So you want to start programming?

It is interesting to see how many people want to start programming as they’ve played with a computer and now want to start making their own games, their own apps and their own websites. So they read about the more interesting programming languages and think they should learn PHP for web development, Java for Android or Swift for IOS. Or some other languages like Python, Go, Rust, C# or any of the other programming languages mentioned in the Tiobe Index. Why? Because these languages are very popular. But most won’t really notice that the Standard C language is also extremely popular yet everyone seems to skip it? The reason is often because the language is considered complex and difficult, it has no object-oriented paradigms, no overloading and no cool graphical libraries or even standard database functionality. Even worse, the book The C Programming Language has less than 300 pages explaining everything you need to know yet whole operating systems are written in it so it must be complex. Yet not, as it fits within 300 pages…Fanny with Laptop.jpg

But if you want to learn programming, you should start with standard C simply because it teaches you the basics of programming. Sure, objects and classes are fun, but that’s not code! That’s structure! Code is organised in classes and objects to add more structure to the code you can do more with less code. But to use those structures properly, you must first know what code is.

  • Remember this line, which I will refer to as Label 1.

And code is simple. You have statements and statements are simple actions. You add two numbers, you show something on the screen or you’ll wait for input. Those are simple actions. They’re tasks and they could be very simple or very complex. But from the code perspective, they’re all tasks.

Next, you will have conditions. Conditions will determine if certain statements (tasks) will be performed or not. If the user pressed a key, close the window. If a file is not found, show an error. And even in real life we see lots of conditions because if the cookie jar is empty, we will have to fill it with cookies again.

And last, you have loops. Basically, the repetition of code. You have done an action but you need to do it again. And again. And again. And rather than repeating the same statement over and over again, you just put it in a loop which will basically run forever. Unless you add a condition to the loop allowing the control flow to just out of the loop.

Like filling the empty cookie jar with cookies. It is empty so you add a cookie. It’s still not full so you add another cookie. And another one. And more. All the way until it is full as you can stop when it’s full.

So basically programming is all about statements, conditions and loops and how control of the actions flows through all of it. And if this is too difficult to understand then read this part again by scrolling up to the line that I refer to as Label 1 If you understand this principle, continue to read.

So, you’ve just learned about statements, conditions and loops so now you know programming! The rest has nothing to do with programming but is all about the structure of code. And that part are the functions and procedures, data structures, objects, classes, interfaces and whatever more. And as you should start practicing, the best thing to start with is a simple programming language that focuses mostly on the programming part and less on structure. And that language is C.

In C the only structural parts you’ll deal with are functions and data structures. And while C is perfect for making operating systems it is also ideal to learn the basics. You can use it to make simple console applications to maintain an address book, shopping list or even a calendar. But the lack of a GUI, database support and classes actually make C harder to learn for people who are already used to those! And it’s time to forget about those things and return to the basics.

One thing to keep in mind is that standard C has some very good build-in functionality for handling dates and times so that makes it perfect for a simple agenda. But the lack of database support means you’d have to do your own file management if you want to store your data for safekeeping and sharing. But a modern computer will have gigabytes of RAM and even a busy calendar is unlikely to have more than a few thousand records of about 100 bytes each. So reading all data in memory should not be a big problem. But file input and output will be required to load and save your data to be sure it’s all safe.

So, how to start? Start by determining what kind of data you’ll be handling. Do this with pen and paper, sitting on your couch with some milk and cookies or whatever else helps you think and stay away from your computer! You start by thinking about what you’re going to make so that computer isn’t needed yet! Design first, structure next and then you can code.

So, the agenda… Say, you want an agenda to keep track of the whole family and where they are and what they’re doing. The agenda part suggests dates and times, the family means persons and the locations means addresses. But what they’re doing is undefined so we just keep it as free text. So, that’s the data that matters.

Next, what kind of control would you like? Well, it will be a console applications so the user will have to type in commands. A nice GUI would be nice but the GUI is not part of the C standard. So command line instructions it will be. Statements like “load” and “save” would be the first important thing. Then, because we’re dealing with data, we need statements to manage it so we will have “Add”, “Modify” and “Delete” followed by “Calendar”, “Person” or “Location”. These statements would almost be SQL like! And we need to be able to show data so that would be either “Show” or “Select” or “Print” or whatever you think sounds nice. Again with an indicator for the right table.

But now things become more challenging as you need indicators for the data records. Say, you want to add a new event so your statement would have a syntax like “Add Agenda <date> <time> <duration> <person_id> <location_id> <free text>” and your code would have to parse it, check if it’s all okay and then add it to the list. And by defining this simple statement you will already know more about your data structure as the agenda record will have a date, time, duration, link to a person, link to a location and some additional text while both the person and location records will have unique IDs. But that’s structure and we’re still designing here.

So we continue defining the actions we want to perform on our data. A “Delete agenda <agenda_id>” suggests that agenda needs a unique ID also. Fine! We have at least three tables and four actions per table (Create, Read, Update and Delete or CRUD) so we have at least 12 functions to define. We don’t care how they are called but we know how we will manage the data. And perhaps we have some alternate versions for these functions as a location might not always be required so we would have two “Add” functions”. Or maybe we want to delete all agenda entries for a person or for a specific day. We’re almost making our own SQL syntax here!

But we won’t go full SQL on our data as we only focus on the things we consider important. We’re keeping things simple and don’t want users to work out all kinds of complex queries as this application needs to be simple.

Interesting will be the saving and loading of the data but my advice would be to just write it all to a simple text file so you can edit it afterwards in notepad or another editor, to fix errors. It means parsing text to data and converting data to text, preferably in some easy way. It’s a good exercise to come up with a good file format.

So once we have the actions we want to perform on our data, we will have to consider what data we actually want. We have three simple tables and we already know the “Agenda” table will link to the other two. For persons, we would like to have a first name, last name, their function and maybe a phone number or birth date. For locations we want the name for the location, address and maybe even the phone extension number for the phone in that room. And while it is tempting to add more tables and stuff into this application, we have to focus on making something first and all we have by now are still notes on paper.

So, now we know what we want to make, how we will control it and what the data will look like, we can start working on the actual code. And the code will be simple as it’s a console application waiting for user commands. User types a command, presses ‘Enter’ and the application starts parsing it and tries to execute any valid command while reporting any errors.

This is a simple programming exercise which also offers plenty of distractions as you likely want to make it prettier. Don’t fall for that trap as you need something to show first! Once you have something to show, that would be version 1 and you can start version 2 now, while version 1 is save in your source control system.

You do use source control, don’t you?

Anyways, this is a project to start to learn programming as it mostly focuses on the programming itself, not the structure. When you start expanding the whole project, you can consider rewriting it in Java or C# or whatever language you prefer that supports OOP. Probably something with a nice graphical shell so the user doesn’t need to type commands but can open dialog windows and use drop-down options to select whatever they want. But all of that isn’t really programming. It’s adding structure. Call it structuring for all I care!

When you want to create applications then you should understand both programming and structuring. But keep in mind that the structure depends on the programming, not the other way around. Too many developers get lost in those structures and make things far more difficult than need be. Then again, too many developers start behind the computer, entering code instead of reading documentation, making notes and don’t think ahead. Or they did think but are trying to do way too much all at once.