What programming language should I learn?

May 20th, 2011, 11:56 am PST by Greg

I recently had a former CMPT 165 student email me and ask essentially if Python was the best language to learn [first] from a practical/employment standpoint. This was my response, that I think was good and would like to expand on here:

Certainly the traditional view of the world is “C/C++/Java for big projects or where speed matters; higher-level languages like Python/Perl/VB for smaller projects or automation.” Certainly many of my colleagues continue to see the world in this way.

The programming language world has changed in some subtle ways in the last few years and I don’t think that attitude is really valid anymore. If I was starting a big project today (like writing a word processor or something), I would probably start with Python (or something similar): it’s easier to write and get things done and it’s possible to bridge to code in Java or C if you need to.

If I had to honestly summarize the world today, I’d say “C++/Java/C# for big companies who want to make a ‘safe’ choice of programming language; Python/Ruby/JavaScript/Scala/etc on smaller projects where the developers make the choice and want to get things done and enjoy their lives.”

A few footnotes on that: (1) the result is there are probably more Java/C# jobs in the world than other languages; (2) the Python/Ruby/Javascript jobs tend to be in smaller companies and are probably more fun; (3) after you learn to program, learning a new language isn’t nearly as big a deal as learning your first–most of the concepts are always the same.

By “the programming language world has changed in some subtle ways”, I mean mostly:

  1. Languages we always though of as “slow” have been made shockingly fast by just-in-time compilers like V8 and PyPy.
  2. Mixing languages in a project (e.g. calling C from Python, or using one language’s standard library from another) seems, to me at least, to be an easier and more mainstream thing to do if you need to.
  3. Frameworks/libraries are used much more heavily. If you spend 90% of your time calling some GUI library, the speed of your code doesn’t matter much: the speed of the GUI library is what matters. (And, who’s to say the library is written in the same language you’re writing? See 2.)
  4. C isn’t the “fast” language anymore. That’s probably more controversial, but basically, C is really good at single-threaded performance, but multithreading and heterogeneous processor environments are a real pain. Today’s reality is that new processors aren’t improving single-treaded speed by very much. Those who want their computation to happen really, really fast seem to be increasingly reaching for computation-specialized tools like Go, OpenCL, or Hadoop. It turns out that the explicitness of C starts to become a burden if you have to smack the mutexes around by hand.

My assertion that “C++/Java/C# for big companies who want to make a ‘safe’ choice” is really just a gut feeling. I understand and even agree with the desire for static typing in a huge project, but I honestly don’t think that’s why companies choose Java or C#. Companies choose these language because they are enterprisey: they are the kind of language that checks all of the CIO’s boxes and have comforting professional certifications that the HR department can look for.

Also, big companies probably think Oracle’s ownership of Java is a good thing. They haven’t reached the conclusion that I (and I suspect many others have): Oracle will slowly strangle the life out of Java until it truly becomes the new Cobol.

So where does that leave us?

You might as well look for a language that’s (1) fun to write, and (2) easy to actually get shit done with. For me that’s Python, but I can certainly accept Ruby, Lua, Scheme, and friends. I could accept PHP and VB (if I had enough drinks in me) or even C# and Java (if you had an explanation grounded in the language design/features and didn’t contain the words “enterprise” or “corporate”).

2 Responses to “What programming language should I learn?”

  1. PhilB Says:

    I think those are all fair assessments. I have spent exactly *one* semester writing any Python at all (my last semester, needed for two classes), and can now understand the appeal. Python is just…nice to write without the extra crap.

    I have worked on a Ruby project in a large company, but let’s just say it’s considered an anomaly.

  2. Cory Says:

    Well, that makes me feel less guilty about starting projects thinking “I should probably do this in Java or C to keep my skills sharp.”

    Then, 5 minutes later: “Eh.. screw it. This will take half an hour in Python and it’ll be fun”.