Are programming books overrated?

A little insight gathered through feedback from an internship. Software development books are somewhat overrated as they can’t teach practice well.

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.


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.

Blog harvest, May 2010

Some noteworthy blog articles, harvested for May 2010. You’ll hear a lot about Java, a bit about Clojure, a fair share about Pair Programming and some thoughts about the advantage of employee exchange programs.

You can tell from the frequency of recent blog harvests that we are slightly overloaded with work at the moment. This is a rather preferred state to be in as a small contract development company, but everything not ultimately necessary is reduced during those phases. We consider blog reading as indispensable, but reporting the best of articles (our blog harvest) isn’t. So right now, we have a very long list of articles in our harvest barn. Here are some articles of the last two months:

  • Does Groovy Know You Are Seeing Clojure? – A real world story of learning Clojure, the Functional Programming language on top of the JVM. I can wholeheartly agree with the sentence “In the intervening 30 years since starting out on a TRS-80 Model 1 nothing has been more difficult in terms of solving even the most trivial of problems than learning Clojure.”, but in my case, it has been a little more than 15 years of real experience. After a year trying to “get” Clojure, I deferred it for more productive work.
  • Don’t return null; use a tail call – A blog entry about the billion-dollar-mistake (null pointers) and API design. It got inspired by Steve Freeman’s book “Growing Object-Oriented Software” (see next section for more content by Steve Freeman). The idea of “tail calls” or callbacks isn’t new or revolutionary, but widely underused. Personally, I found the idea of returning empty Iterables (as an abstract commonplace of Collections) useful in some scenarios.
  • Practical Styles of Pair Programming – First hand experiences of a pair programming enthusiast (Iwein Fuld). His scenarios seem familiar and the advices given reasonable. Reading the article sharpened my awareness about pair programming. There is only one complaint about the article from my side: Using headphones while programming doesn’t turn you into a zombie, it just eliminates the outer world for some time. That’s Alone Time, and it’s there for a reason, too.
  • Java1.6u18 and double array creation – A little story about flawed unit tests, recent java improvements and the value of nightly builds. Thanks for sharing this with the world, David Shay.
  • Do You Like Pain? – Jared Richardson shares his story and advice about getting used to the “pain” in any environment. I like the idea of the “prisoner swap” to identify pain points a lot. But from my own experience I can tell that the messenger might be muted by labelling him “not fully aware”.
  • Exploring Google GuavaGoogle Guava is the new Apache Commons. There are some neat features, though. Definitely worth the 20-minutes-read this article by Dan Lewis provides.
  • Java Post Mortem with Gilad Bracha – A post mortem should only be done on “dead” people/projects. So the title alone is a harsh statement. But the summary of the talk contains some valid points and a lot of opinions to think about. I particularly like the term “cottage industry” for DI framework vendors.

Next comes the video section of this blog harvest. I’ve found the time invested in these talks worthwhile:

  • Threading is not a model (35min) – Joe Gregorio presents the lack of advanced multiprocessing tools in most programming languages. His talk covers a lot more than just that and gives some appetizers on Python. The solicited lack of MP support was my reason to learn Clojure (see first entry in the list above).
  • Sustainable Test-Driven Development (55min) – Steve Freeman gives a whole bunch of advanced tips to write unit tests. The talk is given from the TDD/BDD point of view, but mostly applies to unit tests in general. You should be familiar with JUnit to fully understand this talk.

And at last, there is a tool I want to present you (this kind of resembles the fun section, too):

  • Dollar – An experimental java API that shows how much you can bend the java syntax to suit your personal taste. Through inspiration by this project I’ve come to some unique ways to make my code more expressive – without using funny signs. Thanks to Davide Angelocola for his unique approach.