A response to Peter Norvig – Programing is also a Tool: Learning Programming Through Composition

I recently came across a blog posted several years ago (can’t find a date on the page)  http://norvig.com/21-days.html

The blog post is basically a combination of two things:

  • A straw-man argument against how programming books and skills are marketed.
  • An excellent guide on how to master programming. (not sure about the two bullets concerning language standardization efforts) 

Dr. Norvig’s main point is that programming is a skill that takes a long time to master.  (read: years)

To the extent that we ever believe marketing hype, like made from the “best stuff on earth”, the argument is strong. In other words, books like Master x in 24 hours. are obviously marketing hype. But we didn’t need Peter Norvig to tell us and if we did, it wouldn’t help. So of course, I concede that programming cannot be learned overnight.

However, much of what we call programming is simply the art of putting working blocks together to create useful tools. Programming is, in a way, more similar to Legos than it is to piano.

A child can use Lego blocks and follow a booklet to create a city. They can even create interesting variations on  that city without much experience. By over emphasizing the idea that programming is some kind of deep craft, you miss out on the fact that many projects can be completed with very limited knowledge of programming principles.

I would argue that articles that emphasize how difficult programming is actually turn away many people who could otherwise benefit from even basic knowledge of the craft. It would be like saying

If you aren’t going to build the tower of Dubai with Lego, why bother?

Instead, a few simple principles can actually make a person modestly competent at getting the job done and often little else is required. When it is, more significant resources can be marshaled.  This is the essence of Just In Time  (JIT).  JIT is a principle that has found uses in many fields of engineering and optimization in general.

So yes, Dr. Norvig, no one is going to build the next ZeroMQ overnight, by reading Learn C++ in 24 hours or in a week. But plenty of people can learn how to use ZeroMQ to build a thin service layer around  a node.js rules engine in a day using exactly those types of resources, books and tutorials. (If you don’t know what any of that meant, don’t worry. It is not important and that’s my point.)

What follows are the minimum principles you need to program.

(I’m sure I’ll refine this list)

Teach yourself programming through Composition:


(OED 1.1) The action of putting things together; formation or construction:

(OED 1.2) A thing composed of various elements

  • Programming  is composition
  • Every program is a black box with an input and  an output.
  • This is recursive, that is, every program itself is a composite of black boxes.
  • View everything in the world this way.
  • Imagine what sorts of tools you would need to get the job done
  • Find those tools
  • Combine them (glue them together using whatever means you have)
  • Fill in the missing pieces
  • Iterate.
  • When in doubt ask someone who has more experience? (or search stackoverflow it’s probably already been asked.)

That is the essence of programming as a pragmatic tool to get the job done.

There is no need to become a master programmer. If that happens along the way, and you create the next Pandas or Beautiful Soup, great!

If not, join the millions of people who have made their own and other’s lives easier by automating something.

I think the field of programming, and people in general, would benefit if the attitude toward programming was more similar to the way people approach cellphones (everyone uses them at different skill levels, to do a wide array of tasks) instead of the way people approach quantum gravity (not at all, for most people).



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