From Zero to React

August 30, 2019 - 10 minute read

I live in Vancouver and there’s a huge demand for React developers. This is not a local phenomenon: web developers are in increasingly high demand. With a base level of React knowledge you can net a junior developer role paying upward of $40,000 CAD / year, which places it above Metro Vancouver’s living wage. And salaries only increase from there, especially if you dive in head first and actively work to absorb knowledge and build your skills.

These positions are more accessible than ever due to an abundance of resources available for free online, regardless of background or education. I’m going to break down the minimal necessary steps required gain a base level of React ability. This is not supposed to be a get-hired-quick bait article. The intended audience is anyone who is curious or interested in development who is unsure about the roadmap to a career.

If you’re truly new to this sphere, you may have no web development or React knowledge. Here’s a quick description of the core concepts:

Every website you visit is built with code. Specifically, it is a combination of three ingredients:

  1. HTML

    • This is a markup language that describes the basic structure of the web page. Think of it as the bones; it provides the content and order of the page, but without anything else it will be very basic (just a pile of bones). For example, HTML would make your page header “My cool site”.
    • Click here for example (check out the index.html file in the “Explorer” on the left).
  2. CSS

    • This is a style sheet language that describes the visual style of your web page. Think of it as the skin; it provides the appearance of the page, but it requires the bones (HTML) in order to look like something. For example, CSS make your page header orange.
    • Click here for example (check out the index.css file in the “Explorer” on the left).
  3. JavaScript

    • This is a scripting language that can manipulate your web page. Think of it as the muscles; it provides movement to your bones (HTML) and skin (CSS). For example, JavaScript would make your page header switch between blue and orange every two seconds.
    • Click here for example (check out the index.js file in the “Explorer” on the left).

Every site you see can be built using only those three things. So what is React?

For more complex sites, it becomes hard to organize and manage all of your JavaScript and HTML. Additionally, causing simple manipulations with JavaScript can take a lot of code to do, which slows down development. So some smart people created JavaScript frameworks to help others build complex applications with JavaScript. One of those was created by Facebook to help build their sites, and it is called React.

Thus ends our history lesson.

I’m going to discuss how to go from zero or minimal coding language to basic React ability. Obviously this only gets easier if you have some coding ability, but it’s not essential. The whole point is to get coding ability. Additionally, while I’m talking about what I know (React), this can be extrapolated to either of the other primary JavaScript frameworks: Angular and Vue. But don’t look at those yet.

A few points I’d like to bring up before diving in:

  1. This isn’t going to be a miracle article. You still have to learn everything. Everyone will take a different amount of time to gain proficiency, and it is a tiered approach, where you should be comfortable at every level before proceeding to the next.
  2. This may not be the best approach for everyone. It requires time and persistence, and (in my opinion) a passion for coding. Passion will drive you through frustration to success. Although maybe stubbornness will do. Or just the drive to earn a living wage. Software development is in a truly unique position where anyone can become one, for free, by themselves, and compete on equal footing with anyone else. That should not be undervalued.
  3. This is not the best way to learn React, it’s the fastest. If you take this route, you will absolutely miss out on some core fundamentals of general programming.

    Here’s the gamble you take with this approach: I wager that you don’t need those fundamentals to be a passable React developer. I also wager that you can learn a lot of said fundamentals on the job. React itself is very opinionated, which essentially means it directs you into a certain way of doing things. This lets you bypass fundamentals because you don’t necessarily have to understand how things work inside, you just need to know to get React to do them, and React will only do them a specific way.

    More opinionated = fewer ways to do things = less to learn.

    Eventually, you can begin to explore the internals, but you don’t need that for a junior React developer job (and that’s the whole point of this article!).

1. Start with HTML and CSS

<!-- This is HTML. -->
<h1>My cool site</h1>
/* And this is CSS. */
h1 {
  color: 'orange';

This is your bread and butter web development stuff. You can not skip this. You may have heard that you don’t need HTML since React builds your HTML for you. While this is true, React uses an internal syntax called JSX that very closely resembles HTML. Your knowledge of HTML will go a long way in understanding how web pages are constructed, and will directly influence how quickly you are able to pick up React. Don’t worry about memorizing the tags, learning how to structure HTML is more important. If you forget how to do something, look it up!

CSS is absolutely essential. You will use it at every stage in your career. A good knowledge of CSS will allow you to create beautiful web pages. If you want to start playing around with HTML and CSS, go back to my HTML and CSS example from earlier. Just play around with some values to see what happens. The best way to learn is by doing! However, you do not need to be a master. You just need to understand how it works, and how to do basic things. If you want to do something you don’t know, look it up! The goal is to become a React developer, and since you will be using CSS throughout your entire career, you will continuously learning.

Here’s one last thing I’ll say with regards to “looking it up”. Ignore anyone who says “don’t keep looking up how to do it, you won’t learn it”. You absolutely will learn it. Everyone looks up basic stuff at every level of development. When I was making this article I had to look up how to import CSS into HTML. If you do something enough you’ll remember it naturally. And if you don’t then who cares, it takes 2 seconds to look up. That’s the magic of the internet.

2. Start to learn JavaScript

// This is JavaScript.
var helloWorld = 'Hello, World!';

You can build a really cool site entirely with HTML and CSS. However, you will naturally come to a point where you won’t be able to go any further. For example, you may want to display the current time in the top corner, or have a side menu that opens when you click a button. All of these manipulations require JavaScript (actually you can do some absolutely insane things with only HTML and CSS, but that’s more for the sake of humour/madness than practicality).

JavaScript is going to be the largest learning curve before you get to React, so take your time. Again, go back and play around with the HTML, CSS and JavaScript example. Start making your page do crazy things. Here are some tutorials by Mozilla to teach you some basics.

Don’t worry so much about concepts like object-oriented programming. Despite this being one of the aforementioned “fundamentals”, you won’t generally use it in React that much. Let me be super clear though, it is a huge fundamental. If you want to take the time to learn object-oriented programming, I highly encourage you to. It forms the basis of any university computer degree. However, this guide is the fast track(!) guide, so we are keeping things fast here.

Do worry about things like map (but only once you know the basics of JavaScript, including objects and arrays).

Most importantly, build things. Make a personal page for yourself with some JavaScript in it, make a website for your partner, make a funny e-letter site for a friend’s birthday, etc. And again, don’t worry if you have to google every single thing you do, you will learn.

3. Start to learn React

// This is React.
function MyCoolSite() {
  return <h1>My cool site</h1>;

React will be your largest learning curve, especially since you fast-tracked your way through JavaScript.

Here’s why React is tricky:

  1. React uses JSX. If you’ve been learning your JavaScript you will notice that this is not real JavaScript. You would be right. It’s a little bit of magic in order to make the code appear closer to the HTML that will be created by React.

    React uses a tool called Babel to transform this code into real JavaScript, and another tool called webpack to run Babel on the code whenever you start up your project. You can see this transformation by going to React’s home page and checking or un-checking the “JSX?” box on their code examples. The nice thing is you don’t really have to understand how this works, just that it does.

    If you start to play around with making a React project, I suggest you use create react app, which bundles all of the configuration needed to set up React, so you can just start coding without worrying about Babel or webpack or anything other than coding.

  2. React is opinionated. I mentioned before that this would help you by forcing you into a way of doing things that allows you to bypass some of the fundamentals. While this is true, it also means you have to learn those special ways to do things. This takes time, but you can do it!
  3. React isn’t really opinionated. How’s that for a curveball! Perhaps more accurately, React is opinionated in how you write JavaScript code, but it is not opinionated in how you compose your web applications built in React. There are many solutions for something as simple as moving from one page to another. You can use create react app, but you don’t have to. You can use webpack, or use something else entirely. It will take time to figure out what the best solution is, and to learn how to use them.

React has a massive online presence, and you will find ample sites, online learning courses, tutorials and examples to learn from. Maybe start by looking at the React site. They have their own tutorial, which gives lots of good information.

That’s it

I mean, obviously that’s not really it. Once you can build things in React it will be a continued journey of learning how to do more and more advanced things with it. It may also involve going back and learning some of those missing fundamentals. However, I feel like React development offers an opportunity that people can obtain without a traditional computer science approach, even more so than any other type of development.

Going forward, I recommend that you start doing lots of projects in React. Create a GitHub account and begin to create things. Not only will this help you improve, it will serve as a portfolio when you want to get a development job.

And then once you get one, teach other people to do it as well. Not only will it help cement your knowledge, it will afford others the opportunity to investigate whether they have an interest in it.

Above all, be a sponge for information. Invest your time in learning, because this will pay you back in opportunities.

Development really can be for anyone. Maybe it’s for you?