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Book Review: Think Like a Programmer 98

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
MassDosage writes "After nearly 15 years or of writing code professionally it was refreshing to take a figurative step back and read a book aimed at people getting started with computer programming. As the title suggests, Think Like A Programmer tries to get to the core of the special way that good programmers think and how, when faced with large and complex problems, they successfully churn out software to solve these challenges in elegant and creative ways. The author has taught computer science for about as long as I've been programming and this shows in his writing. He has clearly seen a lot of different people progress from newbie programmers to craftsmen (and craftswomen) and has managed to distill a lot of what makes this possible in what is a clear, well-written and insightful book." Read below for the rest of Mass Dosage's review.
Think Like A Programmer
author V. Anton Spraul
pages 256
publisher No Starch Press
rating 8/10
reviewer Mass Dosage
ISBN 978-1-59327-424-5
summary An Introduction to Creative Problem Solving
Think Like A Programmer is probably best read by those with at least a year's experience with programming, such as first or second year computer science students or those picking up programming on their own. The code examples in the book are all written in C++ so a basic knowledge of C++ syntax is required but this should be easy to pick up by anyone with familiarity with related or similar languages. Experienced programmers looking to brush up on their fundamentals will most likely find something useful here too. They probably do a lot of what is suggested here already without being aware of it but it can be encouraging to see this formalized in a book. I found it gratifying to see that some of the techniques I use daily were covered here — it's good to know that I'm not the only one who scrawls down funny diagrams and sketches out a rough plan before actually typing any code.

Different types of problem solving are discussed in separate chapters which cover the use of data structures, pointers, recursion and code libraries before wrapping up with a final chapter that brings all the previous approaches together. The book is intended to be read in its entirety with later chapters making frequent references to topics covered earlier. Think Like A Programmer is not a cheat sheet or cook book with quick fixes but a more substantive book that rewards those who read it as thoroughly as it has been written. Each chapter contains a few examples which are used to explain the topic under discussion and these have been well chosen to illustrate the key concepts. A series of exercises are also included which build on and extend each chapter. The author stresses that if the reader really wants to learn something and improve their problem solving skills then these exercises should be considered even more important than the text. The best way to learn how to program is by doing and the exercises force one to put what one has just learned into practise. The first few exercises at the end of a chapter are relatively simple and are basically variations on the examples that help the reader build confidence before moving into more challenging and tricky exercises that push one to apply one's recently acquired knowledge to new limits.

Throughout the book everything is explained in a good level of detail and enough background information is provided so that the reader should never feel out of their depth. The pros and cons of the various presented solutions are clearly weighed up with logical backing. The author is obviously very knowledgeable and experienced with teaching hard concepts to new learners and this shows in his no-nonsense, down-to-earth but enjoyable writing style. The code samples are clear and well thought out as are the diagrams that accompany the various examples. The chapter on classes was the only one where I felt like focus was being lost due to too many C++ implementation details but perhaps that's just the nature of the language. I would have liked the example here to show more clearly how classes can turn a morass of functional code into something more logically grouped and easier to understand. To be fair, the exercises at the end of this chapter do ask one to do this by asking one to convert a collection of string utility functions into a more logically organized string class. This again shows the importance of actually doing the exercises and not just simply reading them.

The core idea of how programmers take a complex problem and then break this down into smaller, more manageable and solvable parts is well described. The importance of having a plan before jumping in and writing code without thinking is stressed and there are great suggestions for how to take stock of your own personal strengths and weaknesses and come up with a personal plan that works for you. The example is given of someone who likes jumping right into coding — for someone like this it probably makes sense for them to do early prototyping as a way to start solving a particular problem, as long as the longer term plan involves taking a step away from this and incorporating the lessons learned into a more thoroughly thought out solution later. In this, as in the rest of the book, the author shows his years of experience teaching a wide range of people with different skill sets and approaches to problem solving. There is no single way to think like a programmer, but rather a number of tried and tested strategies that can be employed in various ways. Think Like A Programmer captures this core idea in an satisfying, down to earth manner and I can highly recommend it to anyone wanting to improve their problem solving capabilities. I wish I had had this book when I started studying computer science — the fundamentals contained here would have been a valued addition to the text books teaching syntax and specific technologies.

You can purchase Think Like A Programmer from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Book Review: Think Like a Programmer

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  • Silly Words (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pubwvj (1045960) on Friday August 31, 2012 @02:45PM (#41193793)

    "craftsmen (and craftswomen)"

    No need to do that. Women are included in human. Women programmers are included in programmers. Craftswomen are included in craftsmen. No need to complicate things.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      I think that was a subtle nod. A little gesture acknowledging that there are, somewhere, female programmers out there. Probably.
      • by causality (777677)

        I think that was a subtle nod. A little gesture acknowledging that there are, somewhere, female programmers out there. Probably.

        Since we're obsessed with group identity these days, we can't just let that fact stand on its own (significant) merits.

        In a truly unbiased society we wouldn't think of this as unusual or otherwise worthy of special mention. The attitude would be more like "of course women can be programmers, and water is wet, grass is green, the sky is blue..."

      • by pubwvj (1045960)

        But if the writer were truly egalitarian the 'subtle nod' would not be necessary because it is by default. If it must be mentioned that there might be women programmers out there then what about black, Jewish, Chinese, Mexican, Native American, French and Scottish programmers. Don't want to leave them feeling left out! The list becomes absurdly long. Just say craftsmen or programmers or what ever and leave it at that. No need to complicate communications. Simplify.

        • by icebike (68054) * on Friday August 31, 2012 @04:01PM (#41194607)

          Just say craftsmen

          But Craftsmen has the word men in it, which might be viewed as exclusive.
          So perhaps it should be Craftspersons.
          But persons has the word son in it which implies a male child, which might be viewed as exclusive.
          So perhaps it should be Craftsperchild.

          • by obarel (670863)

            Hang on, the word "female" has the word "male" in it. Now I'm confused...

            • by siride (974284)

              That one is actually a bit sexist. The word was originally "femelle" (little woman). It was changed to "female" because it seemed to be a counterpart to "male". The words are otherwise not related to each other at all ("male" comes from Latin "masculus" and "femelle" from a dimunitive of the Latin "femina").

              • by obarel (670863)

                Yes, I'm aware of that (I actually studied Latin and Ancient Greek in university).
                I think my response was a joke about "person" containing "son" (which are clearly not related, like "history"="his story" and other nonsense).

          • by pubwvj (1045960)

            And human has the word man in it but it does not exclusively mean male.

            Sometimes I think that the people who get so hung up over saying craftsmen and craftswomen must be hung up on sex.

            I've decided I like crafty!

          • by Nivag064 (904744)
            I am sorry, but I must now sue you for intellectual property theft - as I had previously thought of replacing 'person' with 'perchild' for exactly the same reasoning...
          • You're wrong it's clearly craft-individual.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          Apparently that's where we are headed. The so-called professional newspaper in my town won't use the words 'fisherman', 'fireman', or 'policeman' beause those words "are not inclusive enough".

          • Re:Silly Words (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Fallingcow (213461) on Friday August 31, 2012 @04:15PM (#41194705) Homepage

            I just wish people would stop using "she" for the genderless singular pronoun. It makes me think they're talking about someone specific and that I missed who it is, so I need to scan up. Very disruptive to reading.

            At this point, I'd say using the plural pronoun "they" for double-duty as the singular-genderless is less jarring. Just give in and use it.

            • by Nivag064 (904744)
              'he' is traditionally for both male & female, and is the greatest subset of 'he' & 'she' - but using 'their', 'them', and 'they' is more appropriate for referring to one or more people of potentially mixed, unknown, ambiguous, or non existent, gender.
              • "They/them/their" is actually considered appropriate for TWO or more, known or unknown, being the plural pronouns, at least to sticklers. That's why it is (far too often) eschewed in favor of horrible writing: Randomly switching between "he" and "she", clunky "he/she" constructs, and my personal favorite that makes me just stop reading: made up bullshit like "sie/zie."

                • by Nivag064 (904744)
                  I started using gender appropriate language, long before this PC business became the scourge it is today. My motivation was that it did not seem appropriate to to use 'he' or 'his' in situations where gender was not relevant.

                  Often 'he' is used in a phrase that clearly applies to everyone in a group, so we end up with phrases that apply to an individual, just look at rules applying to multi player games.

                  Also I don't see the point of mentioning gender unless it is relevant to the discussion, so using 'he
                  • I wasn't arguing against the (mis)use of the 3-plural pronouns as a substitute for a gender-neutral pronoun (which is a role, whether they like it or not, that is technically filled, in English, by the male 3-singular pronouns).

                    I would much rather see that then the clumsy examples you mentioned, or the abominations that I did. It's at least easier to read.

                    • by Nivag064 (904744)
                      Apologies, I realized that! But I forgot to acknowledge it - me bad.

                      //////////// The following is not for the humour impaired! /////////////

                      Though I must strongly disagree with your sig!!! The neutrinos are not mutating, they simply can't decide which gender to settle on!

                      As 'evidence' that neutrinos have gender...

                      http://www.sciencemag.org/content/334/6054/304.short [sciencemag.org]
                      [...]
                      Recently, however, the case for sterile neutrinos has grown stronger, bolstered by a new analysis of data from nuclear reactors
          • Re:Silly Words (Score:5, Insightful)

            by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Friday August 31, 2012 @06:07PM (#41195555)

            Apparently that's where we are headed. The so-called professional newspaper in my town won't use the words 'fisherman', 'fireman', or 'policeman' beause those words "are not inclusive enough".

            If children are told to draw a policeman or fireman, they will almost always draw a man. If they are told to draw a police officer or a firefighter, they are more likely to draw a woman. The gender neutral terms are more inclusive, and are also more descriptive (does a fireman fight fires, or does he set them?), so why not use them?

            I'll get off your lawn now.

            • by pubwvj (1045960)

              So we'll just call the craftmen and craftwomen... crafty! :)

            • Apparently that's where we are headed. The so-called professional newspaper in my town won't use the words 'fisherman', 'fireman', or 'policeman' beause those words "are not inclusive enough".

              If children are told to draw a policeman or fireman, they will almost always draw a man. If they are told to draw a police officer or a firefighter, they are more likely to draw a woman. The gender neutral terms are more inclusive, and are also more descriptive (does a fireman fight fires, or does he set them?), so why not use them?

              I'll get off your lawn now.

              Citations please. And no, I'm not being facetious. I'm actually intrigued about your claim.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Why not just always use the word craftswomen, since 'men' is clearly included in that?

      • Because we've already had it drilled into us that that means only the females. And because we already have a perfectly functional word, whether or not some crybabies throw a piss fit over it because they don't understand the concept of subsets.

    • by doom (14564)

      No need to do that. Women are included in human.

      Yes, but it remains ambiguous as to whether women are included in "men", and if you don't think it's necessary to make that clear, your knowledge of English is several decades out-of-date.

      I'm conservative about changes in language usage, too, but don't be ridiculous about it.

      You may not like the fact that the feminists won this one, but they did, so get over it and embrace standard usage, because that was the one and only argument against this politicall

    • by mr.hawk (222616)

      Now, this entire "Silly Words" thread should be modded insightful. There can be no better illustration of "How to think like a programmer". Hilarious.

  • by preaction (1526109) on Friday August 31, 2012 @02:48PM (#41193817)

    I've had some self-taught programmer interns that seem to lack some of the critical problem solving skills that need to exist before the programming can begin. I've been looking for a book exactly like this: How to approach a programming problem. Is this a good gift to give to someone who really wants to be a programmer?

    • by vurian (645456)
      The review suggests it is... Maybe get a copy for yourself to make sure?
    • Here's one. (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Is this a good gift to give to someone who really wants to be a programmer?

      No. Give them this one. [amazon.com]

    • by garcia (6573)

      As an IT manager who has to deal with this, I find that books don't always help depending on how particular programmer learns. I spend a lot of time in "code reviews" (depending on your experience this could be handled in any number of methods) trying to teach my staff to think more like a programmer rather than the way they do.

      What collective knowledge can the Slashdotter community share to help with this problem aside from books which I have found to be ineffective in my particular environment?

    • I do not have one doubt that this one [amazon.com] is more likely to be useful.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The core idea of how programmers take a complex problem and then break this down into smaller, more manageable and solvable parts is well described.
     
    That's exactly what George Polya [wikipedia.org] said [wikipedia.org]!

  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Friday August 31, 2012 @02:59PM (#41193971)

    http://programming-motherfucker.com/ [programmin...fucker.com]

    • I'd prefer "Software Engineering, My Good Friend" which is a whole different boat to Programming Motherfucker.

      "Software Engineering, My Good Friend" would be similar but is not patronising, has no t-shirt shop (pocket protectors perhaps), takes well proven engineering principles and apply them to software and deliver quality working software the first time.

      The only problem with "Software Engineering, My Good Friend" is that the marketing and business folk don't find it fashionable any more and would rathe

      • by russotto (537200)

        "Software Engineering, My Good Friend" would be similar but is not patronising, has no t-shirt shop (pocket protectors perhaps), takes well proven engineering principles and apply them to software and deliver quality working software the first time.

        Ah. So both mythical AND dull.

    • by jasnw (1913892)

      ... and this:

      Old Fortran Geek

    • Oh, that is brilliant. Thanks for the link.

  • by LordofEntropy (250334) on Friday August 31, 2012 @03:03PM (#41194009)

    Charles Petzold's book, Code, is one I recommend to anyone who asks me about getting into programming. Actually I recommend it to anyone interested in computers in general. He uses flashlights, relays, and the like to "build" logical gates, accumulators, memory, and so on. A great read that really lays out how computers work.

    • by freeze128 (544774)
      Is learning how logic gates and shift registers in the very low level of the hardware going to help you understand how to inherit a class in higher level programming language? Sure, understanding how a computer works is important if you want to code, but that level of detail might only be useful if you were writing in assembly. Everything is obfuscated now.
      • by Radres (776901) on Friday August 31, 2012 @03:30PM (#41194331)

        s/obfuscated/abstracted/

        there *is* a slight difference in intent between those two words.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        What happens when your abstraction breaks? You are usually in the weeds if you do not understand the abstraction...

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I for one approve of this idea!
        People who don't want to learn the nasty details of how computers work, and what's under the abstractions will always suffer from leaky abstractions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaky_abstraction). If you don't learn what the abstractions are meant to abstract, you don't really understand it. The abstractions are meant to make coding easier, not to replace understanding.

        • by russotto (537200)

          People who don't want to learn the nasty details of how computers work, and what's under the abstractions will always suffer from leaky abstractions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaky_abstraction). If you don't learn what the abstractions are meant to abstract, you don't really understand it. The abstractions are meant to make coding easier, not to replace understanding.

          Unfortunately, you quickly get down to quantum physics. Good luck really understanding that. Not that I know of a case where a bug or gl

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Actually, yes, very much. You *will* be a better programmer if you understand what your code runs on top of. I started out as an embedded systems programmer writing assembly code for hardware, and feel what I learned there still applies to what I do now as a web app dev.

      • by LordofEntropy (250334) on Friday August 31, 2012 @03:52PM (#41194519)

        In my opinion, absolutely. He gets into programming later in the book as he describes how you give instructions to this 8-bit machine he has basically built in the book. Getting a basic understanding of memory, instructions, and the logical constructs used in computers, I think is critical to any programmer. Otherwise inheritance is just "oh I can use this stuff in my class magically" without understanding what is actually happening—which will make other concepts like pointers, multiple inheritance, and polymorphism very confusing.

  • by raftpeople (844215) on Friday August 31, 2012 @03:18PM (#41194185)
    "Cheetos, coke, pizza, mmmmmmm"
  • by Tony Isaac (1301187) on Friday August 31, 2012 @03:54PM (#41194541) Homepage

    Back in the 80s when I was in college, everybody signed up for Computer Science because there was money to be made, it was the thing to do. I noticed that few people made C's...people either made straight A's or flunked out. They got it, or they didn't.

    Now, as a long-time programmer and hiring manager, I find the same trend: people are either naturally really good at programming, or they just don't get it. As with any art form, reading books and education can only go so far.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This. You obviously get it.

    • by ThorGod (456163) on Friday August 31, 2012 @04:35PM (#41194839) Journal

      Well, somewhat. There is quite a lot to be said for reading material *while* working on problems relevant to the material. (It's far too easy to only *read* something, and feel that you "know it".)

      It's also pretty challenging to make that leap from reading to doing, no matter the subject. But, if you can do it...then you can *do* whatever you read including how to program.

    • by perpenso (1613749) on Friday August 31, 2012 @05:32PM (#41195305)

      Back in the 80s when I was in college, everybody signed up for Computer Science because there was money to be made, it was the thing to do. I noticed that few people made C's...people either made straight A's or flunked out. They got it, or they didn't. Now, as a long-time programmer and hiring manager, I find the same trend: people are either naturally really good at programming, or they just don't get it. As with any art form, reading books and education can only go so far.

      Some get it enough to get that CS degree but they are just not into it. IMHO many grads seem to fall into this category, they even have good grades. They entered the CS program not because they had an inherent interest in programming but because someone told them it was a good career path. Its just a job to them.

      I found what may be a simple way to tell those who have an inherent interest from those who do not. In an interview I like to ask about projects a candidate did on their own, for their own amusement or to satisfy their own curiosity. Sometimes I have to drag it out of them, they think their projects to too small or too trivial or too silly to be mentioned. If a recent graduate has written nothing other than class projects then I get a bit suspicious. It seems that the people who "get it" and are "into it" always have little side projects they can talk about.

      • by nullchar (446050)
        Heartily agreed. When interviewing candidates, we always ask what their last side project was - what do they do outside of work? If they work on cars, or gardening, or any hobby, that's fine as long as they show more than a passive interest. But the people who work and do nothing else will never be great programmers.
    • by Javaman59 (524434)

      I taught programming for a year at university after graduating, and my observation of the students was just the same as yours - they either got it, or they didn't. There were a small number who flew through the programming tasks, and did more than was expected. There was another small number who persisted and eventually completed them. Then there was the majority who spent painful hours struggling to write anything which approximated the requirements, seeking help at every step of the way from each other an

  • by Trogre (513942) on Friday August 31, 2012 @05:27PM (#41195269) Homepage

    Good to see No Starch Press still putting out good titles.

    • What's with the name, though? I know they're all about "hacking", and this seems to be a cute publishing name hack, but ... seriously, what?

  • Every time the question of how to best think like a programmer comes up, one needs to remind people to not think like programmers. Remember the old but true adage: If architects made buildings like programmers make software, then the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization.

    Programmers seem to have no trouble with the concept that every single individual bit of the billion or so in a complex program has to be correct in memory for the program to work correctly. And this is assuming that

    • If architects made buildings like programmers make software, then the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization.

      Programmers seem to have no trouble with the concept that every single individual bit of the billion or so in a complex program has to be correct in memory for the program to work correctly.

      Wait, what? I thought that the woodpecker comment meant that programs were so slipshod that they were barely held together by spit and duct tape, and one bird could wipe it out completely. (Yes, it's hyperbolic. Most adages are)

      If you plug in your "perfectionist" complaint, how does it work out to anything that makes sense?

      • I think you're mis-interpreting the complaint.

        I think the complaint was not that the programmers are striving for perfect bits, but that they are assuming all bits will be perfect - that there will never be bad RAM, or corrupt input, and that their program does what they wanted it to do, rather than what it actually does....

      • by ultranova (717540)

        Programs have no error tolerance whatsoever. The first time something goes wrong (the woodpecker chips at the wall), the whole thing crashes. It's not that programs are perfect, but that our computing model means that if they aren't, it's super-happy crashy time.

        Contrast this with the computing model of human brain, where errors are tolerated and corrected on a best-effort basis. For example, a drunkard will become increasingly uncoordinated as alcohol disturbs his motion control centers more and more, rath

  • by Greyfox (87712) on Friday August 31, 2012 @05:45PM (#41195385) Homepage Journal
    I prefer to open vi and then whack my student with a bamboo stick until "Hello World" compiles and runs. Repeat with more complex examples, until they know how to program.
  • by thenendo (523849) <bane.uchicago@edu> on Friday August 31, 2012 @07:33PM (#41196159) Homepage
    Coincidence?
  • To *think* like a programmer you must have that sense that Murphy (of the law) is inside you [ie. Be humble no matter how clever you are] and in the real world [eg. A valid date might be 'June' which isn't 00:00 on 1st June]. An age ago when I wrote my book on the subject (text freely available at http://vulpeculox.net/ob/Programming.htm [vulpeculox.net]) I twigged that programming is not about splitting problems into bits but understanding the need then building the solution from bits. Of course there are well-known methods for doing this. Now to me a programmer is a mental athlete. I expect them to train, have good facilities and consistently run good races but why on earth would I expect a high performance person to be operating at their peak 7.5 hours a day? Resting, recuperating and reflecting goes with achievement. Enthusiasm and interest in the next challenge keep up the momentum. Constraints and management targets destroy it. Once you've got the mechanics you can graduate to the principles then the patterns then the practice and finally being able to communicate with people.
  • they successfully churn out software to solve these challenges in elegant and creative ways

    Would those be the same "good programmers" who have churned out the last 20 years of critical Internet-facing vulnerabilities?

    All that software sold, after all, so by some measure it was "successful". Just not by the old fuddy-duddy "not guaranteed never to steal your identity and strangle you in the night" definition.

    • they successfully churn out software to solve these challenges in elegant and creative ways

      Would those be the same "good programmers" who have churned out the last 20 years of critical Internet-facing vulnerabilities?

      All that software sold, after all, so by some measure it was "successful". Just not by the old fuddy-duddy "not guaranteed never to steal your identity and strangle you in the night" definition.

      We're not paid to be "good programmers". We're paid to "Git 'er Dun!" It's far more important to most employers that labor be quick and cheap than to be careful and precise. After all, a 10-year old kid can do this stuff! My little nephew Jimmy wrote a Pong game. All You Have To Do Is...

  • Somebody ought to try that someday...

  • How to see if you think like a programmer.

    Step 1. Play SpaceChem.
    Step 2. Check levels of enjoyment. If you are enjoying yourself, get thee to a programming job. Preferably in the field of robotics, I guess.

    Alternatives to starting your programming career would include playing Zachtronics' other games, especially the codex of engineering. They have a perfect learning curve. I know I've posted about this a couple of times, but it can't be overstated; these games are all about programming.

The typical page layout program is nothing more than an electronic light table for cutting and pasting documents.

Working...