Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years
Why is everyone in such a rush?
The conclusion is that either people are in a big rush to learn about programming, or that programming is somehow fabulously easier to learn than anything else. Felleisen et al. give a nod to this trend in their book How to Design Programs, when they say “Bad programming is easy. Idiots can learn it in 21 days, even if they are dummies.” The Abtruse Goose comic also had their take.
Let’s analyze what a title like Teach Yourself C++ in 24 Hours could mean:
- Teach Yourself: In 24 hours you won’t have time to write several significant programs, and learn from your successes and failures with them. You won’t have time to work with an experienced programmer and understand what it is like to live in a C++ environment. In short, you won’t have time to learn much. So the book can only be talking about a superficial familiarity, not a deep understanding. As Alexander Pope said, a little learning is a dangerous thing.
Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years
Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the idea, although he concentrates on 10,000 hours, not 10 years. Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) had another metric: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” (He didn’t anticipate that with digital cameras, some people can reach that mark in a week.) True expertise may take a lifetime: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said “Excellence in any department can be attained only by the labor of a lifetime; it is not to be purchased at a lesser price.” And Chaucer (1340-1400) complained “the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” Hippocrates (c. 400BC) is known for the excerpt “ars longa, vita brevis”, which is part of the longer quotation “Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile”, which in English renders as “Life is short, [the] craft long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.” Of course, no single number can be the final answer: it doesn’t seem reasonable to assume that all skills (e.g., programming, chess playing, checkers playing, and music playing) could all require exactly the same amount of time to master, nor that all people will take exactly the same amount of time. As Prof. K. Anders Ericsson puts it, “In most domains it’s remarkable how much time even the most talented individuals need in order to reach the highest levels of performance. The 10,000 hour number just gives you a sense that we’re talking years of 10 to 20 hours a week which those who some people would argue are the most innately talented individuals still need to get to the highest level.”
So You Want to be a Programmer
Here’s my recipe for programming success:
- Get interested in programming, and do some because it is fun. Make sure that it keeps being enough fun so that you will be willing to put in your ten years/10,000 hours.
With all that in mind, its questionable how far you can get just by book learning. Before my first child was born, I read all the How To books, and still felt like a clueless novice. 30 Months later, when my second child was due, did I go back to the books for a refresher? No. Instead, I relied on my personal experience, which turned out to be far more useful and reassuring to me than the thousands of pages written by experts.
Fred Brooks, in his essay No Silver Bullet identified a three-part plan for finding great software designers:
- Systematically identify top designers as early as possible.
This assumes that some people already have the qualities necessary for being a great designer; the job is to properly coax them along. Alan Perlis put it more succinctly: “Everyone can be taught to sculpt: Michelangelo would have had to be taught how not to. So it is with the great programmers”. Perlis is saying that the greats have some internal quality that transcends their training. But where does the quality come from? Is it innate? Or do they develop it through diligence? As Auguste Gusteau (the fictional chef in Ratatouille) puts it, “anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great.” I think of it more as willingness to devote a large portion of one’s life to deliberative practice. But maybe fearless is a way to summarize that. Or, as Gusteau’s critic, Anton Ego, says: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Brooks, Fred, No Silver Bullets, IEEE Computer, vol. 20, no. 4, 1987, p. 10-19.
Appendix: Language Choice
- Use your friends. When asked “what operating system should I use, Windows, Unix, or Mac?”, my answer is usually: “use whatever your friends use.” The advantage you get from learning from your friends will offset any intrinsic difference between OS, or between programming languages. Also consider your future friends: the community of programmers that you will be a part of if you continue. Does your chosen language have a large growing community or a small dying one? Are there books, web sites, and online forums to get answers from? Do you like the people in those forums?
- Keep it simple. Programming languages such as C++ and Java are designed for professional development by large teams of experienced programmers who are concerned about the run-time efficiency of their code. As a result, these languages have complicated parts designed for these circumstances. You’re concerned with learning to program. You don’t need that complication. You want a language that was designed to be easy to learn and remember by a single new programmer.
- Play. Which way would you rather learn to play the piano: the normal, interactive way, in which you hear each note as soon as you hit a key, or “batch” mode, in which you only hear the notes after you finish a whole song? Clearly, interactive mode makes learning easier for the piano, and also for programming. Insist on a language with an interactive mode and use it.
Appendix: Books and Other Resources
- Scheme:Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (Abelson & Sussman) is probably the best introduction to computer science, and it does teach programming as a way of understanding the computer science. You can see online videos of lectures on this book, as well as the complete text online. The book is challenging and will weed out some people who perhaps could be successful with another approach.
- Scheme:How to Design Programs (Felleisen et al.) is one of the best books on how to actually design programs in an elegant and functional way.
- Python:Python Programming: An Intro to CS (Zelle) is a good introduction using Python.
- Python: Several online tutorials are available at Python.org.
- Oz:Concepts, Techniques, and Models of Computer Programming (Van Roy & Haridi) is seen by some as the modern-day successor to Abelson & Sussman. It is a tour through the big ideas of programming, covering a wider range than Abelson & Sussman while being perhaps easier to read and follow. It uses a language, Oz, that is not widely known but serves as a basis for learning other languages.
(Mohamed A. Yahya)