How to Design Your First Programs

How to Design Your First Programs

Past week, I started this great C++ tutorial: It has been an amazing learning experience so far, mostly because the tutorial is very hands on, allowing you to immediately self-program all of the code examples.

Several hours in now, section 1.10b explains how to design of your own, first programs. The advice in this seciton seemd pretty universal, thus valuable regardless of the programming language you normally work in. At least, I found it to resonates with my personal experiences so I highly recommend that you take 10 minutes to read it yourself: For those who dislike detailed insights, here are the main pointers:

A little up-front planning saves time and frustration in the long run. Generally speaking, work through these eight steps when starting a new program or project:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Collect the program’s basic requirements (e.g., functionality, constraints)
  3. Define your tools, targets, and backup plan
  4. Break hard problems down into easy problems
  5. Figure out (and list) the sequence of events
  6. Figure out the data inputs and outputs for each task
  7. Write the task details
  8. Connect the data inputs and outputs

Some general words of advice when writing programs:

Keep your programs simple to start. Often new programmers have a grand vision for all the things they want their program to do. “I want to write a role-playing game with graphics and sound and random monsters and dungeons, with a town you can visit to sell the items that you find in the dungeon” If you try to write something too complex to start, you will become overwhelmed and discouraged at your lack of progress. Instead, make your first goal as simple as possible, something that is definitely within your reach. For example, “I want to be able to display a 2d field on the screen”.

Add features over time. Once you have your simple program working and working well, then you can add features to it. For example, once you can display your 2d field, add a character who can walk around. Once you can walk around, add walls that can impede your progress. Once you have walls, build a simple town out of them. Once you have a town, add merchants. By adding each feature incrementally your program will get progressively more complex without overwhelming you in the process.

Focus on one area at a time. Don’t try to code everything at once, and don’t divide your attention across multiple tasks. Focus on one task at a time, and see it through to completion as much as is possible. It is much better to have one fully working task and five that haven’t been started yet than six partially-working tasks. If you split your attention, you are more likely to make mistakes and forget important details.

Test each piece of code as you go. New programmers will often write the entire program in one pass. Then when they compile it for the first time, the compiler reports hundreds of errors. This can not only be intimidating, if your code doesn’t work, it may be hard to figure out why. Instead, write a piece of code, and then compile and test it immediately. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know exactly where the problem is, and it will be easy to fix. Once you are sure that the code works, move to the next piece and repeat. It may take longer to finish writing your code, but when you are done the whole thing should work, and you won’t have to spend twice as long trying to figure out why it doesn’t.

Learn C++; Section 1.10b

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