Anyone who has worked in programming, or even thought about going into programming, has probably seen these words from Apple founder Steve Jobs: “Everyone in this country should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you to think.” While programming is great for learning critical thinking skills, one challenge that even the best programmers face is how to apply problem-solving skills to programming in order to solve the major crises and minor bugs that can compromise even the best programming efforts. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most important ways to improve problem-solving skills in programming.
According to HackerRank, “Problem-solving skills are almost unanimously the most important qualification that employers look for […] more than programming languages proficiency, debugging, and system design.” So how do you develop the best problem-solving skills? And is there even an end to that development? Spoiler alert — no.
To think like a programmer is to seek the most efficient way to solve problems. Most people solve problems through brute force. They will try a potential solution, see if it works, and keep trying alternatives until something works through sheer luck or persistence. That, however, is an inefficient way to develop a solution. Programmers can improve their problem-solving skills by developing a methodology for problem-solving and then following that methodology to carefully pursue a solution. It may seem a little complicated, but dealing with programming assignments almost daily, you already know that once you know the algorithm and have a tested and proven methodology, efficiency of your work increases significantly. That is why it is worth investing your time and efforts into this stage.
To solve a problem in programming efficiently, you should follow a few key steps:
#1. Understand the problem.
Know what the problem is and all the parts of the problem. One of the challenges that make problems hard to solve is that most people don’t understand the full scope of the problem before starting to look for a solution. Therefore, the first step is to study the problem to ascertain what you need to know. You can get a good idea of when you have learned enough to understand the problem if you can explain the problem in plain English without recourse to weasel words or jargon. When you can state the problem clearly, you know you understand it well enough. Understanding of the problem is half the solution. Normally, you already have a needed background to tackle some problem, but you don’t know what to implement in a particular situation. Before you start trying randomly every solution you can think of, make sure you see the problem clearly.
#2. Plan to tackle the problem.
Don’t simply jump into trying to fix the problem without fully understanding its many parts. The best thing you can do is to try to develop a logical plan that will help you attack the problem from a position of strength. In other words, don’t immediately start hacking. Instead, ask yourself how, from the starting point of where you are now you can move logically to the end point you want to reach. What steps will it take to get there? Step-by-step approach is not a novelty for programming specialists, and we are sure you are already familiar with it, and will be comfortable applying it to problem solving.
#3. Divide the problem into manageable steps
Many problems are simply too big to try to tackle all at once. In fact, trying to do so can be overwhelming. Instead, divide the problem into smaller, more achievable steps that will let you move logically through problem solving and also give you the opportunity to savor small victories on the path to success. One of the most effective ways to manage the solving of sub-problems is to start with the smallest and easiest problem and solve it first. Often, as you knock out the easiest problems to solve, the solution will end up simplifying the harder problems you are saving for later. As V. Anton Spraul said, “Reduce the problem to the point where you know how to solve it and write the solution. Then expand the problem slightly and rewrite the solution to match, and keep going until you are back where you started.”
#4. Practice problem-solving skills
Lastly, one of the best ways to develop your problem-solving skills is to practice them. That doesn’t mean seeking out programming problems just for fun, but you should engage in other opportunities to apply the same skill set. For example, Elon Musk plays video games and Peter Thiel plays chess to keep their minds sharp and practice problem-solving. There are many ways to do this beyond video games and chess. You might try playing Sudoku or card games or board games or volunteering to help with an organization’s logistics operations—anything that will get your mind working in different ways. They also say that we come up with the most creative solutions when we are distracted with some routine, even manual labor. Try tidying around or planting something, it’s not a joke.
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