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February 7, 2015

I saw someone on Reddit recently say that there are four stages to learning to program. I can’t find the link so I’m going from memory, but roughly, they are:

  1. The rush of excitement in learning something new – In this stage, you there are plenty of tutorials and hand holding. 
  2. Venturing out – You are newly confident after having grasped the basic concepts. You can read (some) code and get an idea of what it means, and if you are not sure, you expect that you can look it up and figure it out. Sure, there are some areas of code that look impenetrable, but you are confident that you’re just missing a few more basic concepts and you’ll be able to understand them easily enough. 
  3. The Wasteland – Now you want to do something non-trivial, and all the documentation still seems over your head. Everyone seems to know more than you do, and none of the tutorials are aimed at your level. They are either directed to newbies at stage 1, or they are directed to experienced programmers and assume that the reader has already worked with something similar, so they explain only what is unique about their implementation. 
  4. Actually having some idea of what you’re doing – If you manage to somehow get pas the Wasteland, your confidence builds again, and one day you realize that you actually are able to build non-trivial systems. 

I think the first three stages make a lot of sense. I’m not sure at this point if number four actually exists, or if it is just a cruel joke. I will say that there does seem to be a huge gap between the trivial (“Hello World!”) sort of programming and the more complex programming required to make what the average person on the street would recognize as software. 

Modern software is complex. It does a lot, and everyone has expectations from years of using professionally created applications. This applies to mobile as well. It’s crazy to think that the iPhone launched 8 years ago. Everyone who’s been using a smart phone for even a fraction of that time has an idea of how an app on their preferred platform should look, act, and, more importantly, feel

So what I’ve learned this week is that building GUI is really hard. Sure, you’re probably working with an SDK, so at least you’re not reinventing the wheel, but this is still hugely complex, with a lot of nuances. It’s hard to keep all of that in your brain at once. 

Right now I’m working my way through the Big Nerd Ranch’s book on iOS Programming. They do a fairly good job of speaking in plain English–of helping you past the Wasteland. But it’s tough. I just finished the chapters on UITableView, a super common and relatively basic design. No bells and whistles here. Just a pretty standard list. And I’ve spent a good week trying to figure out a few challenges they give you. Move the items around the list. Create one item at the bottom that doesn’t move. You wouldn’t think this would be so hard. But because you’re not just dealing with variables and simple operations, but instead a whole mass of interconnected objects, things don’t behave the way they do in those first few tutorials. Intuition goes out the window. You’re basically left with trial and error. 

Sometimes that’s good enough. And I get a feeling that more programming—real programming—is trial and error than anyone would ever admit. And through that method, I have almost completed the challenges. Now I have just one more simple method to master. 

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