Why IDEs lead you to the dark side.

When I learnt to program it was on an archaic mainframe system in Pascal. A “when I was a boy we had to boot up the VAX using tape spools” kind-of story. But in reality, in the five years I spent as an undergrad command-line programming was all we ever did. There were no GUIs, and certainly no IDEs – the ubiquitous “Integrated Development Environment”. Now many want to program using an IDE. Sure it colours the code nicely, and makes things ever so easy – but what has been lost along the way? Mostly the art of tinkering with your code.

With command-line programming you delve into the lower level of the machine itself. To learn to program in C on a Unix system you had to learn about the shell, and the commands that help investigate and manipulate the system. You learnt that it you delete a file using rm then it wasn’t coming back. There was no unrm. It was a lesson learnt very quickly. If your program went haywire you could find the process and kill it. Sure you had to learn to use vi to edit your program – but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. A lot of what we learnt was learnt by playing with the system. Runtime error messages  of the form “segmentation fault” were deciphered by trial-and-error – now where is that memory problem?

Novice programmers should start by learning to code using the command line. They will no doubt migrate to IDEs at some point, but they need to learn the how the system levels works – awk, grep, sed, cron – and the power of shell scripting languages. Yes, the command line can be scary. Get over it. Cobol is much scarier.

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One thought on “Why IDEs lead you to the dark side.

  1. Kathleen Bruce says:

    Truly understanding how a system works will make for stronger computer professionals in the future.

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