A man draws a diagram of a data structure on a dry erase board as his colleague looks on.

How to Learn Data Structures: Courses, Jobs, and More

If you’re interested in backend development, you may think you’ve learned everything about data. But there’s an element to the way that we store and access data that you may not know about. Data structures are a vital part of data storage, and you should learn how to use them. 

Learning data structures and the way we interact with data on a daily basis could simplify the rest of your career journey. Keep reading to learn about data structures and how you can become an expert.

What are Data Structures?

Data structures are methods of storing, managing, and organizing data with different uses or permissions. These different methods are used in different ways, so you’ll see specific methods used more or less often in other applications.

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Let’s say you need to build a data structure for a business that streams movies. Since the majority of your users are looking for a particular movie, you can set up your data structure based on movie titles. 

The best structure for this case might be an array, which is a collection of data marked with unique identifying values, like names or numbers. A search algorithm will help people find the movie they’re looking for. Data structures and algorithms automate the process of sorting through data that would take days or even years to sort through by hand. 

There are several different data structures, which are organized into key categories. Developers will see structures like arrays and linked lists, binary trees, hash tables, stacks, queues, and heaps. 

Data structures exist on a broad spectrum, so there’s a lot to learn. You’ll begin to notice which structure suits a project’s needs, and how to implement the structure into your workflow. 

What Are Data Structures Used For?

Data structures are used to organize, collect, and store data. With your data structure skills, you can become an engineer or a software developer. Data structures are used for many different things, so the job opportunities are endless. Below are a few common ways that people use data structures every day. 

File Compression

If you’ve ever taken a picture that was in .jpg format, or converted a .wav into an .mp3, you’ve compressed data. Compression takes a big file and makes it into a smaller one by reducing the bits that a file takes up. 

Data compression is useful in almost every field. Any photo-related job uses JPEG compression to optimize images. Other positions might require you to send large files to your coworkers. Data structures can help you find more efficient ways to compress data.

Password Verification

When you create a username and password on a website, those two values are put into a place on a server that holds that information. Those values are then assigned a hash value, a number that’s unique to your username and/or password. The hash values that mark your information on a server are stored using a hash table data structure. 

Because the information is so sensitive, these hash table structures have to be particularly strong. Almost every website uses password verification. Chances are, you use this type of data structure every day. 

Fixing Mistakes

Have you ever used the undo function while editing an image or drawing something out on your phone? That function works because of a very simple data structure called a stack.

A stack works the same way a stack of books does. It stores data on top of itself in distinct chunks. In the case of drawing on a Snapchat picture, the most recent data it would store would be the last line you drew. When you hit undo, you remove the top piece of data. 

Steps to Learn Data Structures

A person compares stock market data on their cellphone to the data on a laptop that sits on the desk in front of them.
Data structures keep our data safe and usable across a variety of platforms.

Because so many data structures work well for so many different applications, it can be hard to find where to start. Here’s a rough step-by-step guide to learning more about data structures.

1. Learn the Basics

Some data structures live in the electronic realm. Some are used mostly in programming languages like Ruby or Python while performing tasks that you wouldn’t use to organize the backend of a website.

You may not end up using every structure every day, but it’s important to learn the basic types of data structures. This is a good jumping-off point if you want to learn more.

2. Consider Your Interests 

The less time you have to think about which structure would be right for your case, the more time you can spend coding. Certain data structures will come up more in different fields than others, so check which ones apply to you the most.

Regardless of which structure you’re learning about, you’ll have to know how to fit it into your routine before you get in too deep. You want to make sure that everything you learn can be useful and worth your while.

3. Take Courses

Now that you know which data structures suit your needs, you can start learning how to apply them. You may be able to figure it out on your own, but there’s no shame in taking a course to pin down the specifics.

There are so many different ways to use data structures, and therefore there are tons of courses. Find a course that’s tailored to you, and you’ll be able to make the most out of your time.

The Best Data Structure Courses

These data structure courses cover the best applications of each data structure and how they can help you in your field. Below are a few of the courses that can teach you how to use data structures in a way that works for you.

IBM Data Science Professional Certificate

This course is designed for people who want to become data scientists. It walks you through not only how to analyze data, but how to store it and build machine learning models with tools like Python. You’ll learn about the data structures, how to analyze them in Python, and how to prepare data reports. 

Master the Coding Interview: Data Structures + Algorithms

This course teaches you everything you need to know to nail a job interview at any company you want. You’ll learn how to use data structures and algorithms together to impress potential employers. You can come into this course with no knowledge of data structures, and by the time you finish, you’ll be an expert. 

CS50’s AP® Computer Science Principles

This edX course, offered by Harvard, covers the fundamentals of computer science and programming. You’ll learn about data structures and gain general knowledge about programming languages and concepts. This program gives you a deeper understanding of the way that these parts work together in the big picture.

Why Learn Data Structures?

You should learn data structures if you work in any field where data has to be stored and sorted. From libraries to the latest NASA project, data structures order our world in an intuitive and organized way.

Knowing the exact data structure for a project can help you get more jobs as a developer or data scientist. You’ll impress your interviewer if you can not only tell them the tools you’d use to finish a project, but also how that project will be easy to access for everyone else.

Go out and study those data structures. You’ll be strengthening your programming knowledge and your knowledge of our world as a whole.

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