Subject: Re: becoming a better programmer
From: Erik Naggum <>
Date: 16 Sep 2002 07:49:08 +0000
Newsgroups: comp.lang.c++,comp.lang.lisp,,comp.lang.perl.misc
Message-ID: <>

* (Scott)
| Another friend tells me "define what you mean by 'better programmer'".

  You have received much advice, most of which I find useful given a prior
  understanding of what it means to be a programmer, but it occurs to me that
  this is far from as obvious as one might think.  What kinds of things would
  you like the computer to do for you?  What kinds of things are you already
  good enough at that you can teach a computer to do it?  Do you have extensive
  experience with hardware so you want to control devices and do things like
  play music or movies and such?  Are you adept at human-computer interaction so
  you want to write software that embodies your psychological insight to write
  software that makes a human being more efficient at some task?  Have you
  succeeded in teaching children or adults anything and would like to write
  computer-aided teaching software?  Do you enjoy graphic arts and typography
  and would like to use the computer to automate the production of, say, flyers
  and posters?  Are you interested in photography and would like to write
  software for digital image processing?  Is optical recognition and artificial
  vision on your list of interests?  The list of questions obviously goes on and
  on, extending into every field of human endeavors.

  In my view, to be a programmer is to be sufficiently well versed in some non-
  computer-related field that you can see how the computer can aid practioners
  of that field accomplish their goals.  Many programmers never progress beyond
  the point of aiding their own use of the computer and never do anything "real"
  -- the number of software packages that help people read mail and news and
  waste enormous amount of time in front of the computer are legion, but they
  tend to make people spend /more/ time on these tasks than they would or should
  have done compared to actually productive tasks.

  Take spam, for instance.  Varying amounts of effort by an enormous number of
  people have been poured into getting rid of this problem, including many
  pretty clever filtering tricks.  However, the opportunity arises for machine
  recognition of meaning in electronic texts such that computers can analyze and
  classify them according to, say, Dewey's or Universal decimal classification.
  If this problem was solved, such things as the Semantic Web and search engines
  that produced topic maps would provide vastly different perspectives on the
  enormous emount of web pages out there.  Spam detection would fall out of this
  work simply by being classified in areas most people have no interest, and if
  you should be interested in some of the things that are advertised by this
  means, you would be able to locate it.  Imagine a world in which you could ask
  your computer to retrieve news articles and web pages according to a semantic
  classification instead of having to try out different search words.  Imagine
  that this classification would not need a human to classify the documents but
  where machines would "understand" them.  What would you need to know as a
  programmer before you could successfully implement something like this?
  Clearly, being a good programmer, you would need to know many algorithms in
  addition to understanding the nature of classification better than most of the
  people who do it by hand, perhaps instead writing a system that finds patterns
  in what has already been classified instead of actually understanding things.

  Often, a the solution to a problem is very different from the solutions that
  come to mind immediately.  High intelligence and good creativity is needed
  atop a vast mass of knowledge from many fields is necessary to solve the many
  remaining interesting problems.

  However, if all it means to be a programmer is to be able to code up something
  from a specification and a design provided by others, "all" you need is a good
  command of the tools you use and the language grammar and idioms to express
  the ideas that somebody else have dreamt up.  This part of programming is not
  the most interesting in my view, but many people who hire programmers want
  them to think as little as possible and be as faithful as possible to designs
  made by others.  To be a "better" programmer in this regard is very different
  from a better programmer who can solve unsolved problems.

Erik Naggum, Oslo, Norway

Act from reason, and failure makes you rethink and study harder.
Act from faith, and failure makes you blame someone and push harder.