We need to train new developers, and we need to make programming approachable by more people, if only to get their attention before they dive deeper. I'm not speaking anything new hear, but I think there are some gaps in many of the common narratives.

Narrative 1: We need to teach kids and more adults to program

I agree! We need to get the attention of adults who might be interested in a career change, and we need to capture the imagination of children who can grow up and build the future software ecosystems we'll use in our retirements.

But there is a gap in this narrative, between the learning to code and the actually being an active experienced developer.

At least in many of these cases, education is given in some more approachable fashion, but it isn't given in a way that a clear path exists from start to finish. We hook them, and then we rely on a common trait of developers to get them through the harder bits. I'm going to use Python and games as an example, because it is a common one. The Young Coders class is amazing, but I have a big problem with it: we are setting these children up for major frustration and major disappointment. We teach them to code in a wonderful language, on a great environment that fosters creativity and experimentation. We give them a comfortable start that pulls them in, hooks them, and sets them on a path to self driven education beyond all the course material.

They're going to leave these classes, already sold on everything they learned, and realize they can't send these games to their friends easier. They want to brag, and we won't let them. We've made it harder on them. "Just go install Python, and PyGame, oh and PyOpenGL because i used that, too. Then unzip my game and it should run!" they're going to tell their friends, who will look at them strangely.

We can't start developers on a path with these kinds of walls.

Either we need to break down those walls (make distributing Python projects with binary dependencies easier!) or we need to start them down a different path (like web-based coding).

Narrative 2: UNIX vs IDE Culture

The war is old and the battles have been fought over all sorts of territory, from compiler performance to language preferences to testing methodologies. But, what is the distinction between these two mindsets is really only beginning?

I have been firmly in the UNIX school for a long time, but i'm not stranger to IDE culture, either. I started my programming education with a stack of books from the library and seven Borland C++ floppies from my cousin (software piracy for the 90s), before upgrading to an actually purchased copy of Visual Studio 6.0, for I still have all my installation media.

The narrative in this divide is between a developer who gets his hands dirty and developers who let's the machine do the gritty parts for them. The UNIX developer says the IDE devotee doesn't actually understand what goes on "under the hood". The IDE developer says the UNIX devotee wastes their time doing things manually and using under-powered tools. But, both of these groups see themselves as developers, and the others as "devotees", tied hopelessly to their weird tools against all practical arguments.

If you ask a Python developer what a kid should use when getting started, they aren't going to start talking about Git, VIM, or writing setup.py files. They'll mention IDLE, where a student can naturally shift from playing in the REPL to saving a script to run against later. Where a natural progression will exist from those first steps to writing a little game they save and run again when a friend is near. But we don't look at IDLE as a "real" tool. For the most part, we only look at it as a toy. No Python developer I know looks at IDLE as a serious development tool that anyone should continue using past the learning stage.

And this is basically how many of them look at IDEs and IDE culture, as well. "Grow up and learn the command line options for the tools your GUI has been hiding from you!" they'll say. And there is an idea of power in this, that the IDE devotee is missing out on a deep well of powerful tools and options at their finger tips. We'll make this claim, and then go back to our garbage-collected, run-time compiled, dynamically-typed language.

Narrative 3: Visual Programming is a Silly Toy

While seen usually as a novelty, there are actually a huge number of visual programming options around. The thing is, they exist with a very two sided attitude from traditional developers. On the whole, they are seen positively within specific contexts of learning and education, but completely disregarded when suggested for "serious work". You can see this mirrors the narrative from UNIX developers towards IDE developers, and yet this attitude is common in both camps.

Effectively there are no "real developers" who consider visual programming viable for what they would call "real programming".

But who are the real developers and who gets to make that distinction? What is real programming and how do we identify "toy programming"? These aren't clear, and they serve largely so "other" approaches we don't like, often for fairly emotional reasons more than clear and practical ones.

It is true, there are obvious and often stark differences between a stable, mature C codebase and a project file in Scratch. Clearly, these are two very different things. But, we don't need to extrapolate from this that all text-coded programming is inherently better than any graphical-coded programming. We need to recognize a cross over, and when we do we'll enable that intersection to grow.

Good IDEs and good toolsets are important, and visual programming may be an extension of that. If this is the case, we may continue to prefer our own style but we are being dishonest if we don't label it as another camp in the same woods.

Conclusion: Abstractions like visual programming are poised to seize new ground

Look around you and you're going to see the writing on the wall. You're going to see how much more powerful Scratch 2 is, how intuitive the NoFlow project looks to make software crafting, and how games like LittleBigPlanet have created whole communities of people who are building software and don't even realize it.

Our walls are arbitrary. We look down on choices of text editor, on the choice between text editor and IDE. The very fact that we define a difference as if Emacs and Eclipse are so much different speaks volumes for our ability to segment ourselves needlessly. We've done the same with visual programming tools, and I think to their detriment, restraining the passion of developers who would improve them, and cutting off what could be a powerful avenue for whole new classes of developers to join our ranks.

I don't think we've learned to create software, but we've been prototyping the concept. There are fantastic possibilities when we look at the tools we hold sacred in our craft as ephemeral as the things we produce with them.

comments powered by Disqus

Published 2013/09/16



Calvin is a Programmer u

who writes about and works with Python, C#, Javascript, Testing software, and Making games


Projects u

About u