You may have seen this video, starring Mark Zuckerberg, Drew Houston (from Dropbox) and a couple of other tech stars. They promote the Code.org initiative, advocating that every school kid in the U.S. should have programming classes as part of their educational offer.
It’s a recent development, but the whole idea of promoting computer programming among broad audience is in the spotlight for quite some time now. Not only in the U.S., mind you. In Estonia, for example, children are to be offered coding classes starting from early elementary school.
The message seems to be pretty clear: everyone should learn to code, the earlier the better. In the future, it will be an obvious part of basic literacy, like reading and writing natural language. Everyone will get to do some really cool and useful things with their computers.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?…
So why I can’t help but to roll my eyes when I hear about this? Am I just an obnoxious, elitist jerk who doesn’t want others to experience the feeling of empowerment and satisfaction that creating your own computer programs can evoke every so often?… D’oh, I really hope not.
So maybe there are some actual problems with this idea. I would hesitate to say that it just doesn’t, ahem, compute, but I can certainly see a few issues, misconceptions and dubious assumptions.
When diving into new language, or radically different framework, it may be a good idea to have a bigger project where you can apply your newfound skills. In my experience, this is typically better than having a lot of smaller ones, because it minimizes the hassle of project’s initial setup. Therefore, it encourages you to experiment more.
To reap the largest benefits of this approach, the project of choice should exhibit two important properties:
What types of projects fit into this characteristic? I’d say quite a lot of them.
When I was honing my Python skills, I started programming an IRC bot so that I could cram a few ideas into it rather quickly. They were implemented mostly as commands that users could input and have the bot perform some actions, like searching Wikipedia for any given term.
A similar pattern (collection of mostly independent commands) can be realized in many different scenarios. Aspiring web programmers could come up with something like a YubNub clone (bonus points if it allows users to add their own commands). Complete coding novices would probably have to resort to simple, menu-based programs in terminal instead.
Another option is to attack a problem which is a very broad and/or vague. Text editors, for example, fuel countless discussions (even wars) over what functionality should they contain and how it should be accessible in the UI. Chances are slim that your take on the problem sprouts a new Emacs or Vim, but a home-brewed editor is easy enough to start and obviously extensible, almost without limits. Additionally, editors can fit into pretty much any environment, from terminals to desktop UIs or HTML5 applications.
Some endeavors are a bit more specific, though. In web development, a CMS or blogging engine became something of a timeless classic now. Everyone has written one at some point, and there’s a lot of additional (thought not always useful) functionality that can be added to it. Getting the basics right is also a challenge here, especially from security standpoint.
For mobile app creators, the infamous To-Do list app is an idea exercised ad nauseam. But it’s actually a good playground for toying with various device capabilities (e.g. location-based reminders) or web services (like Google or iCloud calendar).
I’m pretty sure I’m far from exhausting the list of possibilities here. I cannot really speak for domains I have little-to-no experience with, for example embedded or hardware-oriented programming with equipment such as Arduino.
It should be possible to come up with infinitely extensible projects for almost every environment and platform, though. After all, every program has always one more feature to add ;)
These days you cannot make more than few steps on the Web before tripping over yet another wonderful framework, technology, library, platform… or even language. More often that not they are promising heaven and stars: ease of use, flexibility, scalability, performance, and so on. Most importantly, they almost always emphasize how easy it is to get started and have working, tangible results – sometimes even whole apps – in very short time.
In many cases, they are absolutely right. With just the right tools, you can make some nice stuff pretty quickly. True, we’re still far from a scenario where you simply choose features you’d like to have, with them blending together automatically – even if some folks make serious leaps in that direction.
But if you think about it for a moment, it’s not something that we actually want, for reasons that are pretty obvious. The less effort is needed to create something, the less value it presents, all other things being equal. We definitely don’t expect to see software development reduced into rough equivalent of clicking through Windows wizards, because everything produced like that would be just hopelessly generic.
But think how easy it would be to get started with that…
And thus we come to the titular issue which I took liberty in calling a “Hello World” Fallacy. It occurs when a well-meaning programmer tries out a new piece of technology and finds how easy it is to do simple stuff in it. Everything seems to fall into place: tutorials are clear, to the point and easy to follow; results appear quickly and are rather impressive; difficulties or setbacks are few and far between. Everything just goes extremely well.. What is the problem, then?
The problem lies in a sort of “halo effect” those early successes are likely to create. While surveying a new technology, it’s extremely tempting to look at the early victories as useful heuristic for evaluating the solution as a whole. We may think the way particular tech makes it easy to produce relatively simple apps is a good indicator of how it would work for bigger, more complicated projects. It’s about assuming a specific type of scalability: not necessarily tied to performance of handling heavy load of thousands of users, but to size and complexity of the system handling it.
Point is, your new technology may not really scale all that well. What makes it easy to pick up, among other things, is how good it fits to the simple use cases you will typically exercise when you are just starting out. But this early adequacy is not an evidence for ability to scale into bigger, more serious applications. If anything, it might constitute a feasible argument for the contrary. Newbie-friendliness often goes against long-term usability for more advanced users; compare, for example, the “intuitive” Ribbon UI introduced in relatively recent version Microsoft Office to its previous, much more powerful and convenient interface. While I don’t stipulate it’s a pure zero-sum game, I think catering to beginners and experts alike is surely more difficult than addressing the needs of only one target audience. The former is definitely a road less traveled.
When talking about software libraries or frameworks, the ‘expert’ would typically refer to developer using the tech for large and long-term project. They are likely to explore most of the crooks and crannies, often hitting brick walls that at first may even appear impassable. For them, the most important quality for a software library is its “workaroundability”: how well it performs at not getting in the way between programmer and job done, and how hackable it is – i.e. susceptible to stretching its limits beyond what authors originally intended.
This quality is hardly evident when you’ve only done few casual experiments with your shiny new package. General experience can help a great deal with arriving at unbiased conclusion, and so can the explicit knowledge about the whole issue. While it’s beyond my limited powers to help you significantly to the former, I can at least gently point to the latter.