What programming language should I learn?

Mar 02 2010

Sameer asks what programming language he should learn. Below is an edited version of my reply.

The plumber comes to your home and asks: “What tool do you want me to use?”.

What will be your reply? “I don’t care! Fix the damn problem”.

That’s right. Everybody wants to get their work done, and get their problems fixed. They don’t care what tools you use. As a developer your job is to solve problems your costumers have in the most effective manner. This in turn means that you cannot use the same tool for every type of problem. Can you use an electric driller to fix a small leak in the pipes? No. You may want to use the duct tape for that.

Which language should I learn is a wrong question to begin with. Languages are tools in the bag of a software engineer. Before deciding upon the programing languages you want to learn, you should decide what type of problems you would like to work on. Would you like to work on web technologies? Would you like to work in the Linux ecosystem? Would you like to work in the mobile platforms? There are a million different niches in programming world and you have to ask yourself all those rhetorical questions that comes to your mind and then decide which language suites your choice.

This does not matter that the tools are not important. They are; but they are not more important than the problem at hand.

How many programming languages should you learn?

There is no point in trying to learn as many languages as you can. What you should do is to try and learn about as many languages as you can, and then decide which languages you should gain expertise in.

Going back to our analogy, what tools do you think a plumber should carry in his bag? “Enough tools to get his work done.”

Exactly. If you know to use just one tool, you may be forced to work with other people who can use some other tools. This happens in most corporate IT companies. In large companies you will be working with other people who have expertise in programming languages and tools which you don’t know how to use. This has the advantage that these people will be real rock-stars in their own narrow fields. Instead if you want to work in places like startups (or if you want to work as a freelance developer), you may want to know a little bit of every type of tool out there.

Of course you don’t have to know to use every type of screwdriver. You just have to be expert in using one good screwdriver model. Similarly you don’t have to be an expert in every web development language. Just learn a pretty decent one and you should be fine.

Every programming domain has its set of tools to help you develop softwares. If you are developing an enterprise website, you may be working with technologies like Core Java, Servlets, EJBs, XML, Unix Shell Scripts, Log parsers, Databases, Various web-servers etc. This means that in addition to programming languages there are many other technologies related to programming that you should master in order to be a good programmer.

One more thing you should know – all the programming languages are inherently different from each other. Some languages are easy to program in (eg Python) while some others are difficult (C/C++). I am not referring to the expertise needed in learning the language. I am referring to the effort required in writing a program after you learned the language. If you work as a programmer in an IT company, you will probably learn a new language (may be as per business requirements) in a very short time span. You will start writing decent code in about 1 week to 3 months time. Then the only thing that will matter is which language you really prefer to work with. So don’t worry much about which langauge is easier to learn; worry about which language is easier to use. (There is a correlation here though. You will find that in most cases the languages that are easier to learn are the easier to program in too)

You can learn a lot about programming from forums were smart programmers hang out (eg Proggit and Hacker News), read the top articles and ask your questions there; you will get in-depth answers.

The biggest secret:

You will become a good programmer only by – programming a lot. Many students don’t program outside their labs and college projects, and they never become good programmers. Try to do some coding in your free time. Try to solve Project Euler problems in your favorite programming language, or try to build a website of your own.

Having said all these here are some specific tips. These may or may not work in your case:

  • Enterprise development: Learning Java is a good. Java is used in many software shops as the primary language. It will take you a long way in most situations. At the same time, I have some objections with using the language from a startup programmer point of view. Read the discussions here too.
  • Web development: Stay away from PHP. It is a badly designed language. Instead, learn Django or Ruby on Rails. If you prefer Microsoft technologies use ASP.Net MVC.
  • Windows development: Learn C# (and probably not Visual Basic). For running C# applications in Linux, check out the Mono project.
  • There are many excellent programming tools or IDEs you should try to master. Eclipse is a popular IDE. Notepad++ is a popular code editor.
  • You should be learn about stuff like Regular Expressions, Unicode, Information Security etc. (I cannot even attempt to list all the topics)
  • Try to keep up with new technologies. You don’t have to learn all the latest languages, but try to have an awareness of the latest trends in programming. For example, web development, mobile phone development etc are areas where lots of innovations are happening. You don’t want to miss any of those if you are intersted in those fields. Then again, the forums I mentioned above will come handy.
  • Learning just one language is not very good idea. Learning a lot of languages is also not a good idea. Strike a balance between the two extremes and try to be good in at least 2-3 different programming languages in different fields. (As explained earlier, different languages are used to solve different types of problems)

Good luck!

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