programming in the
twenty-first century

It's not about technology for its own sake. It's about being able to implement your ideas.

Don't Distract New Programmers with OOP

When I get asked "What's a good first programming language to teach my [son / daughter / other-person-with-no-programming-experience]?" my answer has been the same for the last 5+ years: Python.

That may be unexpected, coming from someone who often talks about non-mainstream languages, but I stand by it.

Python is good for a wide range of simple and interesting problems that would be too much effort in C. (Seriously, a basic spellchecker can be implemented in a few lines of Python.) There are surprisingly few sticking points where the solution is easy to see, but there's a tricky mismatch between it and the core language features. Erlang has a couple of biggies. Try implementing any algorithm that's most naturally phrased in terms of in-place array updates, for example. In Python the sailing tends to be smooth. Arrays and dictionaries and sets cover a lot of ground.

There's one caveat to using Python as an introductory programming language: avoid the object-oriented features. You can't dodge them completely, as fundamental data types have useful methods associated with them, and that's okay. Just make use of what's already provided and resist talking about how to create classes, and especially avoid talking about any notions of object-oriented design where every little bit of data has to be wrapped up in a class.

The shift from procedural to OO brings with it a shift from thinking about problems and solutions to thinking about architecture. That's easy to see just by comparing a procedural Python program with an object-oriented one. The latter is almost always longer, full of extra interface and indentation and annotations. The temptation is to start moving trivial bits of code into classes and adding all these little methods and anticipating methods that aren't needed yet but might be someday.

When you're trying to help someone learn how to go from a problem statement to working code, the last thing you want is to get them sidetracked by faux-engineering busywork. Some people are going to run with those scraps of OO knowledge and build crazy class hierarchies and end up not as focused on on what they should be learning. Other people are going to lose interest because there's a layer of extra nonsense that makes programming even more cumbersome.

At some point, yes, you'll need to discuss how to create objects in Python, but resist for as long as you can.

(November 2012 update: There's now a sequel of sorts.)

permalink March 16, 2011



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I'm James Hague, a recovering programmer who has been designing video games since the 1980s. Programming Without Being Obsessed With Programming and Organizational Skills Beat Algorithmic Wizardry are good starting points. For the older stuff, try the 2012 Retrospective.

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