Know Your Programming Languages

I am often amazed at how little some of my colleagues know or care about their craft. Something that constantly frustrates me is that people don't want to learn any more than they need to about the programming languages they use every day. Many programmers seem content to learn some pidgin sub-dialect, and stick with that. If they see a keyword or construct that they aren't familiar with, they'll complain that the code is "tricky."

What would you think of a civil engineer who shied away from calculus because it had "all those weird math symbols?"

I'm not suggesting that we all need to become "language lawyers." But if you make your living as a programmer, and claim to be a competent user of language X, then I think at a minimum you should know the following:

  • What are all the keywords of the language?
  • What are all the valid syntactic forms?
  • How are memory, files, and other operating system resources managed?
  • Where is the official language specification and library reference for the language?

The last one is the one that really gets me. Many programmers seem to have no idea that there is a "specification" or "standard" for any particular language. I still talk to people who think that Microsoft invented C++, and that if a program doesn't compile under VC6, it's not a valid C++ program.

Programmers these days have it easy when it comes to obtaining specs. Newer languages like C#, Java, Python, Ruby, etc. all have their documentation available for free from the vendors' web sites. Older languages and platforms often have standards controlled by standards bodies that demand payment for specs, but even that shouldn't be a deterrent: the C++ standard is available from ISO for $30 (and why am I the only person I know who has a copy?).

Programming is hard enough even when you do know the language. If you don't, I don't see how you have a chance.

© 2003-2023 Kristopher Johnson