Archive for July, 2009

Amen, Brother Wirth!

From an interview with Niklaus Wirth (added emphasis is mine):

‟Do you think better education is the answer to poor software? Surely teaching people better would be cheaper in the long run and certainly avoid the huge bloat we see today and we would be able to use simpler and less power-hungry hardware?”
‟A proper education certainly would help. However, the belief is wide-spread that programming is easy, can be learned on the job, and does not require specific training or talent. However, it is not programming in the sense of coding that is the problem, but design. Applications have become very demanding and their tasks complex. Mastering this growing complexity is the primary challenge. To tackle this task requires experience and an explicit ability for abstraction on many levels. It is difficult to learn this, and even more so to teach it. Not every programmer is a born designer.”

All I can say to this is “Amen, Brother!” I have worked side-by-side with a number of developers over the years, and I consider this statement to be an absolute truth.

I also believe that programmers who have a natural ability to easily context-switch between details and abstract concepts fall into the category of programmers who are an order of magnitude more productive than many of their peers.

I think algebra is a good precursor to identifying programming potential. Prior to algebra, math education in the United States focuses on the mechanics. Success in algebra requires an ability to take abstract problems (i.e. word/story problems) and translate them into concrete details.

In school, I tutored a handful of friends and classmates who were taking algebra. Some just needed a different viewpoint to grasp the concept they were struggling with. Others, however, just did not get the concepts, and I believe their brains are simply not wired to think that way. These were not stupid people! They had talents in other areas that just didn’t fit into the abstract concepts of algebra.

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