Without shooting yourself in the foot, learning lacks motivation. Complexity without reason is really confusing.

At the Recurse Center Feb 2020: I watch a talk during presentations about someone optimizing a database engine. It was really complicated, and I remeber nothing about the talk itself. What I do remember is thinking to myself “this seems really complicated for no good reason.” Keep in mind, I had never made a web application at that time and when I needed to store data, I just used a csv file or a python pickle file on the disk. I thought that a filesystem was sufficient for storing data.

Fast forward a few months and I’m building my first web application. I don’t remember what it was for, but I remember using a csv file as the database. I had to load the file into memory every time I wanted to look something up and it was just a big pain. I now understood why using a database is (sometimes) a good idea.

Learning Rust, July 2020: I start learning about the borrow checker. It prevents you from keeping a pointer to an item of a vector (&vec[i]) if you pass the Vec<T> as a &mut. I don’t really get why this is necessary. I have never done low-level programming before, never used pointers, and now I am being told that following the borrow checker is ‘safe’. It is still very confusing to me.

Fast forward to when I am writing Zig code. I take &array_list.items[i], append to the array_list and then try to write to the stored pointer. I get a segfault. Ahh, now I get the problem Rust solves.

Learning Vue, July 2020: Why are there all of these complicated ways to represent state? Shouldn’t developing a web app be simpler than this?

After writing a bunch of vanilla JS, I can see why these frameworks could be useful. I have never made a very big web app, but I could see that keeping track of state and what is or isn’t rendered is hard and gets much harder with a bigger web app.

To fully understand a “best practice” or why something is necessary, it’s important to experience how things go wrong without it. When teaching programming, we should let people make these mistakes, and then show them the tools to correct them. Just giving someone a complicated tool without a salient reason to explain its complexity will just make them really confused.

Some opinions:

  • You should store stuff in csv files before using a database
  • You should learn Zig (or C) before you learn Rust
  • You should write a web app in vanilla JS before you learn a framework
  • You should write a game from scratch before using Unity
  • You should use javac from the command line before using an IDE

Have you had an experience like this? Email me at jacoblevgw at gmail and I’ll put it below.

Examples from readers:

Arian Araf: You should learn Assembly before you learn optimization

Almoctar Hassoumi: Use HTML before using a CMS like WordPress

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