought was to call this section “Stay off Twitter,” but LinkedIn is also a net negative, then there’s Gen Z stuff like TikTok, et cetera. Don’t get me started on Facebook and Instagram.
I know all your friends are probably on these services. So there’s that from a non-programming, social aspect.
It’s also tempting to find a community of other people just starting out coding. There’s a lot of self-congratulatory fluff for you each to upvote from the others and release some dopamine. It will feel like work. You can sell yourself that lie. Hooray.
But here’s the thing — the point of my advice is to slingshot you beyond the crowd. The average high schooler purportedly spends 9 hours a day consuming media.
For you to get ahead of all these other beginners, simply don’t.
“Okay, I get that it’s not good to waste time in other ‘beginner coding’ sham communities. But Randy my whole life is on TikTok/Instagram/Snapchat/God-knows-what-else!!”
At 27, I’m not too old to have missed social media in my high school days. My now-dormant Facebook account began in 2009.
My first profile picture was of a cat because — we’ll get to this later — my self-confidence sucked.
Looking back, it was a net negative and especially an emotional rollercoaster for a hormonal teenager.
Maybe the best part is you can use it to creep on photos of potential love interests. Otherwise, I don’t see what good comes out of it.
And hey there are other websites that facilitate that. Though you should avoid them too. You know what I’m talking about.
“YOU ARE WRONG.”
Then entertain a quick litmus test. Stay off social media for 10 days entirely. Chances are, nobody else will notice. Self-assess whether your mental health is better or worse afterward.
And whether you got more or less done with this coding stuff.
Then, for the over-achievers, try abstaining from “the news” and any other thing you can infinitely scroll through.
I worked for CNN parent WarnerMedia long enough to opine that nothing good comes from that.
Don’t stay off Twitter
Much of life is paradoxical, dualities, yin-yang.
Does this contradict the last section? Maybe a little.
Twitter and GitHub can be beneficial if you use them right. Which means, differently than all your peers.
Avoid infinite scrolling. Find some quality profiles and follow just those. This more-so applies to Twitter but so be it.
“Follow” means “go directly to their profile and read their latest content in chronological order.” Algorithm be damned.
Because the main feeds of these sites are algorithmically generated, they can go on forever, just wasting time and tickling your lizard brain. 🦎
Search engine friend
Which online resources are healthy for a programmer? Some certainties are (1) a search engine, (2) StackOverflow, (3) GitHub when used as prescribed in the last section.
Personally, I’ve never posted anything to StackOverflow. The search engine will turn up stuff there. See my whole post on searching as a young engineer too.
For transparency’s sake, I do most searching with DuckDuckGo these days. If that doesn’t give me ideal results then Google will come out. That’s a bigger discussion for another time.
Minimal online presence
Another post of mine for further reading discusses creating an online presence as a tech worker. See that, plus lock down GitHub, LinkedIn, and a domain name for yourself.
i.e. my domain =
You might question LinkedIn. I did say that was bad too, not long ago.
The trick is to have a profile there and abstain from the “social” or scrolling parts.
GitHub again can also be a huge time sink with its Explore section and the somewhat-social timeline. Recurring advice.
RECURRING ADVICE 000000
Just be strong. Use your judgment.
Work is scary
With all these online time wasters eliminated, it’ll be hard to hide from actual learning and programming when at the computer.
It’ll be hard to hide from your own thoughts.
This can be intimidating. It can be scary.
Take it a bit at a time. You’ll build the “brain muscles” to do longer and longer focused work as you commit to not be so un-focused.
Ultimately it’ll be hard to hide from greatness.
Socialize with humans in real life
I write this post in 2021, when some still argue in-person gatherings are risky. This won’t last forever though.
Despite what the forever-bearish news media wants you to think/feel.
Another piece of further reading will be my 5 lessons from 5 years into a tech career. A big takeaway in there is to build real social skills.
Being good at interacting with others via online channels
!= human connections.
Any knowledge work, not just engineering, can be super-charged by human connection. Other posts of mine celebrated my freedom from Lockheed Martin when my employer became Aspect Security.
That job — all my subsequent success in the computer security world — started with one solid relationship. Mainly this guy Dave, but then some other initial interviewers, took a chance on me as a then-22-year-old who didn’t know much about security.
My current job came about through another friendship made at that company. So did my last one. And a pile of side consulting work.
Without forming human connections, I might be back in my Syracuse cubicle making 6+ times less money as a “senior software engineer,” popping anti-depressants.
As you climb the ladder you’ll get increasing fake attention, which can vary in how obvious it is. People sucking up to you.
That’s a good sign you’re on the right path, but you must manage it. Trust your gut. Literally I can feel whether interactions with others are positive or negative.
You have finite energy each day. Does a given social interaction leave you feeling positive and empowered, or drained?
“Social interaction” can even be responding to a text message.
So many people ignore their gut/conscience/heart and just get used to tuning it out. You’re trying to beat the average crowd, so hone those sensibilities.
Eventually you’ll climb high enough to adhere to the Hell Yeah or No principle.
TL;DR from that book is you should only do things that excite and empower you. Those can sometimes be a little scary. Deny everything else.
Be less serious
This section is related to the last one on human connections. I wish I took things less seriously in high school, and was less anxious.
Some classmates from then may remember me as a guy who did funny videos for projects. How serious could I have been?
Well, in 10th grade I started sweating uncontrollably from my arm pits all the time. It was an anxiety thing that required prescription deodorant to shut down my sweat glands there.
Still, I wore undershirts all the time.
Another vulnerable thing to admit is that I never — not once — used the bathroom in middle or high school. This was from shyness, never wanting to ask permission. Pretty much my body got used to low hydration and “holding it” all day.
Then in 12th grade I started drinking before school. You can read more about my whole 2010 decade here if it’s of interest.
Why share this? It’s a lot, yeah. Now IDGAF and am trying to help whoever needs it.
I was a shy, anxious mess and wish that all wasn’t time spent being “serious.”
I can count on one hand how many people from high school I ever see now. Let alone socialize with.
So whatever you’ve got going on, nobody will remember long-term. Chill out.
Hell, times I got most embarassed weren’t probably remembered a week later from when they happened by anyone but me.
The one hack I can give you from my high school days — that had nothing to do with computers — is looking good.
- Dress better than everyone else
- Get a good haircut
- Whiten your teeth
- Lift weights
- Slim down via cardio and/or low-carb dieting
Specifics are beyond the scope of this post.
Maybe it sounds stupid to recall like 10 years later. But despite all my shortcomings, nerves, and whatever, I consider my last year or so of high school to be successful for social life and romance.
The trick was partly alcohol and my access to it.
The other part was putting on “business casual” clothes every day, working out, tanning, whitening my teeth, and finally getting a decent haircut.
Taking whatever you were born with and enacting a Jersey Shore approach to looking good will increase how much other attractive people talk to you, what grades you get, and just how life goes.
It sounds dumb. It’s not fair. People are biased. But that’s my life experience.
Nearing closure, I’ll throw in some woo-woo spiritual stuff that maybe is increasingly prevalent on this blog and makes certain readers roll their eyes.
Have a positive, growth, abundance mindset.
The world is a great place and this is the best time ever to be alive. I’m giving you all this free advice over the Internet. This is awesome.
Social media, “the news”, and many other forces of darkness do not want you to be positive. That’s just the yin-yang/God-Satan/whatever forces of the universe that’ve been battling for all time.
What you think about and focus on = how you see the world.
Here are 3 books I recommend to elaborate on these ramblings —
- Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich
- Fairly brief “self help” read on honing your mental game
- The Book by Alan Watts
- You cannot have lightness and good without the opposite
- I Am Enough by Marisa Peer
- Therapy techniques, helpful if you cannot afford actual therapy yet
High school kids now are almost certainly not reading enough books. What you are mandated to read might cast negativity unnecessarily or inaccurately.
Be strong though. Between books and the Internet, you can choose your teachers, mentors, and parents, in a way. Be strong.
Avoid normal college
This was just worth restating. 😉
Learn Burp Suite
Do you want to be a web app hacker like me? A great bonus skill is learning Burp Suite Professional by going through its maker’s free Web Security Academy.
Then take the certification test — normally $100 but as of this writing it’s on sale for $9. Thanksgiving / Black Friday 2021.
Then put the successful certification on your LinkedIn and actual résumé.
I went to full-blown therapy for many hours, my last year of high school. My old decade review mentioned criminal trouble from those days that led to therapy.
But that was a defining time in my life. Talking to a therapist instilled a habit of analyzing my own thoughts.
So that’s my first suggestion for social help, is some type of therapy.
Nowadays you can do virtual counseling with someone certified in Rapid Transformational Therapy®. It likely will not be covered by “normal” health insurance, but may not be too expensive for your parents. You can deal with things like social anxiety, trauma, and so on. Very versatile.
If you need a different type of social help, to just become more suave and build better connections, check out People Formula online trainings. Cost equivalent to ~1 therapy session.
I wrap this up by restating the advice succinctly and section-by-section —
- Learn Python
- Learn the command line
- Learn Git
- [Become a student of] The Odin Project
- Do security/hacking later [after learning computers and software pretty well first]
- Stay off social media [generally speaking]
- Don’t stay off Twitter [or GitHub but use them sparingly and responsibly]
- Search engine [skills make it an engineer’s best] friend
- [Set up at least a] minimal online presence
- Work is scary [when you’ve eliminated distractions but you’ll get used to it]
- Socialize with humans in real life [and realize social skills can be honed]
- Be less serious [in high school than I was and chill TF out]
- Look good [by out-dressing and out-trying all of your peers]
- [Cultivate an] abundance mindset
- Avoid normal college [by pursuing the alternatives I’ve outlined first, or at least choosing an affordable ‘normal college’ option]
- Learn Burp Suite [as a bonus if you’re interested in web app hacking, after you can develop web apps competently yourself]
- Social help [is always an option]
Linked third-party resources in order of their mention/linking —
- Course: Codecademy Python
- Tool: Visual Studio Code
- Course: The Odin Project
- Post: OSI model
- Post: Aspect Security team joins EY
- Tool: Triplebyte
- Tool: *Bloom Institute of Technology**
- Study: On typical media usage habits of contemporary teenagers
- Book: Hell Yeah or No by Derek Sivers
- Book: Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich
- Book: The Book by Alan Watts
- Book: I Am Enough by Marisa Peer
- Course: Portswigger Web Security Academy
- Tool: RTT therapist search
- Tool: People Formula online courses
Other blog posts of mine in order of mention/linking —
- Post: Developing a technical web presence
- Post: How to become a good engineer using Google search
- Post: 5 lessons from 5 years into a tech career
- YouTube: DG Media Group
- Old videos, potentially offensive (to you) and embarrassing (to me)
- Post: 2010 decade in review
Good luck. I hope you surpass me in the tech world by following this advice and becoming a young phenom.
Steal my job. All this computer stuff is tiring me out anyway, and I have my pilot’s license to fall back on. People can read your blog/advice instead. 😉
Seriously! That’s a real abundance mindset.