I’ve never read a programming book. I realized this when I got sent a promo copy of the Flex 2 with Actionscript 3 book from Friends of ED. [Side note: start blogging and you get sent free shit.] I was flipping through the book and I realized, wow, I’ve never read one of these before. So it got me thinking about why that is. Clearly people learn programming stuff through books, there’s got to be a market or else they wouldn’t make the books. Am I the norm or the exception?
First I figured this was because this was a Flex book. I’ve been following Flex for a while now, and the newest information has always been online (like any emerging technology these days). So in a sense everything contained in this book has already been written one way or another. The newest information will never be in print, that’s just the nature of the web. If I want the newest info on Apollo I’m going to read the alpha release docs on Adobe Labs, or Mike Chambers’ blog posts, or watch the apollocoders mailing list. The Apollo books are coming, but they’ll always be a big step behind what’s available online.
But then I realized I’ve learned bunches of other stuff that wasn’t brand new. When I was first learning PHP and MySQL there were tons of great books available. But for some reason I never bought a book. Maybe I’m just too cheap (discussed below). Or maybe I’m just too lazy. My bookshelf doesn’t have any programming books (at home or at work). The only books I’ve ever partially read were for some CS classes at school, but that was more to make sure I got the info that was going to be on an exam.
The copy/paste factor and learning by doing
Whenever I’m learning anything computer-related I’m doing it as I’m learning it. That’s the only way I can learn, and I’d be surprised if you find anyone who’s all that different (when it comes to computer programming). You’re not going to learn how to program Actionscript or use Photoshop by reading a book without having one hand on the mouse the entire time. So that means you read at your computer, with the book next to you? Or you read a chapter, then go and try it out on a computer? As I was flipping through the Flex book, I saw lots of Actionscript code. There’s an entire example app that gets created in that book. Cool, but that’s pretty much useless to me without being able to run the code myself, and tweak it a bit and see the results. You’ve got to be able to copy and paste the code and run it yourself. Book publishers know this, so they include downloads or CDs with the code. But now I only need the book for the non-code pieces, which brings me to my next point.
Learning from code versus learning from written paragraphs
I’d be interested in getting other developers’ perspectives on this, but I was thinking about how I learn and whether I learn more from example code or from written text describing the code and the method of programming. If I were to rate learning through code or learning through text, each on a scale of 0-5, I’d give learning through code a 5 and learning through text a 1. If a tutorial doesn’t have code I don’t read it. I think Google code search is the best learning resource ever.
So if we look at the ratio of text to code in this book, I’d say it’s at least 50-50 text-to-code. I’d be interested in seeing the ratio of comments-to-code included in the Flex framework source files. In terms of learning Flex, the framework source is the single most valuable resource I’ve had. They commented the hell out of it, but the code is the focus. You want to learn how the ComboBox component animates the drop-down menu when it gets selected? Go and read the source of ComboBox.
I don’t know what I want to learn tomorrow. I might play with some custom components I’m working on, or play with Flex mapping components, or explore how to deploy my apps as Apollo apps. Or I might not ever learn any of that stuff and I might go off on some other tangent instead. So am I going to get a book about any of that? No. Am I going to read tutorials and comprehensive guides before I start playing? No. I’m going to start a project, try to do what I want to do, and when I can’t figure it out I’m going to look up what I need to know. Which brings me to my next point.
Learning in tiny bits
Books are too long. There’s just too much information in them. I learn in tiny nuggets, and I only learn the stuff that gets me to the next step in a project. If I’m working on a project and I need to figure out how to pull in an RSS feed into a flex app then that’s exactly what I want to learn, and only that. Once I get stuck at another point then I’ll go and figure out what I need to get past that point. But I don’t want to read a book that tells me in generic terms how to use a technology. I might never use half the information in a book, so why would I waste my time learning it?
The web gives me tiny bits of info that I need. And if you’re searching for programming information on Google, you can pretty easily figure out how to search and get directly to the result you need. It’s rare that I try to look something up on Google that I can’t find the answer to (obviously it happens, at which point I post questions to mailing lists). And the number of tiny bits of information is amazing. Whether it was a question someone answered on a mailing list, or a blog post, or an example in official documentation, somewhere someone has shown you how to do almost everything you want to know. And often you can find an answer to a specific question without wading through irrelevant content. Google is like learning surgery as you’re cutting, books are like medical school.
I’m a cheapskate
And I don’t like paying for something I can get for free (wow, that statement applies to so many other things). Everything you need to learn ANY programming language is available for free online. That said, book publishers can feel free to send me free shit, I like getting stuff for free, even if I don’t really want it.
I guess it just boils down to how different people learn. I’m sure tons of people have had great experiences learning from books. I just don’t get it. I can’t figure out why I would want to buy a book and read it when I can learn everything I need to learn by going online. So I don’t know, am I the norm or the exception?