18 February 2012

Programming Reviewed – Part 1: What Programming Is About

    According to Wikipedia, computer programming (shortly programming or coding) is “the process of designing, writing, testing, debugging, and maintaining the source code of computer programs”. That’s an extensive definition, because typically programming refers mainly to the writing of a set of instructions understandable by a computer or any other electronic device. At least that’s what programming was at its beginnings. With time, giving the increasing complexity of software, programming included also activities like gathering requirements, architecting, designing, testing, debugging and troubleshooting, refactoring, documenting, configuring, deploying, performing maintenance, etc. Each of these activities comes with their own set of methods, procedures, processes, models, methodologies, best/good practices, standards and tools. In addition, when we look at the architecture of an application, we can delimit several layers: server vs. client, front-end (user interface), business layer, backend (database), transport (network), communication or hardware – they coming with their own set of technologies and knowledge luggage, and requiring some specialization too.

    However, making abstraction of all these, programming implies the (partial) knowledge of a programming language, an artificial language used to communicate with machines, in terms of language syntax, semantics and built-in libraries, and of a IDE (Integrated Development Environment), an application in which the code is written, compiled/interpreted and debugged. As programming can be often a redundant task, being necessary to solve the same kind of problems or to write the same kind of instructions, in addition to the various structures and techniques made available in order to minimize redundancy, a programmer can take advantage of a huge collection of algorithms, abstracted step-by-step instructions, and afferent technical literature. The deeper needs to go their understanding, the broader the set of knowledge to be acquired for it.

    And even if we consider all above, that’s not enough because programming is used in order to model and solve business-specific problems. So is required some minimal knowledge of the respective business domains, and that’s quite a lot if we consider that each project may address one or more business domains. Talking about projects, as most of the programming is performed within projects, a programmer needs to have some knowledge of the procedures, methods and methodologies for project management and team management. That’s not programming anymore, but it’s part of the landscape and nowadays is kind of a must because programming is performed within projects and teams. This means also that a programmer needs to cover several important interpersonal skills, to which add up customer oriented, social and thinking skills. They are important because they impact directly or indirectly the act of programming, and many ignore this.

    It’s important to stress that programming is not only the knowledge of languages, algorithms, tools, methods, models, practices, methodologies, standards, but also their adequate use in order to make most of the programming experience. Or as a long time ago retrieved quotes puts it: “programming is 10% science, 20% ingenuity, and 70% getting the ingenuity to work with the science” (anonymous). We all (or almost all) master our native language to the degree of writing sentences or communicating, though it takes skills to communicate effectively and efficiently, or of making from language a tool of expression through poetry or other forms o literature. Fantasizing a little, programming is like writing poetry, is one thing to write chunks of words, and another thing to write something meaningful. And programming is a lot about interpretation and representation of meaning in order to solve problems, is about understanding and breaking down complexity to a level that can be translated in meaning to machines. 

    Programming is an art, to the same degree each endeavor can be transformed in art. It requires skills, knowledge, dedication, creativity, and most of all the pleasure of programming. Programming is a state of spirit, is a way or model of thinking, of seeing the whole world in computable terms.

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