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.


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!!!


Popular posts from this blog

How to write a successful blog post

First, a quick clarification of 'successful'. In this instance, I mean a blog post that receives a large number of page views. For my, little blog the most successful post ever got almost 57,000 page views. Not a lot by some other standards, but I was pretty happy about it. Looking at the top 10 blog posts (by page views) on my site, I've tried to distill some wisdom about what made them successful. Your blog posting mileage may vary. 1. Avoid using the passive voice The Microsoft Word grammar checker has probably been telling you this for years, but the passive voice excludes the people involved in your blog post. And that includes you, the author, and the reader. By using personal pronouns like I, you and we, you will include the reader in your blog post. When I first started this blog I avoid using "I" because I thought I was being narcissistic. But we all like to read about other people, people help anchor a story in reality. Without people your bl

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

The Elevator Button Problem

User interface design is hard. It's hard because people perceive apparently simple things very differently. For example, take a look at this interface to an elevator: From flickr Now imagine the following situation. You are on the third floor of this building and you wish to go to the tenth. The elevator is on the fifth floor and there's an indicator that tells you where it is. Which button do you press? Most people probably say: "press up" since they want to go up. Not long ago I watched someone do the opposite and questioned them about their behavior. They said: "well the elevator is on the fifth floor and I am on the third, so I want it to come down to me". Much can be learnt about the design of user interfaces by considering this, apparently, simple interface. If you think about the elevator button problem you'll find that something so simple has hidden depths. How do people learn about elevator calling? What's the right amount of