Skip to main content

Advice to a young programmer

I received a mail from an acquaintance who'd come to the realization that his 13-year-old wanted to be programmer, specifically a games programmer. Here's the advice I gave. Perhaps others have things to add:

1. I'm tempted to tell you that the right way to learn to be a programmer is to start with LISP, or the lambda calculus, or even denotational semantics but you can come back to those after a few years getting your feet wet.

2. Lots of programming involves logic (or at least thinking logically) so learning about and enjoying logic is probably a good foundation. You could start by learning about boolean algebra since it's simple and fun and the basis for a lot of what computers do.

3. Since games programmer involves a lot of physics, you should also learn about Newton's Three Laws and Universal Gravitation and play around with things like springs and pendulums.

4. Basic trigonmetry is important to the games programmer. It'll be handy to know about Pythagoras and the relationship with sin, cos and tan.

5. Above all, start with a programming language and a good book and commence hacking: try stuff out, make little simple programs (even if it's a program that prints out "Hello" on the screen, or a program that prints out "Hello" ten times, or asks you for the number of times to print "Hello" and then does it). Just write code, whatever takes your fancy.

6. A good starting language is Python. Get the O'Reilly book Learning Python.

7. Python is dynamic so you'll be able to make progress very quickly, but for games programming you are probably going to need to get a little closer to the machine. And for that you should learn C by reading the classic The C Programming Language.

8. As you learn more there are some great books that will expand on what you can do: read Programming Pearls and The Practice of Programming. Think about getting: Algorithms in C. Read Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.

9. Also: avoid debuggers, learn to unit test. Debuggers are useful in limited circumstances, most code can be debugged by using your head and a few 'print's. Unit tests will save your life as you go forward.

10. When you are ready, try to write a version of the first ever computer game: Spacewar!

...

11. When your first company goes public think of me; I'll be an old man and probably won't have saved enough for retirement.

Comments

Abhishek Mishra said…
great to read.
what do you think of BASIC for young programmers?
i started with it, and found it very easy to digest VisualBasic, C and C++
Now I'm trying my hands at Python & Ruby. Both of them seem a class apart and much more fun than whatever I have learnt till now.
Andre LeBlanc said…
BASIC (VB Specifically) isn't such a great idea for a few reasons, political/personal issues aside, its become just another .net language and will require you to understand the .net framework before you get to write anything cool. python is the new basic, hello world is still just:

print "hello world"

1 line with no confusing syntax, or unnecessary punctuation. its an excellent language for beginners and experts alike and encourages good coding standards which is important for beginners.
You don't need to be that close to the hardware to do some kickass game programming in Python: http://pyglet.org/

It's good to try it out from the C++ side though, as an interpreted solution is probably never going to be more than a tenth or a fifth as fast as the real thing.
Sergej Andrejev said…
What about non-game-programmers? Is C/Lisp a good choice. Because most of programmers don't end up with C (even C++) or even more lisp now. Are .Net/Java languages good to start from? I mean they always can switch back to C when they feel like.
abi said…
Thanks for the advice. Having picked up programming just 3 years ago at 14, I progressed from BASIC to VB to a number of other languages. Mostly do JS and PHP now.

Most of the things you list make a lot of sense. For example, I only learnt Scheme last year and it was very enlightening but if I had tried it a couple of years ago, I would surely have found it boring.

I guess the most important thing I have learned is that programming is about constantly learning new stuff even if you don't want to do a lot.
Phenix2013 said…
I am a bit uncomfortable about your suggestion on debuggers. While prevention is better than cure, I have personally found that there is indeed no better way to truly understand the innards of a functioning program other than debugging.As you know, the current meaning of debugging extends to include "tracing/stepping through" the code. I would recommend a much more cautious advise here - especially for an impressionable 13 year old.
Greyh0und said…
Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (or just SICP) is free btw!!!

http://mitpress.mit.edu/sicp/full-text/book/book.html

:)
Greyh0und said…
Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (or just SICP) is free btw!!!

http://mitpress.mit.edu/sicp/full-text/book/book.html

:)

Popular posts from this blog

Your last name contains invalid characters

My last name is "Graham-Cumming". But here's a typical form response when I enter it:


Does the web site have any idea how rude it is to claim that my last name contains invalid characters? Clearly not. What they actually meant is: our web site will not accept that hyphen in your last name. But do they say that? No, of course not. They decide to shove in my face the claim that there's something wrong with my name.

There's nothing wrong with my name, just as there's nothing wrong with someone whose first name is Jean-Marie, or someone whose last name is O'Reilly.

What is wrong is that way this is being handled. If the system can't cope with non-letters and spaces it needs to say that. How about the following error message:

Our system is unable to process last names that contain non-letters, please replace them with spaces.

Don't blame me for having a last name that your system doesn't like, whose fault is that? Saying "Your last name …

All the symmetrical watch faces (and code to generate them)

If you ever look at pictures of clocks and watches in advertising they are set to roughly 10:10 which is meant to be the most attractive (smiling!) position for the hands. They are actually set to 10:09.14 if the hands are truly symmetrical. CC BY 2.0image by Shinji
I wanted to know what all the possible symmetrical watch faces are and so I wrote some code using Processing. Here's the output (there's one watch face missing, 00:00 or 12:00, because it's very boring):



The key to writing this is to figure out the relationship between the hour and minute hands when the watch face is symmetrical. In an hour the minute hand moves through 360° and the hour hand moves through 30° (12 hours are shown on the watch face and 360/12 = 30).
The core loop inside the program is this:   for (int h = 0; h <= 12; h++) {
    float m = (360-30*float(h))*2/13;
    int s = round(60*(m-floor(m)));
    int col = h%6;
    int row = floor(h/6);
    draw_clock((r+f)*(2*col+1), (r+f)*(row*2+1), r, h, floor(m…

Importing an existing SSL key/certificate pair into a Java keystore

I'm writing this blog post in case anyone else has to Google that. In Java 6 keytool has been improved so that it now becomes possible to import an existing key and certificate (say one you generated outside of the Java world) into a keystore.

You need: Java 6 and openssl.

1. Suppose you have a certificate and key in PEM format. The key is named host.key and the certificate host.crt.

2. The first step is to convert them into a single PKCS12 file using the command: openssl pkcs12 -export -in host.crt -inkey host.key > host.p12. You will be asked for various passwords (the password to access the key (if set) and then the password for the PKCS12 file being created).

3. Then import the PKCS12 file into a keystore using the command: keytool -importkeystore -srckeystore host.p12 -destkeystore host.jks -srcstoretype pkcs12. You now have a keystore named host.jks containing the certificate/key you need.

For the sake of completeness here's the output of a full session I performe…