Saturday, 17 November 2018

Can you Learn to be a Programmer...

I was asked this very interesting question this week... "Can you learn to be a programmer?"... Lets be clear, the question is can you be a programmer, not can you learn to program.  I believe anyone can learn to use a programming language, to drive their computer to perform a task for them, after all computers are tools and everyone can learn to use any tool.

Be a person trying to write a batch script, create a spreadsheet to do their home accounts, throwing together some python to process a few text files or creating a whole compiled program of some kind, pretty much anyone can make themselves, with a book, a little internet searching and enough time, appear on that bell-curve of skill.

Does this therefore make everyone a programmer?  I think it most certainly does not.  I can pick up a saw and a hammer, I have in my time knocked out some dovetail joints and repaired the odd chest of draws, does that make me a carpenter?.. NOPE... And likewise, if that self same carpenter picked up their laptop and wrote a bit of C# to tally the number of planks they use they are not a programmer.  He has programmed, just as I have knocked some holes in wood, but one does not transgress nor deign to call oneself the other; it would be insulting to the skills in the craft inherent to each's own chose trade.

And there's the key phrase, chosen trade.  Anyone can program, but to be a programmer you've got to choose to apply yourself, either through some personal interest, a passion, experience and ability at the task.  You must strive to learn, to expand and to know your craft.

Very many folks come to try and be a programmer after learning simply to program, throwing a few lines of code together is not enough; certainly not in my mind it is not enough.

Why do I say this?  Well, I sat down this week with several lovely students at my old Alma Mater, and I was bereft to hear from Computer Studies and Systems and even Software Engineering Students that they hadn't really programmed anything before, they asked me "how do you get into programming", "what should I program to get better at it [programming]" and they indeed asked "can you learn to be a programmer".

I of course come from a different place in time, which they pointed out with their shock and awe, when I answered they should write programs to support what they are interested in, if they're interested in video film making, write a video encoder or player, if you like games, write some games, if you're not sure just write some programming tools you can use... Say you (like me) repeatedly have to created code to write our structured data (say XML) then write yourself a tool to generate that code in whatever language you need it (I have one written in Python, which generated XML loaders for C#, C++ and Python itself).  I did this because I needed a tool, specific to my needs.  But these students were a little shocked, they asked "why not just get it from github (or wherever)"... And they're right, you could most likely find exactly the solution you want from else where...But... Would you learn anything doing so?... No.

Folks, students if you are reading, you are there to learn, we are in the programming craft to learn, you will not learn without doing.  So, yes use whatever is at hand, get the jobs done, solve the problems of today, by using libraries or leveraging a package manager to get other resources into your projects.  But if you opt to use a library today (like I used tesseract recently to do some OCR for me) when you're done, take a moment, take stock, look what that library does, think how you might do it, try to implement your own even (variations on the same theme).

In this way you will learn more and experience more and feel more confident in your own skills.

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