Saturday, April 30, 2011

Language, Tools, Chickens, Eggs, Java and Python

Too much of programming is intimately tied up with the tools to support the development of the software.

Example 1. I was told -- with absolute and fierce conviction -- that VB may suck as a language, but Visual Studio more than makes up for the obvious problems. For some people, Tools Trump Language. Sadly, I've also had customers with ancient code they could no longer compile or maintain because the tools were out of support.

On Stack Overflow, you can read questions like this: "What IDE to use for Python?". In spite of this question's immense popularity, it gets re-asked all the time. Search for "Python IDE" to see endless duplicates. One of the most common duplicate forms of this question asks (or demands) code completion. As if there are folks who cannot write code without code completion.

Chickens and Eggs

The issue with sophisticated IDE's (like Eclipse, NetBeans, and even Komodo) is that you have to learn the tools before learning the language. Until you know something about the language, the tools, of course, are useless. Worse, Eclipse is for "enterprise" applications and is so fat with bells (and whistles) that it's hard to determine what to use and what it means.

So the tool is a prerequisite for the language. But the language is a prerequisite for the tool.

How to cut the Gordian Knot?

First Principles

Irrespective of the "Visual Studio makes VB not suck" crowd, language comes first -- and last -- and fills all the spaces in between.

Language is everything. Software is merely encoded knowledge. The language of that encoding is how we determine meaning; how we argue about correctness, adaptability, maintainability and security. Tools don't endure -- they come and go -- but the language remains.

The only thing more important than the language is the data itself. But that's another rant.

Proof, of course, is available everyone except in VB circles. For non-proprietary languages (Java, Python, etc., etc.) there are a large number of competing tools. One language many tools. Take the hint. Language is important.

Yes, some tools are so flexible, they cover several languages. But there's no universal tool any more than there's a universal language. And the bias is clearly very, very many tools for a given language and only a few languages for a given tool.

How To Start

Language comes first.

For Python, that's easy. Run Python, type code at the >>> prompt, and you're learning. Python comes with IDLE which is a minimalist IDE. It will get anyone started. Later, they can try other IDE's.

For Java, however, that's not that easy. It isn't however, impossible to get started. It's just challenging.

Option 1 -- Bare Knuckles. It's possible to edit text and run the javac compiler to learn a great deal of Java without an IDE. It's not a bad idea. It will get complex to manage projects with more than a few files.

Eventually that's what Ant, Maven and SCons are for. But that's not a good place to start. Again, the tools don't make sense until you start writing things big enough that the tools actually help.

Option 2 -- Succession of IDE's. It's probably best to start with a very simple IDE for Java. Something like Komodo Edit, TextMate or BBEdit. There are a lot of choices, but the idea is to find something little more than a text editor with a few tools. I've used these and like their relative simplicity.

The JavaWIDE toolset might be helpful. I haven't used it, but some folks suggest that it simplifies the language learning. Later a "regular" desktop IDE can be used.

Later, one can move to NetBeans or Eclipse.

Classrooms and Autodidacts

In the classroom, it's easy to demonstrate NetBeans and answer questions.

For auto-didacts, however, choosing the wrong tool leads to endless confusion. The chicken and egg issue isn't clarified by wasting time trying to install and use a tool that's too sophisticated for a n00b.

N00b autodidacts really need to start with a simple text-editor. They need to use `javac` to compile and `java` to run the resulting class. For the first week or two, this will do. Once past the fundamentals, however, IDE selection can start to make sense. A BBEdit/TextMate/Komodo thing should be next. This is good for -- perhaps a year or more. Then, when doing "real" programming, a heavier-weight tool makes sense.

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