Think Like a Programmer

Think Like a Programmer by V. Anton Spraul
$20.39 from Amazon

While I was working on my PhD in computer science, part of my job as a TA was to run the computer lab. I never cared for Java, but I learned enough of it to be able to help the undergraduates when they got stuck working on their homework assignments.

What struck me is that often the undergrads know more Java than I did; their problem was that they didn’t understand how to solve problems. Once I walked them through the process of designing a solution, then they could write the program. When I interviewed at Microsoft, the interviewer said the same thing: that many of the people he had talked to were not able to even answer the first interview question (which required figuring out a solution to a problem and then coding it).

As such, it’s no surprise that I was happy to see this book, with its promise of helping people understand how to solve problems rather than simply how to write code. The first chapter immediately dives in to solving some logic puzzles; while these aren’t computer related (and some are classic problems that everyone knows) they get the point across that programming is about solving problems. The actual language is secondary; what’s important is being able to break the problem down to the relevant information and figure out a way to solve it. Once you have an approach that allows you to tackle the problem, then you can figure out how to do each individual step.

Chapter two switches to solving problems using C++, rather than generic logic puzzles, and then we’re off and running. We follow that with one chapter each on solving problems using arrays, pointers and dynamic memory, classes, recursion, and code reuse. Finally we have a chapter about working to your strengths as a programmer to find solutions efficiently.

For the most part, I enjoyed the book. There are a few places where it seems that the author made a change to a problem or assumption and then didn’t fix later text that referred to the original version; for example, in chapter 5 the default constructor for a student object initializes grade to 0 and studentID to -1, but the following text refers to a possible error due to grade being initialized to zero. Except for a problem in chapter two where relevant information is introduced in the solution rather than the problem description, though, these don’t detract too much from the reading.

At the end of each chapter is a list of simply-described programming problems that require you to thoroughly explore the concept covered in that chapter. Working through them all should take some time, but will probably be worth it; even as a working programmer, I’m tempted to go through all of them just to get a better handle on C++, which I rarely use.

The book assumes that the reader understands how to write a program with C++, but everything except the absolute basics has a review at the start of the relevant chapter. I think this would be a very good text to use for a freshman course on programming, assuming you can find one these days that still uses C++ rather than Java! (Although for the most part, the concepts apply to any language, so you could use it with Java anyway.) Having read this, a novice programmer should be much better equipped to break down a problem and get to work, rather than staring at the description wondering where to start. Recommended.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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This entry was posted by William on Sunday, October 7th, 2012 at 7:24 pm and is filed under Technical . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Comment

  1. William says:

    After this review was published, the author contacted me about the errors mentioned above; it sounds like they should be corrected in a soon-to-be-released errata.

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