Five Languages That Rocked My World

I’ve been fortunate enough to have used a variety of different programming languages over the years. Some for home projects, some for use at work, some just to tinker with to see what the fuss is about. Five languages in particular have had a big effect on me:

BASIC

Pretty much everyone who cut their programming teeth on 8-bit micros started off on BASIC. You switched the computer on and there you were: an inviting command prompt waiting for you to type in some BASIC code. No wait, no fuss. We’d laboriously type out listings from computer mags, manuals supplied with the computer or the old Usborne books. A great experience for learning about computers and programming which I worry is lacking these days. It encouraged you to play around and experiment, and the environment BASIC was running on was fairly limited so it was easy to understand the system as a whole. Maybe I’m intertwining BASIC and 8-bit computers?

BASIC was my introduction to programming. I’d sit there hunched over my CBM Plus/4 hooked up to a blurry TV and bash out programs that were crude and contrived, but were fun to write and gave a real sense of achievement. Even when I moved to an Amiga A500, I continued to use BASIC (in the form of the much maligned AmigaBASIC) for a long time because it was quick and easy to write software that met my needs. I remember writing more serious tools on the Amiga, including code for things like GCSE maths coursework.

BASIC might be frowned upon by many these days, but it remains a decent language for introducing people to the general idea of programming – which was its original purpose. The chapter on BASIC in the excellent O’Reilly “Masterminds of Programming” book is a terrific read, if you like that sort of thing.

Modula-2

From BASIC, I went towards assembly language (6502 and then 68000) and C but was never particularly serious about either at the time. When I started university, the course taught Modula-2 as the language used to express the concepts of programming properly, and the serious art of computer science (sic). C might’ve been more powerful, more lower-level and more widely supported, but it had sharp edges that could catch the unwary, including me.

Modula-2 was a revelation and it helped move me completely away from BASIC. It retained a clear, readable syntax and I found it great for writing structured, robust code thanks to features such as its use of modules for encapsulating data and procedures. There was even support for coroutines, something that at the time was a relatively specialised feature for general microcomputer programming.

Prolog

I’d heard of Prolog back in the 80s and knew that it stood for Programming in Logic (“programmation en logique” if you want to be correct), but that was the extent of my knowledge. I didn’t encounter it properly until late in my university course when I began to study logic programming and artificial intelligence. It was the first time I’d encountered a language that was very different from the imperative programming I had undertaken before.

Prolog is a declarative language. Instead of writing code as a sequence of steps and flow control statements, i.e the “how” of solving a problem, you declare the problem space itself and the rules defining that space. It’s a very different approach to tackling the writing of code in languages like C and was an excellent mental exercise for myself. It had a big effect on the way I looked at programming and its influence can be seen in my fascination with things like domain specific languages or my recent look at Erlang.

Perl

Perl was in some ways a return to my roots and in others a radical departure. I learnt Perl in a weekend when I started at my first job in 1997. There were some CGI scripts that needed maintaining and they were written in Perl, a language no one at the company had any in-depth knowledge of.

For all the jokes about being a write-only language, which admittedly can be very true, and it being the Swiss army chainsaw of text utilities, it’s a pretty powerful language. Perl, to me, was always about getting the job done. The lack of compilation gave the ability to make quick changes and experiments easily, just like BASIC. It excelled with text manipulation and the support for regular expressions turned me into a serious regex fanatic. I find regular expressions incredibly useful and have felt comfortable writing and debugging some insanely complex pattern matching in other languages as a result.

Perl gave me a great stepping stone into developing dynamic web sites (as opposed to static HTML) as well as dealing with the processing of large amounts of text. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it was also the origins of my love for dynamic programming languages. I might not have an interest in working in Perl again, but I’m glad I spent the first few years of my professional programming career using it.

Python

Ah, Python. Truly the best all-round language I have used to date – dynamically typed, supports quick experiments as well as large-scale software development, clean syntax, simple to learn, object-oriented, with a few nods to functional programming in places. It also taught me that life without braces or begin/end statements is not only possible, but actually quite liberating. Python is fun.

Once I’d got past the whole indentation weirdness, Python proved to be an excellent replacement for Perl. I could do everything I did in Perl easily, and more. It also proved to be the first object-oriented language that made me appreciate objects. I never really saw the point of object-oriented code until I started working with Python and Zope. Suddenly it all made sense.

The great thing about Python was that the indentation gave rise to a rather interesting side-effect: readable code. No more wars over bracing style, no more complaints about differng layouts of code amongst team members. You could step into someone else’s code and figure out what it did far more easily than other languages. It’s still possible to write obfuscated Python code, but you have to make a special effort.

Python’s standard library also covers quite a wide range of functionality, which has been a great help when writing code – when people say that Python has batteries included, they aren’t kidding! Perl might have CPAN, which is very large, but I find myself having to hunt out third party libraries less often than I did with Perl, and even less than I did with languages like Modula-2 or C/C++.

I don’t know if or when something will take over from Python, but for now it’s my main choice of language.

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