Book review: Think Like a Programmer, by V. Anton Spraul

My publisher, No Starch Press, sent me a review copy of another of their books a few months ago. Regrettably I’ve been a bit slow in getting around to properly reading it, but here, finally, is my review of Think Like a Programmer, by V. Anton Spraul.

Front cover of Think Like a Programmer

Programming is as much an art as it is a science. When you’re starting out as a programmer, there’s a big mess of concepts and rules to get into your head before you can do anything much more complicated than printing out a shopping list on-screen – things like differences between different types of variable, and how pointers work. Even if you’re dealing with a language that hides all of these icky details, like Python, you’re still going to find yourself spending most of your time learning about specific structures like for loops or class declarations.

Most books for the newbie programmer focus on these mechanical details, generally with specific application to only one programming language. And quite rightly so, in my opinion; after all, it’s only by learning this stuff that you’re ever going to be able to do anything interesting. And so it’s only when you start programming regularly, or try to do anything more substantial, that the “artistic” side of programming starts to become really important.

With Think Like a Programmer, Spraul has his sights firmly set on the people who’ve already put the time in with the initial “science” bit. They have a decent amount of experience with one, maybe two, programming languages, and have progressed beyond textbook exercises or copy-pasting together code snippets to actually writing their own functioning code from scratch. But it’s at this point that a lot of people get stuck, with some of them never moving far beyond this predominantly mechanical understanding. Without a firm push in the right direction, habits can develop, experience reinforces them, and the art of programming never blooms.

It’s a philosophy, not a cookbook

Think Like a Programmer is a 233 page push in the right direction. It’s not a pattern book, with endless lists, block diagrams, and flowcharts for deciding when to use one tried-and-tested program structure over another. It’s not a cookbook, with myriad clever, practical examples to use as “inspiration”. Nor is it an “advanced programming” textbook, with detailed treatises on using the obscure, God-level features of whatever programming language you’re most concerned with. No. While it does have elements of all of these things here and there (they’re useful, after all), it’s much more concerned with your attitude to programming – how you approach solving problems with code. Your coding philosophy.

It would be easy to churn out a book on this subject that goes little farther than chastising you into adopting good coding style (how to indent blocks? where to add comments? how to name variables?), and pointing at a few useful patterns that relative newcomers often don’t know about. But Spraul has gone far beyond this. He starts off with a general discussion on how to solve problems, using examples of the type you might find somewhere near the back of a newspaper. The puzzles he walked through were really fun, and it felt good to go from blindly fiddling around with them to successfully applying the strategies he suggested. The lesson he’s teaching here is to sit down, think about the problem, and start using powerful general-purpose approaches like reducing it into smaller sub-problems, being systematic, and so forth. And, hey, whaddaya know? It works. Thinking works!

It’s a journey, not a destination

Things progress from there into the programming domain. In each successive chapter, Spraul builds on the discussion that has gone before, introducing new, generic, problem-solving approaches and combining them with the methods discussed previously to solve progressively harder example problems. The examples are followed through in excellent explanatory detail, with an emphasis on the structure and logic behind the code rather than the particular language features that are used (though all the examples are in C++, which has its fair share of relatively opaque syntax). He also strongly encourages that you try the numerous exercises at the end of each chapter to cement what you’ve learned, an approach that, while it may sound dry and textbooky, really does help you to get to grips with things.

There are chapters on general programming/problem-solving approaches, plus more specialised ones on using important tools like arrays, classes, pointers, and recursion to your advantage (the recursion one is available to download for free). The discussion is kept general – there’s little in here about specific optimisation or debugging tricks, and rather more of an emphasis on just writing good code, regardless of the specific application you might have in mind. As such, if all you’re after is quick tips for making your code run better, you’re not going to get that much out of the book. If you’re willing to sit down and patiently follow it through, however, you’ll find that what it’s teaching you is an enlightened approach to programming – essentially, how to become a Good programmer with a capital-G. And in the long run, that’s what’s going to make the difference between scraping by, writing cobbled-together solutions that just about work, and outputting truly nice, effective ones.

That troublesome audience

This is all well and good – noble, even – but I can’t help but wonder if the book will get through to its intended audience. If a novice programmer picks this up, there’s a good chance that they’ll struggle with the choice of language. While it’s a sensible pick for showing off the concepts the author is interested in, C++ isn’t the easiest language in the world, and Spraul isn’t afraid of using some of its more obscure syntax with only the briefest of explanations. For someone with experience only of Python, for example, the one-page overview of how pointers work in C++ isn’t going to leave them much wiser on the subject. There’s absolutely nothing to help the non-C++-using reader get set up with compilers and IDEs either, which could cause some serious headaches for those actually wanting to play with the examples themselves. As a result, those familiar with C++ will find the book a considerably easier ride than those who are not, which is a shame.

The purpose of the book is also a bit more subtle than your average (the blurb describes it as a “one-of-a-kind text”). You know what you’re getting with a cookbook, whereas the benefits brought by Think Like a Programmer are somewhat less tangible. The readers who’ll get the most out of this are the patient, motivated learners, whereas those who’re looking for shortcuts and quick fixes to “becoming a better programmer” will likely find it frustrating. Ultimately, I guess that’s fine – you can only help those who will be helped – but I guess this sort of presentation would be more effective to a broader range of people  in the context of a taught course rather than self-study.

Verdict

The book is well-written, with tons of excellent advice and solid, well-thought-out examples. If you’re willing to devote some time to studying the material (perhaps, depending on your background, with a C++ reference in hand), you’ll soon find yourself equipped with an impressive array of problem-solving strategies and, maybe, a new outlook on programming. Recommended.

About Phil Bull

I'm a theoretical cosmologist, currently working as a NASA NPP fellow at JPL/Caltech in Pasadena, CA. My research focuses on the effects of inhomogeneities on the evolution of the Universe and how we measure it. I'm also keen on stochastic processes, scientific computing, the philosophy of science, and open source stuff. View all posts by Phil Bull

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