YOU CAN'T BE A BETTER PROGRAMMER IN 21 DAYS
People take a first programming course and they think they’re done - they’re programmers! Well not so fast. There is more to it than that just as there was more to learning and even reading when I finished the first grade. Others come to me and tell me they want to learn enough programming to create a specific application (rarely one that is that easy) or the next Halo 3 (never that easy) or something. There is this cram school mentality that seems to overtake so many people. Unfortunately, programming like so many things takes a while to really, deeply learn.
I ran across the article Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years by Peter Norvig recently and it does a good job of addressing this very issue.
Walk into any bookstore, and you'll see how to Teach Yourself Java in 7 Days alongside endless variations offering to teach Visual Basic, Windows, the Internet, and so on in a few days or hours. I did the following power search at Amazon.com:
pubdate: after 1992 and title: days and
(title: learn or title: teach yourself)
and got back 248 hits. The first 78 were computer books (number 79 was Learn Bengali in 30 days). I replaced "days" with "hours" and got remarkably similar results: 253 more books, with 77 computer books followed by Teach Yourself Grammar and Style in 24 Hours at number 78. Out of the top 200 total, 96% were computer books.
The conclusion is that either people are in a big rush to learn about computers, or that computers are somehow fabulously easier to learn than anything else. There are no books on how to learn Beethoven, or Quantum Physics, or even Dog Grooming in a few days. Felleisen et al. give a nod to this trend in their book How to Design Programs, when they say "Bad programming is easy. Idiots can learn it in 21 days, even if they are dummies.
Let's analyze what a title like Learn C++ in Three Days could mean:
Researchers (Bloom (1985), Bryan & Harter (1899), Hayes (1989), Simmon & Chase (1973)) have shown it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition, telegraph operation, painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in neuropsychology and topology. The key is deliberative practice: not just doing it again and again, but challenging yourself with a task that is just beyond your current ability, trying it, analyzing your performance while and after doing it, and correcting any mistakes. Then repeat. And repeat again.
There appear to be no real shortcuts: even Mozart, who was a musical prodigy at age 4, took 13 more years before he began to produce world-class music. In another genre, the Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had mass appeal early on, their first great critical success, Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967. Malcolm Gladwell reports that a study of students at the Berlin Academy of Music compared the top, middle, and bottom third of the class and asked them how much they had practiced:
Everyone, from all three groups, started playing at roughly the same time - around the age of five. In those first few years, everyone practised roughly the same amount - about two or three hours a week. But around the age of eight real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up as the best in their class began to practise more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight by age 12, 16 a week by age 14, and up and up, until by the age of 20 they were practising well over 30 hours a week. By the age of 20, the elite performers had all totalled 10,000 hours of practice over the course of their lives. The merely good students had totalled, by contrast, 8,000 hours, and the future music teachers just over 4,000 hours.
So it may be that 10,000 hours, not 10 years, is the magic number. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) thought it took longer: "Excellence in any department can be attained only by the labor of a lifetime; it is not to be purchased at a lesser price." And Chaucer (1340-1400) complained "the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne." Hippocrates (c. 400BC) is known for the excerpt "ars longa, vita brevis", which is part of the longer quotation "Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile", which in English renders as "Life is short, [the] craft long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult." Although in Latin, ars can mean either art or craft, in the original Greek the word "techne" can only mean "skill", not "art".
With all that in mind, its questionable how far you can get just by book learning. Before my first child was born, I read all the How To books, and still felt like a clueless novice. 30 Months later, when my second child was due, did I go back to the books for a refresher? No. Instead, I relied on my personal experience, which turned out to be far more useful and reassuring to me than the thousands of pages written by experts.
Fred Brooks, in his essay No Silver Bullet identified a three-part plan for finding great software designers:
This assumes that some people already have the qualities necessary for being a great designer; the job is to properly coax them along. Alan Perlis put it more succinctly: "Everyone can be taught to sculpt: Michelangelo would have had to be taught how not to. So it is with the great programmers".
So go ahead and buy that Java book; you'll probably get some use out of it. But you won't change your life, or your real overall expertise as a programmer in 24 hours, days, or even months.
Bloom, Benjamin (ed.) Developing Talent in Young People, Ballantine, 1985.
Brooks, Fred, No Silver Bullets, IEEE Computer, vol. 20, no. 4, 1987, p. 10-19.
Bryan, W.L. & Harter, N. "Studies on the telegraphic language: The acquisition of a hierarchy of habits. Psychology Review, 1899, 8, 345-375
Hayes, John R., The Complete Problem Solver, 2nd Edition Lawrence Erlbaum, 1989.
Chase, William G. & Simon, Herbert A. "Perception in Chess" Cognitive Psychology, 1973, 4, 55-81.
Lave, Jean, Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Approximate timing for various operations on a typical PC:
execute typical instruction
1/1,000,000,000 sec = 1 nanosec
fetch from L1 cache memory
fetch from L2 cache memory
fetch from main memory
send 2K bytes over 1Gbps network
read 1MB sequentially from memory
fetch from new disk location (seek)