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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.


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:

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!!!

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


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