I Program in Whatever

A friend just asked me how to get better at JavaScript, the programming language du jour for Silicon Valley gigs. Or more generally, whether “practice” is the way to overcome learning barriers in programming.

The short answer is, indeed, you just need to practice. The great Peter Norvig says becoming a good coder takes ten years. Bright people heeding good advice can slash these ten thousand required hours quite a bit.

Types of Language
Though if I were you, I would start with separating the learning of a particular programming language from becoming a good programmer. This is one of the trickiest concepts for people coming into programming from another field. The doing of computer science and software engineering has very little in common with the syntax or standard library of a particular programming language, JavaScript or otherwise. Sapir-Whorf be damned, but a programming language is just a tool while a (real) language is a way to communicate. Would you say becoming a radiologist is the same thing as learning to use an x-ray machine? Are statistics and Excel the same thing?

The infamous ThoughtWorks interview process for software engineers that I went through ages ago had almost no questions about standard libraries or syntax. (“How do you close a socket in C?”) No one cares, because you can always look that up in a book. Instead most of the questions were about abstraction, with a few here & there about algorithms. (“How would you cleanup the coupling between this infovis module and the database?”)

Good programmers learn new languages trivially, because they all have the same underpinnings. I find it helpful to think of three schools of programming language now-a-days. The first are the aspiring or popular languages like JavaScript, Go, Ruby, Python, Java, C#, C++ and C. These languages all have their imperative syntactic roots in ALGOL from the 1950’s. The languages are heavy on the syntax, and try to stop programmers from shooting themselves in the foot.

The next school of programming languages are the lower-case-el lisps like Scheme and Clojure. The most important distinction of a lisp is its homoiconicity, a cumbersome term that means you write code in a data structure the programming language is good at manipulating. Paul Graham of Y Combinator is a famous proponent of coding in lisps. They are more powerful and expressive than the popular languages, so it is easier for a good Scheme programmer to pick up Python than the opposite. Even Go’s statically-linked by default killer feature was common in the Lisp and Smalltalk communities thirty years ago.

My third class of programming languages are the functional languages providing different degrees of type safety, like Haskell, OCaml and Erlang. These languages discourage state and side-effects, and by doing so help code run across many CPUs or machines. Functional languages are also about code that is provably correct. This school of programming language is (arguably) more expressive and powerful than even the lisps, so a Haskell hacker should be able to pick up Clojure more easily than the Clojure programmer could learn OCaml.

I intentionally avoid classifying programming languages according to their object oriented-ness, since OOP is just another way to generalize and abstract the coupling between different parts of a software system. You can do object-oriented programming in any language, but languages like Java and Ruby force the issue. (Yes, you can write object-oriented systems in old school C.) Don’t bother with domain-specific languages like SQL, Matlab or R, since they encourage bad habits and are easy to learn later. Nothing is scarier than a R or Python programmer who has never written any lisp.

If you are trying to become a better programmer, the best thing you can do is learn the underlying history and structure of all three schools of programming language. “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” However the closer your learning language is to the third school, the quicker you will start to understand the core of the matter.

A Little More Advice
What side projects are you helping code? If the answer is “I just program at work” or “I just read a lot of code on Github,” then you will never be a great coder. The advice Hilary Mason got on Twitter a while back was iffy in this regard.

Have you worked through the amazing SICP book yet? There is a reason it was MIT’s main textbook for a zillion years. The book seems to be a cultural signal or marker of good coders. Others think the Van Roy & Haridi book is better than SICP, but the writing style is really dry.

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