Sunday, September 23, 2007

The problem with "I'll just wait until school to learn to program"

[This was originally posted at]

I often run across young people who are interested in computers and programming. When I ask why they don't try to learn to program, many of them shrug it off as "I'll just wait until I take the programming class at school". If you're actually interested in programming, this is a very, very, bad idea. Here's why:

  1. It encourages you to become reactive, i.e. "I'll wait for someone to show me before I proactively learn it for myself". With how fast technology moves, and the need to constantly solve new problems, you can't afford a reactive mindset.

  2. Classes normally only cover established (i.e. older) technology

  3. Classes normally provide a bunch of extra theory that you may not need in the real world.

  4. There is just so much that a class won't teach you - Classes have a predefined curriculum, and often discourage you from exploring an interesting topic in more depth (most classes eventually become about getting a good grade on the tests, and if a topic isn't on the test, why "waste" your time studying it, at the expense of another topic that will be on the test.

  5. The good programmers will already be looking at the technology that isn't covered by classes. So if you wait for classes, and then only cover what's in classes, you'll always be behind the good programmers.

  6. Lack of emotional investment - you'll always be more interested in your own pet projects than some arbitrary school assignment. Practically, you'll learn and remember something far better if you have an emotional investment in it. Therefore you'll probably better understand the concepts if you apply them to your own pet projects.

For an aspiring developer, waiting to learn programming until you take it in school is like an aspiring athlete saying "I love basketball, but I'll wait to start playing once they show us how in gym class". Of course it's silly. Especially now with the internet, and free development tools, there's just no reason for a young, aspiring developer to sit-around for the schools to show them how to program.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Free Development Tools

[This was originally posted at]

A lot of programmers get their start as young hobbyists. However, young hobbyists often don't have the money to buy expensive development tools.

Fortunately, in .Net, you can get most of the core development tools for free.

  • Microsoft provides express editions for its platform. They're more limited than the commercial products, but they get you started.

  • Even a hobbyist should still have source control (note that this isn't .Net specific, you could use it to manage any files)

    • A free, open-source, source control system (which is way better than VSS) is Subversion.

    • Even if you are the sole developer, source control still is invaluable:

      • It lets you keep track of all your changes, giving you the confidence to experiment with big changes because you know you can just roll back. This is much better than copying your entire project each time you do something big.

      • It lets you view the entire revision history of your code

  • There are tons of free helper-tools, like NUnit for unit tests, FxCop for static code analysis, and more. Scott Hanselman does a great job of summarizing these.

Given that the knowledge is free (via millions of internet tutorials, blogs, and reference guides), and the tools are free, all you need is a computer and motivation, and even the young hobbyist can become a great developer.

Living in Chicago and interested in working for a great company? Check out the careers at Paylocity.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Fun Pet Project Ideas

[This was originally posted at]

Perhaps the best way to learn programming is to do a project that you're personally interested in. When I talk to younger  programmers, I usually suggest that they find something and try it out. For example:

  • Create your own game with XNA game development

  • Build your own personal website

  • Build a tool for data manipulation of your blog sites (like Facebook, myspace, or live journal). For example, you could write a tool that converts the archive files into a word or PDF doc, so you could have a book form of your entire year's worth of entries.

  • If you're a student, solve your math or science homework with a program.

  • Play around with Ajax or Silverlight to make a fancy way to display your pictures online.

There's also:, whose name says it all.


The point is that people naturally remember the things that they personally care about, and most people care more about their own pet project than an arbitrary work or school assignment.


Living in Chicago and interested in working for a great company? Check out the careers at Paylocity.