Have you ever wished you took computer science in college, or looked at your friends working as developers and wanted to be doing what they are? Or, do you just want to be able to create some new functionalities for your website on your own, without paying a developer?

Often, when people think about learning to program, they build it up to be such a monumental challenge that they never actually start. But the truth is, you don’t have to go into programming with an all-or-nothing attitude. Even if you can only dedicate a few nights to it each week, you can be developing applications in as little as three months. Seriously!

Of course, getting started is the hardest part—you want it to happen overnight, and it won’t. But if you started hacking on tutorials today, you could have full projects live on the web by the end of the weekend. By the end of the month, you could have built a relatively sophisticated application from scratch. There’s no magic bullet, but the most important thing is that you just start solving problems and building. Here’s how to tackle learning to code in your free time.

Check Out the Interwebs

A great way to start is with some of the free resources online. Codecademy hosts online tutorials on topics like HTML and Javascript to help you learn in an interactive way. Sign up for their Code Year emails, and you’ll receive a new coding lesson every Monday (and be building apps and websites before you know it!). If you want to play around with code before tackling a lesson plan, check out Try Ruby, an interactive and fun in-browser tutorial from Code School.

And when you hit a tough spot, know that even experienced programmers hit problems all the time. Bring your questions to online forums like Stack Overflow.

Hit the Books

Lots of great books will give you follow-along exercises and teach you the basics of programming theory. But be warned: Just reading through these books will not make you a programmer. Challenge yourself to sit down at the computer and practice, not just rely on the text! I personally loved playing around with the exercises in Learn Python the Hard Way and Beginning Ruby.

Head Back to Class

If you’re really serious about learning to code in the next few months, Chicago-based Code Academy is a three-month program that provides instruction, mentorship, and an immersive environment to develop your expertise in user experience and web development. Jaret Manuel, who went through Code Academy this winter, says of his experience, "I had no illusions of becoming a hardcore developer, but after building PuckDrop.net and a property management app with some help, I am proof that anyone can learn to code and deploy in 12 weeks!"

For a less intensive class, check out organizations like Ladies Learning Code and Girl Develop It. Both offer workshops in HTML, CSS, Javascript, Ruby, WordPress, and Python, presented in an environment open to the most novice of beginners. They also focus on helping women learn to program (though they welcome men as well).

Meet Developers

While no one can learn for you, you also don’t have to be alone in your quest to code. It’s important to have a friend who can help you get started (and whom you can call on for help along the way). You don’t want to spend the first couple days banging your head against a screen!

Don’t know any developers to call on? Most of those I’ve met have been more than happy to help out newcomers. Try going to developer meetups in your city, and make it clear that you’re just getting started and are looking for mentorship. Or, chat with a dev shop or startup in your area—they might be able to introduce you to someone.

The next time you find yourself saying something along the lines of “If only I had studied computer science” or “I could have a great job if I were a developer,” remember this: Three months from now, you too could be a programmer. So get out there and start building!

Need a little more encouragement? Check out the $5,000 grants Etsy is offering to 10 women who want to attend this summer’s session of Hacker SchoolAlso check out the new San Francisco-based female-only hacker school, Hackstar Academy, which is taking sign-ups for its summer session right now.

Photo courtesy of Jon Lim.