Learning to Program

by Alan Gauld

Introduction - What, Why, Who etc.

Why am I writing this?

The reason I have created this tutorial is that there seems to be very little for the absolute beginner to programming on the Web. Yet the Internet and the Web encourage interest in computers and that interest naturally leads to a desire to "take control", which means learning to program!

Why me? Well, I am a professional programmer who came to programming from an electronic engineering background. I have used (and continue to use) several computer languages and don't have any personal interest in promoting any particular tool or language. Oh, and when I started, nobody else seemed to be doing it! Since then several other tutors for beginners have appeared, but this one seems to have acquired enough of a fan base that I'll keep it going.

What will I cover

As much as I can. I will cover the basic theory of computer programming - what it is, some of its history and the basic techniques needed to solve problems. I will not be teaching esoteric techniques or the details of any particular programming language, in fact I'll be using several different languages, since I believe its important to realize that different languages do different things well. That said, the majority of the course will be in the language called Python.

Who should read it?

Put another way: what do I expect the reader to know already?

I expect the reader of this tutorial to be an experienced user of a computer system, probably MS DOS, Windows or Unix although others should be able to cope too. I also expect them to understand some very basic mathematical concepts such as geometric coordinates, sets, and basic algebra. These are all important in todays programming environments, and many programming concepts are based on these ideas. However the depth of knowledge needed is very low and if you do find the math getting too hard, you can usually just skip over a few paragraphs, try the code as it is and hopefully the penny will drop even if the math still confuses you.

One thing you should know is how to run commands from your operating system's command prompt. In Windows this is variously known as a DOS box, the MS DOS Window or MS-DOS Prompt. Basically it's a black window with a white text prompt that usually says C:\WINDOWS> and you can start it by going to the Start->Run dialog and typing COMMAND into the entry box and hitting OK. If you use Linux then you should know all about terminal windows and on MacOS you can run the Terminal program under Mac OS X (which is found in the Applications->Utilities folder).

I will not be covering issues like how to create or copy text files, how to install software, or the organization of files on a computer storage system. Frankly if you need to know those things you probably are not at the stage of being able to program, regardless of your desire to do so. Find a tutorial for your computer first, then when you're confident with the above concepts revisit this site.

Why Python?

Python happens to be a nice language to learn. Its syntax is simple and it has some very powerful features built into the language. It supports lots of programming styles from the very simple through to state of the art Object Oriented techniques. It runs on lots of platforms - Unix/Linux, MS Windows, Macintosh etc. It also has a very friendly and helpful user community. All of these are important features for a beginner's language.

Python however is not just a beginner's language. As your experience grows you can keep on using Python either as an end in itself or as a rapid prototyping language. There are a few things that Python is not well suited to, but these are comparatively few and far between.

I will also use VBScript and JavaScript as alternatives. The reason for this is to show that the same basic techniques apply regardless of the language details. Once you can program in one language you can easily pick up a new one in a few days. Why those languages? Well, for a start they have very different styles to Python so form a useful contrast, and more prosaically if we accept that most Web surfers who are also beginners are using PCs with Microsoft Windows installed, there is a programming environment built in to the operating system called Windows Scripting Host which has support for VBScript and JScript (which is Microsoft's variant of JavaScript). In addition anyone using Microsoft's web browser can also use these languages within their browser, and in fact JavaScript should work in almost any browser. We'll only look at how to run VBScript and JavaScript inside a browser, investigating WSH I'll leave as an exercise for the interested Windows user!

Other resources

There are other Web sites trying to do this in other languages (and in the time since I originally created this site a few other Python sites have appeared). There are also lots of tutorials for those who already know how to program but want to learn a new language. This section contains links to some of those that I think are worthwhile!

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If you have any ideas on how to improve this tutorial
please feel free to contact me