Be a Better Programmer, Part 1

May 15, 2014, 6:31 PM

Tags: programming
  1. Be a Better Programmer, Part 1
  2. Be a Better Programmer, Part 2
  3. Be a Better Programmer, Part 3
  4. Be a Better Programmer, Part 4
  5. Be a Better Programmer, Part 5

For over a year now, I've had notes on this blog-post series sitting on my desktop, staring at me and asking why I haven't actually started it. Well, I'm going to start it now.

The title and core concept are stolen from the illustrious Day[9], though I expect any mentions of video games will be incidental at best. What I want to do is encourage everyone, myself included, to be a better programmer, and I aim to do this by sharing overall concepts and strategies that I have found to help me. Some of these (like the quick one today) will be about generic concepts with more-or-less direct applicability to daily programming, while others will fall more to the sides of either "here's a neat trick" or more of an overall outlook on life and the profession.

To start off easily, I'm going to bang a drum I've banged before:

Data Structures

In Java, the most applicable form of knowing about data structures is the Collections framework, but they pay dividends even if you never write a line of Java (or work with a Java framework like XPages) in your life. I learned about data structures in college, but I recognize that "having been a CS major" isn't a viable option for non-time-travelers. The Wikipedia article does a decent job going over the basics of the types, though actually following the links to them runs the high risk of stumbling into the mathematical foundations and arcane pseudocode, which are of interest primarily to CS professors.

The good news is that I forgot the vast majority of the actual details of the structures yet still derive tremendous benefit. The best example of that is when it comes to Trees. In my mind, Trees have a couple primary points of note:

  • They consist of a root node that has zero or more children, each of which also has zero or more children.
  • There are two main categories of Trees to know about: binary and non-binary. What this just means is whether the count of children is limited to two or not. The primary purpose of this limit is for searching: left is "less than" and right is "greater than".
  • Binary trees are great for keeping and traversing sorted sets of data (thus Java's TreeSet), while non-binary trees are great for representing hierarchies (such as an XPage or an org chart).
  • If you're dealing with trees, you're probably going to do some recursion.

Once you know a bit about Trees, they start popping up everywhere: the ExtLib is rife with "leafNodes" and the like, JSON and XML data can be safely thought of as a Tree, and database indexes (like Views) fit the bill as well.

Unless you're actually implementing a low-level library, you don't really need to know more than the broad strokes. I learned tons of stuff about representing Trees as an array, algorithms for traversing them, and various specialized types (like Red-black Trees), but I've forgotten basically all of that.

I've found having a working knowledge of the various types to be a tremendous benefit in visualizing the structure of a program, in figuring out why something works the way it does, and in coming up with good solutions to a variety of problems. I recommend finding some tutorials online (maybe this guy, though I haven't watched them) and familiarizing yourself with the basics. You will likely find that it will be a stepping stone to greater understanding of basically everything you do as a programmer.

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