My Secret Life as a Spaghetti Coder
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This is a story about my journey as a programmer, the major highs and lows I've had along the way, and how this post came to be. It's not about how ecstasy made me a better programmer, so I apologize if that's why you came.

In any case, we'll start at the end, jump to the beginning, and move along back to today. It's long, but I hope the read is as rewarding as the write.

A while back, Reg Braithwaite challenged programing bloggers with three posts he'd love to read (and one that he wouldn't). I loved the idea so much that I've been thinking about all my experiences as a programmer off and on for the last several months, trying to find the links between what I learned from certain languages that made me a better programmer in others, and how they made me better overall. That's how this post came to be.

The experiences discussed herein were valuable in their own right, but the challenge itself is rewarding as well. How often do we pause to reflect on what we've learned, and more importantly, how it has changed us? Because of that, I recommend you perform the exercise as well.

I freely admit that some of this isn't necessarily caused by my experiences with the language alone - but instead shaped by the languages and my experiences surrounding the times.

One last bit of administrata: Some of these memories are over a decade old, and therefore may bleed together and/or be unfactual. Please forgive the minor errors due to memory loss.

How QBASIC Made Me A Programmer

As I've said before, from the time I was very young, I had an interest in making games. I was enamored with my Atari 2600, and then later the NES. I also enjoyed a playground game with Donald Duck and Spelunker.

Before I was 10, I had a notepad with designs for my as-yet-unreleased blockbuster of a side-scrolling game that would run on my very own Super Sanola game console (I had the shell designed, not the electronics).

It was that intense interest in how to make a game that led me to inspect some of the source code Microsoft provided with QBASIC. After learning PRINT, INPUT, IF..THEN, and GOTO (and of course SomeLabel: to go to) I was ready to take a shot at my first text-based adventure game.

The game wasn't all that big - consisting of a few rooms, the NEWS directions, swinging of a sword against a few monsters, and keeping track of treasure and stats for everything - but it was a complete mess.

The experience with QBASIC taught me that, for any given program of sufficient complexity, you really only need three to four language constructs:
  1. Input
  2. Output
  3. Conditional statements
  4. Control structures
Even the control structures may not be necessary there. Why? Suppose you know a set of operations will be performed an unknown but arbitrary amount of times. Suppose also that it will be performed less than X number of times, where X is a known quantity smaller than infinity. Then you can simply write out X number of conditionals to cover all the cases. Not efficient, but not a requirement either.

Unfortunately, that experience and its lesson stuck with me for a while. (Hence, the title of this weblog.)

Side Note: The number of language constructs I mentioned that are necessary is not from a scientific source - just from the top of my head at the time I wrote it. If I'm wrong on the amount (be it too high or too low), I always appreciate corrections in the comments.

What ANSI Art taught me about programming

When I started making ANSI art, I was unaware of TheDraw. Instead, I opened up those .ans files I enjoyed looking at so much in MS-DOS Editor to see how it was done. A bunch of escape codes and blocks came together to produce a thing of visual beauty.

ANSI Art picture of a face

Since all I knew about were the escape codes and the blocks (alt-177, 178, 219-223 mostly), naturally I used the MS-DOS Editor to create my own art. The limitations of the medium were strangling, but that was what made it fun.

And I'm sure you can imagine the pain - worse than programming in an assembly language (at least for relatively small programs). Nevertheless, the experience taught me some valuable lessons:
  • Even though we value people over tools, don't underestimate the value of a good tool. In fact, when attempting anything new to you, see if there's a tool that can help you. Back then, I was on local BBSs, and not the 1337 ones when I first started out. Now, the Internet is ubiquitous. We don't have an excuse anymore.

  • I can now navigate through really bad code (and code that is limited by the language) a bit easier than I might otherwise have been able to do. I might have to do some experimenting to see what the symbols mean, but I imagine everyone would. And to be fair, I'm sure years of personally producing such crapcode also has something to do with my navigation abilities.

  • Perhaps most importantly, it taught me the value of working in small chunks and taking baby steps. When you can't see the result of what you're doing, you've got to constantly check the results of the latest change, and most software systems are like that. Moreover, when you encounter something unexpected, an effective approach is to isolate the problem by isolating the code. In doing so, you can reproduce the problem and problem area, making the fix much easier.

The Middle Years (included for completeness' sake)

The middle years included exposure to Turbo Pascal, MASM, C, and C++, and some small experiences in other places as well. Although I learned many lessons, there are far too many to list here, and most are so small as to not be significant on their own. Therefore, they are uninteresting for the purposes of this post.

However, there were two lessons I learned from this time (but not during) that are significant:
  1. Learn to compile your own $&*@%# programs (or, learn to fish instead of asking for them).
  2. Stop being an arrogant know-it-all prick and admit you know nothing.
As you can tell, I was quite the cowboy coding young buck. I've tried to change that in recent years.

How ColdFusion made me a better programmer when I use Java

Although I've written a ton of bad code in ColdFusion, I've also written a couple of good lines here and there. I came into ColdFusion with the experiences I've related above this, and my early times with it definitely illustrate that fact. I cared nothing for small files, knew nothing of abstraction, and horrendous god-files were created as a result.

If you're a fan of Italian food, looking through my code would make your mouth water.

DRY principle? Forget about it. I still thought code reuse meant copy and paste.

Still, ColdFusion taught me one important aspect that got me started on the path to Object Oriented Enlightenment: Database access shouldn't require several lines of boilerplate code to execute one line of SQL.

Because of my experience with ColdFusion, I wrote my first reusable class in Java that took the boilerplating away, let me instantiate a single object, and use it for queries.

How Java taught me to write better programs in Ruby, C#, CF and others

It was around the time I started using Java quite a bit that I discovered Uncle Bob's Principles of OOD, so much of the improvement here is only indirectly related to Java.

Sure, I had heard about object oriented programming, but either I shrugged it off ("who needs that?") or didn't "get" it (or more likely, a combination of both).

Whatever it was, it took a couple of years of revisiting my own crapcode in ColdFusion and Java as a "professional" to tip me over the edge. I had to find a better way: Grad school here I come!

The better way was to find a new career. I was going to enter as a Political Scientist and drop programming altogether. I had seemingly lost all passion for the subject.

Fortunately for me now, the political science department wasn't accepting Spring entrance, so I decide to at least get started in computer science. Even more luckily, that first semester Venkat introduced me to the solution to many my problems, and got me excited about programming again.

I was using Java fairly heavily during all this time, so learning the principles behind OO in depth and in Java allowed me to extrapolate that for use in other languages. I focused on principles, not recipes.

On top of it all, Java taught me about unit testing with JUnit. Now, the first thing I look for when evaluating a language is a unit testing framework.

What Ruby taught me that the others didn't

My experience with Ruby over the last year or so has been invaluable. In particular, there are four lessons I've taken (or am in the process of taking):
  • The importance of code as data, or higher-order functions, or first-order functions, or blocks or closures: After learning how to appropriately use yield, I really miss it when I'm using a language where it's lacking.

  • There is value in viewing programming as the construction of lanugages, and DSLs are useful tools to have in your toolbox.

  • Metaprogramming is OK. Before Ruby, I used metaprogramming very sparingly. Part of that is because I didn't understand it, and the other part is I didn't take the time to understand it because I had heard how slow it can make your programs.

    Needless to say, after seeing it in action in Ruby, I started using those features more extensively everywhere else. After seeing Rails, I very rarely write queries in ColdFusion - instead, I've got a component that takes care of it for me.

  • Because of my interests in Java and Ruby, I've recently started browsing JRuby's source code and issue tracker. I'm not yet able to put into words what I'm learning, but that time will come with some more experience. In any case, I can't imagine that I'll learn nothing from the likes of Charlie Nutter, Ola Bini, Thomas Enebo, and others. Can you?

What's next?

Missing from my experience has been a functional language. Sure, I had a tiny bit of Lisp in college, but not enough to say I got anything out of it. So this year, I'm going to do something useful and not useful in Erlang. Perhaps next I'll go for Lisp. We'll see where time takes me after that.

That's been my journey. What's yours been like?

Now that I've written that post, I have a request for a post I'd like to see:

What have you learned from a non-programming-related discipline that's made you a better programmer?

Hey! Why don't you make your life easier and subscribe to the full post or short blurb RSS feed? I'm so confident you'll love my smelly pasta plate wisdom that I'm offering a no-strings-attached, lifetime money back guarantee!

Leave a comment

Since you enjoy metaprogramming I will recommend you to check out Io. It even more reflective than Ruby.

Another good post!


Posted by Emil Ivanov on Jan 14, 2008 at 08:01 AM UTC - 5 hrs

Thanks Emil - I'll definitely have a look!

Posted by Sammy Larbi on Jan 14, 2008 at 09:14 AM UTC - 5 hrs

Regarding the absolute minimum for a Turing-complete language - the Brainfuck language
<> has eight operations - input, output, two control/conditional statements, and four data manipulation statements - proving you weren't far off in your QBASIC analysis. That said, control statements most certainly canno be dispensed with in the manner you described - a large class of programs can't be written with only finite-length loops. Programs that never terminate, such as servers, are a small but significant example. Programs that need to scale up indefinitely are another.

Posted by Roie Marianer on Jan 15, 2008 at 03:27 AM UTC - 5 hrs

Thanks Roie - I wasn't quite looking for Turing complete but I'm glad you brought it up - it showed a major hole in my analysis:

I completely neglected data manipulation! I don't know how that passed me by.

I guess it was implied a bit by the story surrounding it, but definitely should have been in there!

Posted by Sammy Larbi on Jan 15, 2008 at 06:06 AM UTC - 5 hrs

Thanks for sharing your journey :-)
I've been thinking about writing a response to Reginald's "what I've learned from X that made me a better programmer with Y" for a while as well. I'll certainly do so in the future. I find your own question very interesting too; I've put it in the thought grinder right beside Reg's :-)

Posted by Mathieu Martin on Jan 19, 2008 at 05:42 PM UTC - 5 hrs

Thanks Mathieu, I certainly look forward to reading it if/when you get around to writing it!

Posted by Sammy Larbi on Jan 19, 2008 at 06:56 PM UTC - 5 hrs

i want t0 become a computer programmer, using the programing languages.

Posted by godgift on Jan 28, 2010 at 02:13 AM UTC - 5 hrs

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