All Programmers Are Self-Taught

by Jonathan

When I was a teenager I played high caliber baseball. I’m competitive to a fault and when I decide I want to be good at something, results usually follow. Now I’m a third year undergrad studying computer science. There’s something critically different between programming and sports though: A pitching coach teaches you how to pitch, but a CS professor doesn’t teach you how to code.

I was surprised that neither my TAs nor professors critiqued my code during my first year, but grew concerned after my second year. The assignments were larger and the problems tougher, but even after submitting some 2,000 lines of code in my data structures class, I never once had a comment on my code — if my program compiled and my unit tests demonstrated correctness, that was enough. It wasn’t until a small group project that I realized how ugly some code could really be, and I started asking questions about what good code really was.

But what is good code? I take a lot of time to make my code readable and self-documenting. I try to follow the UNIX philosophy on simplicity, that I should make my program work above all and only optimize if there’s a need. I keep in mind asymptotic complexity. I avoid threads unless I really need them. But I honestly don’t know if that’s good code or not (honestly, I think I’m a bad programmer).

I’m lucky enough to have worked with some students I think are great programmers, people who have interned at Microsoft, Google, Amazon and the like. Their opinion is generally the same, that most of what they learn is from self-reflection or picking up on other programmer’s habits. Even the ever-practical engineers share my sentiments. So here’s my claim:

All programmers are self-taught.

My education is giving me awesome tools: data structures, algorithms, database design, concurrent programming, network programming, agile development and different programming paradigms. But these are all tools, and even though they translate to much more efficient and smarter programming, you can still use them wrong — I’ve seen horrible code come from students who do exceptionally well in these classes.

I don’t think it matters if you study computer science, software engineering or get a college diploma, if you’re going to write code for a living, you’d better be ready to teach yourself.