Are programming books overrated?

In the last few weeks, we had an internship of a student that just finished academic high school (“Gymnasium”) and is looking forward to take up studies in computer science. He wanted to get in touch with the practical aspects of the career he is about to choose. The programming courses in school merely covered the basics of a programming language (Java) and some UML.

We prepared the student for the internship by feeding him several books we thought were appropriate for his level of knowledge. The books were a beginner’s book about Java (Head First Java), an introduction to unit testing (Pragmatic Unit Testing) and a foundation on clean code programming (Refactoring). Our student read them thoroughly and could make references to the chapters during pair programming sessions.

Retrospective on the books

But one feedback we got from him was that the books alone were nearly useless for his case. If there wouldn’t have been tutorial style pair programming coding sessions and several short lectures , he couldn’t grasp the deeper meaning of the book chapters he read (he suffered from the “blank slate blockade” several times). This came a bit as a surprise for us, as the student was very clever and really into it. It wasn’t the student, it was the books.

But you can’t blame it on “Refactoring”, for example, as this book is an all-time classic filled with really important knowledge. It has to be the medium itself, books are not the ideal source to learn about programming and software development.

Books are part of the academics

There is an old question in our profession. It revolves around if we are more like engineers or artists, craftsmen or scientists. In the core of this question is a uncertainty about the right model of education. Artists and craftsmen prefer more practical training, with apprentice/master relations and personal knowledge transfer. For engineers and scientists, literature and more standardized lectures are better suited. Academic knowledge is transferred during debate, not during exercises.

The duality of our profession

Projecting the feedback of our student onto this question, there seems to be a duality in our profession: Both (or all four if you want) approaches are needed to form a whole. You can’t learn the theory and expect to excel on the job. But pratical experience alone will not suffice to keep up with the pace of our profession. Good books are like afterburners here, you’ll be hurled forward by every page.

Conclusion

If it’s really true that we need to learn our profession both ways at once, pair programming (in the tour guide or backseat driver style) is an essential part of our qualification. And our current university curriculum fails to deliver this part. Students nowadays can team up to program together on an assignment, but that’s not learning from a master (unless one in the team has distinctly more experience than everybody else and is able to transfer it). So I vote to bring more craftsmanship to the academic education, as the books alone won’t cut it.

Your opinion?

What’s your opinion on this topic? Drop us a line about your thoughts.