How Much Math Do I Need to Know to Code?
Creative, exciting, and commonly misunderstood—careers in the tech industry are often perceived as unattainable by people who don’t get excited about doing math all day, or who fear they might not have the specialized knowledge to do high-level equations for a living.
Here’s the reality: While math and things like website development seem to go hand-in-hand, the actual amount of high-level math needed to work in tech is wildly overblown.
“I’m personally horrendous at math,” says Monica Lent, Lead Front End Engineer at SumUp. “[I] struggled with it [all] through [school]. Terrible at geometry, terrible at algebra, didn’t complete calculus. I’m even slow at arithmetic.”
Today, Lent manages a team of five web developers, proving that math and computer science aren’t the only direct routes to a tech career. “Many people I work with have little professional training in computer science,” says Lent. “It’s absolutely not a barrier to becoming a web developer.”
According to Web Developer Charlotte O’Hara, it’s not only easy to learn to code without having a background in math, but outside of some routine arithmetic, most web development projects don’t rely heavily on math at all.
This is particularly true, O’Hara stresses, for anyone working on web design or front-end development. A focus on critical thinking and an eye for design is more important than advanced calculations, she says, and that she “rarely use[s] math on a daily basis.”
People who just can’t get enough of equations often end up studying tech partly because traditional universities don’t necessarily make the distinction between math and tech skills, says Justin Morse, President at Arrow Software. This is why if you take the university route to get a degree in computer science, you’ll be required to take multiple high-level math courses—like Morse did. But as far as his work in the real world goes? “I’d estimate that I…use the things I learned in those math classes once or twice a year,” Morse says. Morse’s main professional focus is desktop software and web development, and he says that most of his developer colleagues use high-level math just as infrequently as he does.
So where do those calculations end up? “There are people who write code that requires math skills well beyond my abilities,” says Morse, “but those people make up a small fraction of programmers. Think NASA.”
At this point, it should be clear that math isn’t a necessity if you’re looking to become a coder—but on a broader scale, that might be beside the point. Sure, you might feel more qualified to take on coding (as you should), but what if you think that after a few years in tech, working at NASA sounds awesome? What if you wish you could use your tech skills in a more mathematical way, but just think you aren’t very good at it? Well, your math anxiety might not have any correlation whatsoever with your actual ability.
A 2017 Science Magazine study indicates that it is our perception of our own ability, and not the ability itself, that determines success—especially when it comes to what our peers are saying. This is especially true for women. In her Los Angeles Times report of the study, Amina Kahn wrote that “research has shown that the idea that men are better than women at math actually impairs women’s performance and undermines their interest in math-related fields.” It’s the idea, not any difference in cognitive ability. Math-heavy fields are often dominated by men, for no other reason than the fact that one gender gets more encouragement than another. So that little voice in that back of your head telling you that you you can’t handle math? Go ahead and ignore that.
Here’s the bottom line: A fear of math shouldn’t keep you from learning to code—it simply doesn’t come up all that often. But if you’re looking to go further with your tech skills and explore more of STEM, there’s no reason to be intimidated. You have all of the ability you need; it’s only a matter of shutting down the voices that wrongly tell you that you don’t.
And once you’ve done that, download the free Ultimate Guide to Coding for Beginners. Learn exactly what skills you’ll need for a career as a web developer, how to use those skills to land a job you’ll love, and how to be successful in your first job and beyond.