WDM 101 - Web Development Math 101

A standard question that most people coming into programming ask is: Do I need to know math to become a web developer?

The popular answer is an emphatic “NO!”, but to be honest, this is only correct for certain values of “Math”.

You don’t need to know topology or knot theory to do web development. You don’t need to be able to do calculus, trigonometry or linear algebra. In other words, when people say “NO!”, what I think they really mean is that you don’t need to be a mathlete.

For web development, arithmetic and basic algebra should be the minimum.

I’m not saying that you can’t learn programming without understanding arithmetic and basic algebra, I’m saying that you probably shouldn’t.

The problems you will be solving will often be disguised as programming problems and data problems, but in reality, they are word problems.

Here are a couple of examples:

Problem 1

You are working on a real-estate website. The area of all the homes and apartments need to be listed in both square feet and square meters.

The area of one of the listed apartments is 300 square feet. Given that 1 foot is 0.30480 meters, the conversion goes like this:

300 ft^2 x some conversion factor = the area in square meters.

To get the conversion factor you recall that anything can be multiplied by 1 and get the same result. Our goal is to cancel out the square feet and end up with square meters, so the conversion factor becomes (0.30480 x 0.30480) m^2 / (1 x 1) ft^2, making the result approximately 27.9 m^2.

Not a very big apartment.

Problem 2

You are working for an online store, and you need to write a promotion engine to give discounts to the customer. For example, 20% off any jeans, buy two shirts and get one free, or buy a kilt and get a t-shirt 50% off.

If the kilt costs $150 and the t-shirt costs $35, then the discount is $35 x 0.5, and the total of the order is $150 + ($35 x 0.5), or $167.50.

When the customer returns the kilt, they no longer qualify for the discount, so their refund is $150 - ($35 x 0.5), or $114.50.

These are simple relationships between numbers.

A fundamental understanding of arithmetic and basic algebra is a key skill in life.

Notice that I’m using the word skill here. If you didn’t actually learn arithmetic and algebra while you were in school, then it’s just stuff you don’t know yet.

If math leaves you cold, then I suggest discovering how delightful numbers can be by reading essays about math by people who are deeply engaged in the field.

Two books that I recommend in this category are Innumeracy and The Mathematical Universe.

Or, for a more lighthearted take on this, check out Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land

Then, when you find yourself a bit intrigued by numbers, go ahead and hit the basics. Try Khan Academy and see if it fits your style. Try Dragonbox if a game-based approach appeals to you.

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