How to become a programmer, How to choose programming language


On many message boards and forums I've seen many wannabe programmers.
"Guys, I want to become a programmer! Can you help me?". Sounds
familiar, isn't it? Those wannabes were asking same basic questions, over and over:

  • "Which programming language should I learn?"
  • "Which programming language is the best?".
  • "Can you recommend a good book about programming?"

Each of those guys (well, maybe there also were few girls) appeared, asked question, got some answers, disappeared and was never heard of again. I assume that some of them maybe were able to learn something, and maybe even became a really skillful professionals, but I believe most of those people have failed to become programmers. Because to my opinion they were doing it wrong from the beginning.

What you should never do if want to become a programmer

  • Never ask "Which programming language is the best?" on any message board.

    This is because there is no "the best" programming language, but many people will think otherwise. Typically, asking this question anywhere will provoke horrible flamewar where each person will attemp to prove that their language is "the best one". Of course, few first responses might be helpful for you, people even might provide some polite, useful, and unbiased info, but (in most situations) the thread will quickly turn into flamewar, or people will start demonstrating various language features using complex constructs (which will be completely uncomprehensible for a wannabe). Either way, there will be a very good chance that all discussion won't be helpful for a newbie.

  • Don't waste your time searching for "the best book" about your programming language.
    You will waste more time searching than you could spend programming. You will need a book, but it isn't really important to get best available book, especially if you are just a beginner. The practice and writing code is more important than books, at least in the beginning. So if you are in doubt (about which book to read), pick any book about your language, and use it for study.

What is really important

Book and choice of language are secondary things. Here is a list of requirements to become a programmer:

  • You should have a really good motivation or a goal. "I want to become a professional and get paid a lot of $$$" won't work - because you don't need to be programmer in order to earn cash. However "I want to make my own game" will be perfect.
  • Programming should be always interesting and fun for you. If it isn't interesting, if you aren't having fun when you write programs, then you won't be able to learn it quickly and efficiently. If your first programs look like a miracle/wonder for you, and you feel joy and happiness once it is finished, then you will have no trouble learning more difficult aspects. However, if you are bored to death each time you want to write something, you are not going to learn much. You will probably decide not to learn programming.
  • Do not try to pick "the best" language. Try to pick language which is "the best" just for you. If you are more comfortable with Python than with C++, then you probably will achieve more with Python.
  • When you are practicing, you should stick with stuff which is interesting for you. Making test program that inverts matrices is boring - pure math, not much to do. However, making "tetris" is not boring. Try to avoid boring examples from book. Keep books nearby and frequently use it as reference, but in order to learn more you should solve interseting, real-life problems.

Specialization: one important question you should answer before you start

You can't (easily) become universal programmer that can write in every language on every operating system. You should decide what you want to program, and pick your language accordingly.
Below is a short list of languages with short descriptions and explanations about how they are commonly used.

  • Assembler

    Not really a langauge. Assembler is simply a mnemonic representation of CPU instruction codes. So, (although there were some advanced assembler packages, like MASM), it is tightly tied to CPU, and will be mostly useful when programming low-level otpimized routines for that CPU. It won't be easy to use it for large projects.

  • C

    One of the popular languages, right now mostly used with OpenSource software, mostly on Unix/Linux/BSD and other unix-like system. It is very close to assembler (you still manipulate memory directly), but isn't tied to CPU type, so, unlike Assembler, C code is portable.

  • C++

    High-level language, with some of C features, and with higher-level features: objects, templates, etc. This language is really complex, and although you can learn syntax in few days, it might year or two to master it. C++ is used in most applications on many platforms, in many different tasks. It is portable.

  • Python

    High-level interpreted language. Platform-independant, isn't supposed to be compiled into machine code.

  • Java

    High level language which is meant to be completely platform-independant. Java program compiles into pseudo-code of non-existent processor. The code is run using interpreter, which is available for several platforms. So it is a hybrid of compiled and interpreted language.

  • C# and .NET

    Microsoft's attempts to make another java. Also compiles into pseudocode, but resulting application will be windows-only, because interpreter is developed only for windows (yes, I know about "Mono project", and I know it isn't frequently used).

  • Perl

    Interpreted language suitable for text processing, scripts, making tools, also for web.

  • PHP

    Interpreted language, used on the web servers.

  • JavaScript

    Used in web-pages, hardly for anything else.

  • Shell

    Unix shell script language. Used for making tools and scripts.

There are also several languages I never used much:

  • Haskell
  • Prolog
  • Common Lisp
  • OCaml

I"ve heard a lot of good things about those but I didn't need to use any of them. All of those languages are supposed to be powerful, but they are not "mainstream", and they aren't used frequently. Anyway, many people recommend at least to take a look at them.

Things you should keep in mind when you select language

  • Interpreted languages have better development speed, but worse performance, when compared to compiled languages. I.e. You might create Python program using less time, but C++ program are likely to have better performance. Notice that this a not always true, but in most cases. It is easy to make slow C++ program, especially if you don't know what you are doing. Keep in mind that although you don't need always need maximum performance or maximum development speed, in some situation they are important. For example, you wouldn't want to throw all power of C++ to make a simple text processing program - it will be faster to make it using shell script, python, perl, etc. On other hand, it won't be wise to make a raytracer in python - it is possible thing to do, of course, but for this application you will need a good performance, low-level memory access, etc. Notice, that in this situation you might consider assembler, but development time will be too high, and good C++ compiler might be able to produce better code than you.
  • You might not want to be tied to just one operating system, architecture or platform. If you want to be able to switch platforms later, then you should avoid Assembler(it is linked to just one CPU type), C# and all .NET languages (right now they are basically Windows-only), and you should be extra careful with C++ and compiled languages. Several companies provide language extensions which will be a lot of trouble if you ever decide to port your application to another platform (or simply if you decide to use another compiler). FIne example of that is microsoft's "safe" version of C string manipulation routines - "strcpy_s" and similar. They are not in C++ standard, so if you decide to port your application, you will have to write those routines yourself, or replace them with something else. Also, all compiled languages need libraries to interact with operating system, or create GUI windows, etc. This is because that standard for those compiled languages typically doesn't define libraries for all tasks. Because of this you should be careful about what libraries you use - they shouldn't be available only on one platform.
  • Some languages (typically interpreted or high-level: java, python, etc) try to help you and do some things for you - manage memory, for example (Python, Java, etc). Other languages assume that you are the "smart one" and you know what you are doing. They don't babysit you, and you are supposed to free memory yourself (C, C++ in some cases). Some people like automatic memory management, some don't like it. Typically, if you want to have all things under your control, you won't like automatic memory management. Keep that in mind when selecting language.
  • If you want to program for web, then you will probably have to use interpreted languages: Perl, Python, PHP, JavaScript. Compiled languages can be used to the some extent, but they won't help you much. This is because PHP and Javascript are easy to integrate into page, and you can't do same thing with C++ program.
  • IF you are using Linux/Unix-like system, then the first thing you might want to learn are shell scripts. This is because they are used very frequently. Also you might want to learn Perl or Python - because they are also very popular and frequently are being used for making simple unix/linux tools.


This is it. Think about all that and pick language. If you still don't know what to choose, pick anything and start studying it, but remember that you can always select another language later.