The time I composed my first program can be back to my junior high school age. It was the first day of PC lesson, and everybody crowded to the computer classroom. We were told to learn “programming” there. The kids who were talented would be selected and trained for OI 1. Others instead would go to an ordinary class and learn something more general.
I was anxious. Before the time I had no concept of what “programming” is, nor had I ever gone through a real PC lesson. The PC lesson in my primary school barely taught anything. Over the time the teachers let us play games instead. I could type merely a dozen of characters per minute, since I’d never received a thorough typing training. I was ignorant of inside the metal box. I was a complete computer idiot.
But some of my classmates did. They typed swiftly like wind, they knew how to play with the operating system, and what’s more, they were chattering excitedly about things like “C language”, “array” or “for-loop”, words I’d never heard of.
I sit in front of a monitor and the class began. The teacher said we were going to learn a language named “Pascal”, and she instructed us to open the “Free Pascal IDE”. I followed a few clicks through a cascaded menu and finally reached the item. A window popped out.
The screenshot was taken on my Ubuntu recently, but at the time it was on Windows 7 and looked slightly different. Not many people these days have heard of the Pascal language, and fewer have seen this antique interface.
It was the weirdest interface I had ever seen. The IDE was like another system trapped in a small unresizable window 2, with queerly rendered icons and widgets. The menu wouldn’t expand on cursor hovering. The editor wouldn’t scroll when I wheel my mouse. And most importantly, there was English everywhere, which frightened me.
The teacher then showed us our first program to type. It was a simple one that reads an integer from one file, and writes its square to another. The code was like
assign(input, 'program1.in'); reset(input);
assign(output, 'program1.out'); rewrite(output);
writeln(a * a);
It took me quite a while to put these lines onto the screen, and more time to “save the code as a file”. Before the day I had no idea of what a “file” is, plus the file selector of IDE was not ergonomic at all. After saving I just noticed an icon with title
program1.pas popped out in the Windows file explorer. Then I hit the
Compile menu entry. More icons popped out, including one named
program1.exe — and that was my program.
The next to figure out was how to run the program, which was comprised of several complicated steps.
The first thing I should do is to right-click in the file explorer, select the “New -> Text Document” entry, and rename it to
program1.in. The OS would prompted me as I’ve changed the file extension, but I should click “Yes”. Then right-click on the created file, select “Open with…” and choose “Notepad” in the dialog. In the notepad type an integer like
3, save and close it.
By now the input was prepared, and I should double-click the
program1.exe file to execute the program. A black window flashed by, and one more icon with title
program1.out appeared. Open it with the same trick as input file, where I saw the result number
Woah, that was amazing. Within 40 minutes I’d created something “intelligent”, albeit excessively simple, working faithfully whatever number I fed 3.
In company with the flood of joy, however, there goes the frustration. It aroused a feeling that programming is complicated as ordering a banquet for a serious occasion, with so much doctrinal detail to care about. What upset me the most is, I spent most of my time fighting against irrelevant issues, but caught little idea about true programming throughout the class hour. The reason is that I lacked certain understanding about the OS beneath, without which one could go nowhere on the trip towards programming.
And there exists another question — is interacting with a program always so painful? Of course not, but until several months later did I realize the
assign(...) statements were not a necessity of an integral program, and there’s so called “command line interface” where you can type the input easily and immediately get the result. The awkward interaction bridged by files was actually dedicated for OI evaluation, as I knew afterwards. It took me one year to understand the ABC of GUI programs, when I built my first Form-based application with Delphi. My program no longer shipped with an ugly black window! And it unlocked varied interaction as the ones for daily use. After more years, with a broader understanding of programming I get, I am able to create websites, mobile apps or anything fit in my requirement. But for a 12-year-old kid at the time, the first program was just not appealing and NOT COOL at all.
The class, of course, was not designed for teaching cool things. It was for choosing talented guys towards a specific target. But over the years, I kept seeing people who were new to programming and struggled at half way, for one reason or another. This makes me consider about the root obstacle for a new guy to learn programming.
The way they are taught is no doubt a fundamental factor. Learners should be motivated so as to earn confidence. I used to know some power users 4 who get started with programming smoothly and swiftly. They have clear goals for programming, some to tweak the system behavior and others to automate daily work. They learn the minimal knowledge by documentation or blog posts, and then come up with a prototype program which accomplishes the job. The entire process is interesting and fulfilling.
But for elementary learners, the ones who know little or nothing about computers, this does not always apply. Most of them are aimless, having no idea what programming can be used for. What’s worse, they are taught to use inappropriate tooling, deteriorating the learning to some boring and painful nightmare.
I can remember in the Programming 101 of my college around six years ago, we were taught C and to use the obsolete Visual C++ 6.0 IDE. The compulsory course was rather like a math one, where most time was spent in the classroom reading slides, and homework was handwritten to figure out the result of code fragments. The merely four coding tasks were to implement some algorithms and data structures, fairly dull. Some of the classmates had no deep knowledge of computers, or even didn’t use before (since mobile devices were popularized). They went through a hard time to understand low-level concepts like pointers, and were desperate in finishing the coding tasks. They learnt for the exams, with little or no interest, and soon forgot the things in one or two semesters.
I am not claiming languages at low-level like C is not suitable as the first language — for those will major in computer science, they demonstrate well how the machine works. But other learners deserve a much modern language at a higher level, plus a coding environment that will hide off obscure machine detail. The language and tooling should ease the hurdle to create appealing projects.
The language we do have, like Python. It’d better to be young or carefully designed, so that backward compatibility won’t cause too much confusing syntax. It should support imperative paradigm so as not to blow the learner’s brain (unless for mathematicians), but not limited to this for going further. And most importantly, it should conceal the low-level stuff to better illustrate the basic idea of programming.
But the tooling we don’t, at least not yet perfect. Lots of work should be done to create such a layer between OS and ignorant learners, and should be done perfectly well without bugs. I’ve seen bugged programming environment leaked more detail about the underlying support, causing its users frustrated and frightened.
The need of domain-specific learners may also be noticed. Some people learn programming to improve the productivity in their expertised fields, e.g., data analysis or financial trading. Like power user, they would be fulfilled if the first few programs can assist the jobs, but from time to time that’s not the case. The guidance or tools, however, are often poorly crafted, probably because there’re few professional programmers in the field.
Over the time I have witnessed programming languages and toolchains evolving, which enables the chance for skilled guys to build faster and safer programs more easily, but the learning curve of 0 to 1 benefits not much from the trend. I am expecting to see it change in the future.
- Olympiad in Informatics, a series of algorithm competitions for teenagers.
- The command line window before Windows 10 era cannot be resized by dragging the border.
- Some large numbers won’t work, of course, which I did not try at the time.
- Power users are those who uses advanced features of the operating system that are not used by the average users. They usually have some technical background.
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