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Programming vs. Coding: what is the difference?

29 November 2022

Computers have become a crucial part of everyday life. Whether it’s in a business setting, social endeavour or simply for leisure, to fire up Netflix for a movie marathon. It’s important to remember though, that without human input, computers would be nothing but a pile of otherwise useless components.

For us to utilise these machines, we need to be able to communicate with them in a way which allows them to act on our requests. That’s where computer coding and programming come into play…

What is code and why do we need it?

In computing, code is used to communicate with a computer, allowing us to input a list of instructions to be performed.

A computer is comprised of electronic components with no proper understanding or experience of the world or communication as we know it. This means computers can’t speak ‘human languages’, so code has been used to create a language which computers can understand.

Examples of code and coding languages

HTML (HyperText Markup Language)

A great example of this would be the web page you’re looking at now, which is made using HTML. In the early days of the internet, information was transferred via plain text files. This was soon replaced by a code called HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which allowed for the text to be enhanced by formatting, images, links and other features. The crucial idea is that the text had to be “marked up” with special code elements that a piece of software called a “web browser” could interpret.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets)

HTML is usually combined with CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), which helps us to customise the way our pages look. HTML and CSS are used together to build the page you’re currently reading.

To see the code the way a computer does, your browser might allow you to right-click on a blank area and choose “View Source” or “View Page Source”.

Like all codes, it may seem complicated but it’s much easier than it looks; you can learn to write code like this with City Lit’s web development courses.


Another example of a code is SQL, which was developed in the 1980s as a way to describe the structure of a database, alter the data in a database, and subject the database to “queries”.

Before this, data was mostly held in paper records that made it difficult to answer questions: SQL allows us to ask very refined questions of our data and get back detailed answers.

It’s fair to say that, alongside the internet, this has been one of the most transformative applications of computers so far.

What is programming?

Programming is a specific kind of coding which is designed to give the computer instructions. This is done using special codes called programming languages, although they only slightly resemble the familiar languages spoken by humans. They allow us to express instructions in a very clear and precise way that the computer can execute.

Programming is the art of making the machine do what we want. 

Popular programming languages


Python is a popular programming language for beginners because it’s relatively easy to read and doesn’t require a lot of technical knowledge to get started. It has a powerful collection of “libraries” of pre-written code, especially around data analysis. As a result, many people who work with data use a little python code in their work even if they’re not programmers in the traditional sense.


Java was designed to support the development of large, complex software systems using an approach known as “object-oriented programming”. It has a steeper learning curve than Python but can produce well-organised bodies of code that run very efficiently. For this reason, you’re most likely to see Java code in a full-blown software development project.


JavaScript is the language that’s used to make web pages “do things” when you’re looking at them in your browser. As a result, for decades now it’s been one of the most widely-used languages in the world, with JavaScript developers being needed for almost all web-based projects. Despite its name, it doesn’t have very much in common with Java!

What can you create through programming?

The outcome of programming can be a piece of software, such as the web browser you’re using to read this page. It could also be a more interactive “notebook”, widely used in data science to combine code with statistical analyses and visualizations.

It could even be a simple “script”, a short programme that automates a single task that would otherwise have to be performed manually.

What skills are needed for programming?

In a digital world, programming is becoming an increasingly desirable role, so what does it take to be a good fit for the job’s daily demands?

Systemic thinking and problem solving skills

All coding requires systematic thinking and an ability to break down the desired outcome into the simple steps that a code can express. Programming requires all this too, as well as deeper problem-solving skills – in fact, most of the challenge for the beginning programmer arises from the need to reason about problems in a new way, not from the jargon of the language.

Maths proficiency

Many programmers like to also study mathematics courses for programming, which fosters similar analytical and problem-solving skills. It’s a myth, though, that you have to be good at maths to be a programmer. Good programmers are able to develop a deep understanding of a given problem, break it down into small parts and understand how the parts are related to each other – when done right, this process leads rapidly to a solution in the language of choice.

The Difference Between Coding and Programming

Both coding and programming involve expressing something in a way a computer can process. Often, we use the term “coding” for both, but more precisely we can say coding means encoding some information in a machine-readable form. This doesn’t just mean typing it in – to be useful, data needs to be stored in the computer in a structured way. The choice of coding language and decisions about how to apply it are technical. 

Programming is a very special kind of coding since the thing we’re encoding is the behaviour we want the computer to exhibit. Traditionally this is done using a sequence of instructions (like a recipe), but less direct approaches are often better for complicated behaviours, especially when they need to adapt to inputs they receive while running (e.g. a video game). Programming is so important that a whole profession has developed around it with techniques and methods to help us manage the many interesting challenges it presents.

Benefits of learning to code

  1. Career prospects — By learning to code independently or by completing a coding course, you’ll gain the skills to increase your options when applying for digital jobs.
  2. Digital independence — If you own your own business, knowledge of coding can help you create a bespoke website or computer processes, rather than employing freelancers to do this for you. Learning a little coding will also help you understand the digital world more broadly.
  3. Problem solving — Programming and coding offer an opportunity to develop and practise your ability to work with technical information, identify problems and, above all, come up with clever solutions.
  4. Creativity — Above all, programmers make things, and often what we make and the way we choose to do it offer scope for creative expression. Many of us who code for a living also choose to do it for fun.
  5. Use coding everywhere — Once you learn to code it becomes a tool you always carry with you like a swiss army-knife, allowing you to quickly perform tasks that would otherwise be long and tedious. This doesn’t only apply in the workplace; coding is just as useful in creative arts, hobbies, and leisure interests.

3 top tips for learning to code

1 - Although programming languages are a lot simpler than human languages, some of the same techniques apply to learning both.

Immerse yourself in the language by reading and writing it as often as possible: a routine of daily practice, however basic, is an important ingredient of success.

Even solving the same problem multiple times can be very beneficial at the beginning. You’ll get lots of support with these techniques on our introductory web design and programming courses here at City Lit.

2 – Buddy up – if you’re just dipping your toe into the world of coding it can feel overwhelming. The best way to learn is by example, find a coding friend, watch YouTube videos and read step by step blog posts to get a feel for learning. 

3 – Try it out – practice makes perfect, the best way to approach coding is to try it out. 

Programming vs. Coding FAQS

To help you gain a better understanding of both programming and coding, we’re answering some of the most commonly asked questions on the topic.

Is programming the same as coding?

No – programming is a special kind of coding concerned with getting the computer to do what we want. Other kinds of coding are usually about representing information in a way the computer can use. 

Is it better to learn coding or programming?

Neither is better and it’s often good to learn both! Programming is a set of technical problem-solving skills that can be very rewarding, both intellectually and (if you’re lucky!) financially; once you can program in one language it’s quite easy to transfer your skills to another. Coding systems, on the other hand, tend to have special applications and it’s well worth learning about those you come across in your work or interests. Programmers often need to learn about coding languages used by the data they’re working with.

Is Python coding or programming?

Python coding is the programming kind of coding. Typically, we use Python to write a sequence of instructions for the computer, then “run” them to tell the computer to carry out those instructions one by one. 

What pays more, coding or programming?

There are very highly-paid roles in both. A data architect might use SQL and related coding languages to design databases without ever doing any programming. Typically, though, software developer roles, which are primarily about programming rather than other kinds of coding, pay well above average and can be very financially rewarding.

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About the Author

Rich Cochrane

Rich is a programmer, writer and educator with a particular interest in creative practice. In his previous career he worked as a software developer in the CIty, first at a dot-com startup and later at a top-tier investment bank where he worked mostly on trading floor systems and got to play with a wide range of languages and technologies. He now teaches coding and maths-related courses full time.