Walk into any bookstore, and you'll see how to Teach Yourself Java
in 7 Days alongside endless variations offering to teach Visual
Basic, Windows, the Internet, and so on in a few days or hours. I did
the following power search at Amazon.com:
The conclusion is that either people are in a big rush to learn
about computers, or that computers are somehow fabulously easier to
learn than anything else. There are no books on how to learn
Beethoven, or Quantum Physics, or even Dog Grooming in a few days.
Learn: In 3 days you won't have time to write several
significant programs, and learn from your successes and failures with
them. You won't have time to work with an experienced programmer and
understand what it is like to live in that environment. In short, you
won't have time to learn much. So they can only be talking about a
superficial familiarity, not a deep understanding. As Alexander Pope said,
a little learning is a dangerous thing.
Pascal: In 3 days you might be able to learn the syntax of
Pascal (if you already knew a similar language), but you couldn't
learn much about how to use the syntax. In short, if you were, say, a
Basic programmer, you could learn to write programs in the style of
Basic using Pascal syntax, but you couldn't learn what Pascal is
actually good (and bad) for. So what's the point? Alan
Perlis once said: "A language that doesn't affect the way you
think about programming, is not worth knowing". One possible point is
that you have to learn a tiny bit of Pascal (or more likely, something
existing tool to accomplish a specific task. But then you're not
learning how to program; you're learning to accomplish that task.
in Three Days: Unfortunately, this is not enough, as the next
Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years
Researchers (Hayes, Bloom)
have shown it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a
wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition,
painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in
neuropsychology and topology. There appear to be no real shortcuts:
even Mozart, who was a musical prodigy at age 4, took 13 more years
before he began to produce world-class music. In another genre, the
Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an
appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing
small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had
mass appeal early on, their first great critical success,
Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967. Samuel Johnson thought it
took longer than ten years: "Excellence in any department can be
attained only by the labor of a lifetime; it is not to be purchased at
a lesser price." And Chaucer complained "the lyf so short, the craft
so long to lerne."
Here's my recipe for programming success:
Get interested in programming, and do some because it is fun. Make sure
that it keeps being enough fun so that you will be willing to put in ten years.
Talk to other programmers; read other programs. This is more important
than any book or training course.
Program. The best kind of learning is learning
by doing. To put it more technically, "the maximal level of
performance for individuals in a given domain is not attained
automatically as a function of extended experience, but the level of
performance can be increased even by highly experienced individuals as
a result of deliberate efforts to improve." (p. 366)
and "the most effective learning requires a well-defined task with an
appropriate difficulty level for the particular individual,
informative feedback, and opportunities for repetition and corrections
of errors." (p. 20-21) The book Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics, and Culture in Everyday
Life is an interesting
reference for this viewpoint.
If you want, put in four years at a college (or more at a
graduate school). This will give you access to some jobs that require
credentials, and it will give you a deeper understanding of the field,
but if you don't enjoy school, you can (with some dedication) get
similar experience on the job. In any case, book learning alone won't
be enough. "Computer science education cannot make anybody an expert
programmer any more than studying brushes and pigment can make
somebody an expert painter" says Eric Raymond, author of The New
Hacker's Dictionary. One of the best programmers I ever hired had
only a High School degree; he's produced a lot of greatsoftware, has his own news group, and through stock options is
no doubt much richer than I'll ever be.
Work on projects with other programmers. Be the best programmer
on some projects; be the worst on some others. When you're the best,
you get to test your abilities to lead a project, and to inspire
others with your vision. When you're the worst, you learn what the
masters do, and you learn what they don't like to do (because they
make you do it for them).
Work on projects after other programmers. Be involved in
understanding a program written by someone else. See what it takes to
understand and fix it when the original programmers are not
around. Think about how to design your programs to make it easier for
those who will maintain it after you.
Learn at least a half dozen programming languages. Include one
language that supports class abstractions (like Java or C++), one that
supports functional abstraction (like Lisp or ML), one
that supports syntactic abstraction (like Lisp), one
that supports declarative specifications (like Prolog or C++
templates), one that supports coroutines (like Icon or Scheme), and
one that supports parallelism (like Sisal).
Remember that there is a "computer" in "computer science". Know
how long it takes your computer to execute an instruction, fetch a
word from memory (with and without a cache miss), read consecutive words from disk, and seek to a new location on disk. (Answers here.)
Get involved in a language
standardization effort. It could be the ANSI C++ committee, or it
could be deciding if your local coding style will have 2 or 4 space
indentation levels. Either way, you learn about what other people
like in a language, how deeply they feel so, and perhaps even a little
about why they feel so.
Have the good sense to get off the language standardization effort as
quickly as possible.
With all that in mind, its questionable how far you can get just by
book learning. Before my first child was born, I read all the How
To books, and still felt like a clueless novice. 30 Months later,
when my second child was due, did I go back to the books for a
refresher? No. Instead, I relied on my personal experience, which
turned out to be far more useful and reassuring
to me than the thousands of pages written
Fred Brooks, in his essay No Silver Bullets
identified a three-part plan for finding great
Systematically identify top designers as early as possible.
Assign a career mentor to be responsible for the development of the prospect and carefully keep a career file.
Provide opportunities for growing designers to interact and stimulate each other.
This assumes that some people already have the qualities necessary for
being a great designer; the job is to properly coax them along. Alan
Perlis put it more succinctly: "Everyone can be taught to sculpt:
Michelangelo would have had to be taught how not to. So it is with the
So go ahead and buy that Java book; you'll probably get some use out of it.
But you won't change your life, or your real overall expertise as a
programmer in 24 hours, days, or even months.
T. Capey points out that the Complete
Problem Solver page on Amazon now has the "Teach Yourself
Bengali in 21 days" and "Teach Yourself Grammar and Style" books under the
"Customers who shopped for this item also shopped for these items"
section. I guess that a large portion of the people who look at that
book are coming from this page.
Peter Norvig (Copyright 2001)