Friday, December 04, 2009

Ralph Johnson on learning to program

In general, there are 2 types of books. There is theory books and there is practical books. You can learn theory from a book. You cannot learn anything practical from a book. You learn practical things by practicing. Practical books are great, you read them, they tell you some ideas, but they tell you ideas of things to practice and you have to go off and practice it. It's only after you practice that you actually know. Then you'll say "Oh, now I know what that guy meant when he said that!"

That's how you learn. You only learn that stuff by doing. It's like any program - you can't actually learn to program by reading a book. Of course you read the book, but you have to get to the system and you write little programs and you write bigger and bigger programs and after a while you know how to program in the language, but you've got to do it to learn. You are not really going to learn by just reading the book.

When I was young I was a sort of person who listened to older people. Some young people don't, but I was a young person who did, but even so, they would tell me a lot of things. I would remember it, I wasn't like I disbelieved them, but it just a little bit hard to believe and I wasn't sure. Now, I'm over 50 and a lot of stuff makes an awful lot more sense to me and I say "Those old guys were right when telling me things", but you can't until you live it, until you go through it yourself, you really can't know it for sure.

When you get a pattern book, you need to be bold. You need to just try the stuff out and you need to expect you are going to make mistakes, too, so don't try it out when someone's life is on the line. You try it out in the privacy of your own home, where you are not going to damage anybody too much. I think that's actually a problem with industry - companies don't let people just experiment and play around. Everything is "This is production code, we're going live next week and here is a book, read that and figure out how to put it in there." It doesn't matter what the book is on - whether it's going to be a database, or parallel programming, you have to do it 3 or 4 times until you really get comfortable with it and people are always putting this code out there that they just barely figured out how to make it run. That's not smart. Managers should give people more time to get it right before they push it out to the world. Some do, but probably yours doesn't, if yours is like most of them.

watch the interview