start

You might not know it, but if you have used Google Spreadsheet (or its much more powerful equivalent, Microsoft Office Excel), you have already programmed. And if you like using these products a lot, then you know you are hooked! It’s a sure way to find out if you are a nerd in hiding – if a pivot table makes you excited, you know you will come jonesing back for more.

We will use Google Spreadsheet rather than Excel for this lesson, though we won’t really talk about why (hint – it has something to do with how boring Visual Basic is, but that’s a story for another day!)

Open up Google Spreadsheets – you will need a Google account to do this – and create a blank spreadsheet. On spreadsheets.google.com, there’s a link to the top left corner, that says Blank under the “Start A New Spreadsheet” section.

Even if you haven’t used this specific product before, this has a familiar look to it, if you have used any desktop software at all – there is a “menu” of options at the top, starting with the two menu items, File and Edit, and a bunch more (Google might have added or modified the list since these lessons were published, but File and Edit are probably the same and start off the list.) You probably know that to navigate the menu, you have to click on the top-level menu title. That shows a list of options underneath the heading – you might know that this is called a “dropdown” menu.

It’s worth stopping here awhile to think about this terminology – menu, menu title, menu item, dropdown menu, and so on. Why do we use these terms? Why are they part of common usage? Do people read instruction manuals? If so, which ones, and where do they find them? Do you have to know this terminology to use software like Google Spreadsheets?

If you don’t know some of these terms, and have been using Google Spreadsheets all the same, your answer to the last question would be – no. You didn’t know that each selection in a menu is called an “item,” and now that you know it, you might think to promptly forget it.

When you are using any specific application, it does not matter if you are familiar with this terminology but as you start using many applications, and need to get better and faster at finding information on the Internet, you’ll find that knowing the terms beforehand makes it easier to find the solutions you are seeking. This becomes more and more important as you get deeper into programming – as problems become more complex, and searching on the Internet becomes more frequent, you have to know the lingo of the terrain and the local population, to get around quickly and avoid pointless journeys down unhelpful garden paths.

Now that you are convinced that you need to pick up the lingo, you are curious and perhaps anxious to know where all the dictionaries are. Well, there are any number of textbooks and manuals no doub, but frequently, the Internet might be your only comprehensive source, a fact that can both be very empowering and frustrating.

In fact, especially with Internet-first applicatoins, like Google Spreadsheets, that have always been available only through a browser and an Internet connection, online manuals and tutorials can sometimes be essentially your only resource for learning about the application. If you have not been using software for a while, this can be a bit difficult when you are also trying to learn the vocabulary used to describe how to use aspects of the application that are not specific to it – like clicking on menu titles, finding items in a dropdown, and so on.

For example, when you read Google’s beginners tutorial for Spreadsheets, it says, in the section titled “Customize formats and fonts”, “select the cells you want to customize, then use the menus and toolbar.” What are cells, and where’s the toolbar? (Thanks to this lesson, you already know what the “menu” is!)

In some respects, this is like reading a dictionary, especially when learning infrequently used or formal words, and finding that you have to look more words up from the initial definition. With learning programming, sometimes, you’ll find that the only way to learn the basic vocabulary (“menus”, “dropdowns”, “buttons”, “sidebar”, and so on) is by prolonged exposure to its usage, and to those that use it – that is, other programmers.

But if that seems like a terrifying challenge, that you have to know and talk to other programmers, before you can program yourself, don’t worry. We’ll get you up to speed here so that you can feel more comfortable having these conversations. For now, don’t worry too much about terminology – just follow along with the ideas, examples and exercises here, and we’ll figure out when’s a good time for you to start talking to other programmers.