Wednesday, 3 August 2011

An Introduction of Sorts, Part 2

Learning C without the help of formal education isn't the easiest task. Some times I feel like MacGyver trying to use an elastic band, a paperclip and a funnel to make a rocket ship. No really! That's what trying to write a game or large program is like in C. The language gives you some rudimentary tools with which to craft intricate art with. However, that being said some very powerful programs can be written in C. You just need to learn how to use the tools and fine tune their use.

I would describe myself as an intermediate to advanced C programmer. By no means am I an expert and I'm a far cry from being a master/guru. To understand why I consider myself thus, you need to understand the full breadth of a computer language. Any one computer language consists of two parts: 1) Syntax, 2) Libraries and Tools. Learning the syntax and idioms of a language can be difficult but as you grow and learn it turns out that discovering the idiosyncrasies of a language is the easy part. Learning the standard and third party libraries and tools are the hard part. When I began learning C, I thought that once I had learned the language I was done. I was a master. Just call me Yoda. Ya, right. Let's see...what do we need to know:

1) Language Grammar: punctuation (semi-colons, brackets), code blocks, scope, reserved words, loops, conditionals, macros, preprossessor directives, etc. all make up language syntax;
2) Compiling: compiler flags, linker flags, and all other manners of subtle nuances of each compiler you need to know in order to even build your code;
3) Debuggers: backtraces, core dumps, debugging programs (gdb), profiling and symbol tables are some of the tools you need to learn to be an effective programmer in C;
4) Standard Libraries: printing, strings, locales, file input/output, etc.;
5) Non-Standard Standard Libraries: "You're kidding me, right?" you might be asking. Oh, no! I'm not joking. Unix libraries vs. Windows, POSIX libraries, and all manner of things in between. Start learning sockets, you'll see what I mean;
6) Standards Complient: No, there's no one version of C. There are several C standards and more are on the way. Learning C once isn't the end. You'll need to keep reviewing the new standards, especially when a compiler changes to a different default standard (C89 for gcc but I expect it to change C99 eventually);
7) Third-Party Libraries: This is the balance of all the other libraries out there. For C? There's a LOT.
8) Portability: This one is a mixed bag and it depends on how people are using the word. For some, portable code means it can be ported to other Unix variants like BSD, Linux, etc.. For others, like myself, I take it to mean code can be ported between operating systems. In most cases, this is no easy task and can quickly turn into a nightmare. Remember I mentioned sockets? Just the tip of the iceburg. More on that in another post.

I feel like I'm missing something. I probably am.

Well, there is something. A couple somethings. There are the tools you need to work with your code. The first of these is a development platform. What operating system do you use to program on? I, personally, program on my Ubuntu Linux box. You'll need to pick up a compiler. The most popular in the Linux world are GCC and LLVM. You'll need to install a debugger. How about an automatic build system? Oh, don't forget a programming environment. Now, I prefer to use a terminal and a text editor. Others, especially those from the Windows world, prefer an IDE.

I eventually chose a book called Beginning Linux Programming. Now, I already had enough background to jump right in and this turned out to be a fantastic book for me. Now, it is more focused on Linux programming, as the name implies, but it also teaches theory and techniques usable by anyone. The main thing I learned was that I had a lot more to learn. A lot more.

Your mind fried yet? I know mine is.