Wednesday, January 18, 2006

10 years, not 10 hours

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Most programmers hope they are smart, myself included. Especially at the chastisement of Joel, or some other pundit, we bristle defensively or let it go to our heads whether we meet the criteria of "smart" for the day.

What's even more taboo is to say "I don't know" or "I don't understand." To avoid this many people broaden their exposure so that they can claim they know something of HTML because they've written a tag in notepad, or they claim they "know" C++ because they've written a Hello World.

Out of this a whole cottage industry of 24 hour / 21 day books have flourished to mock what it really means to know something technical. I'm sure the authors of such books aren't claiming to transmit a full understanding of thier topic but that's irrelevent here; it's how books like this are used.

I read an excellent essay by Peter Norvig which confirms an intuition that I had: it takes many years to really know a programming language. For the last five or so years I don't think I've gone more than a week without writing something in C# and I still learn knew things all the time about the language. If someone asked me if I "knew" C#, it would be awkward; I know the answer they'd be looking for is the simple yes or no, but I wish I could stop them and say, "hey, I've been programming the .NET Framework for a while and I feel like I'm getting there with C#."

Norvig's challenge to "know" a dozen programming languages is a formidable one.

"Learn at least a half dozen programming languages. Include one language that
supports class abstractions (like Java or C++), one that supports functional
abstraction (like Lisp or ML), one that supports syntactic abstraction (like
Lisp), one that supports declarative specifications (like Prolog or C++
templates), one that supports coroutines (like Icon or Scheme), and one that
supports parallelism (like Sisal)."

I'm a few languages short but that's where I'm headed.

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