On entering programming in 2022

I recently taught an introduction to Python course, to final-year undergraduate students. These students had little to zero programming experience, and were all expected to get set up with Python (using the Anaconda environment, which we had determined to be the easiest way to get a reasonable baseline configuration) on laptops they had brought themselves.

What follows is not a slight on these people, who were all motivated, intelligent, and capable. It is a slight on the world of programming in the current ages, if you are seeking to get started with putting a general-purpose computer to your own purposes and merely own a general-purpose computer.

One person had a laptop that, being a mere six (6) years old, was too old to run the current version of Anaconda Distribution. We had to crawl through the archives, guessing what older version might work (i.e. might both run on their computer and still permit them to follow the course).

Another had a modern laptop and the same same version of Python/tools that everyone else was using, except that their IDE would crash if they tried to plot a graph in dark mode.

Another had, seemingly without having launched the shell while they owned their computer, got their profile into a state where none of the system binary folders were on their PATH. Hmm, python3 doesn’t work, let’s use which python to find out why not. Hmm, which doesn’t work, let’s use ls to find out why not. Hmmm…

Many, through not having used terminal emulators before, did not yet know that terminal emulators are modal. There are shell commands, which you must type when you see a $ (or a % or a >) and will not work when you can see a >>>. There are Python commands, which are the other way around. If you type a command that launches nano/pico, there are other rules.

By the way, condo and pip (and poetry, if you try to read anything online about setting up Python) are Python things but you cannot use them as Python commands. They are shell commands.

By the other way, everyone writes those shell commands with a $ at the front. You do not write the $. Oh, and by the other other way: they don’t necessarily tell you to open the Terminal to do it.

Different environments—the shell, visual studio code, Spyder, PyCharm—will do different things with respect to your “current working directory” when you run a script. They will not tell you that they have done this, nor that it is important, nor that it is why your script can’t find a data file that’s RIGHT THERE.

This is all way before we get to the dark art of comprehending exception traces.

When I were a lad and Silicon Valley were all fields, you turned a computer on and it was ready for some programming. I’m not suggesting returning to that time, computers were useless then. But I do think it is needlessly difficult to get started with “a programming language that lets you work quickly” in this time of ubiquitous programs.

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One Response to On entering programming in 2022

  1. John Pilbeam says:

    I agree and have had similar experiences attending workshops over the years. Getting everyone’s laptop set up with the same environment is really difficult. The approach that EDINA at the University of Edinburgh took with Noteable is interesting (https://noteable.edina.ac.uk). They provide cloud hosted Jupyter notebooks for students – I would welcome something similar in my own institution. I was also impressed by the use of Binder for teaching text mining using Python (https://mybinder.org). There is an irony that to an extent we have standardised on Python in many fields, but within Python there isn’t always standardisation (e.g. virtual environments, dependency management etc.). I would be very interested to see how your approach to teaching adapts to these challenges.

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