Etudes for programming

From Wikipedia:

An étude (a French word meaning study, French pronunciation: [eˈtyd], English pronunciation: / ˈeɪtjuːd /) is an instrumental musical composition, most commonly of considerable difficulty, usually designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular technical skill.

I noticed today that Michael Fogus (one of the authors of Joy of Clojure) has a number of Github repos with names such as etude-ocaml and etude-syntax. I also realized this week that I’m a pretty slow programmer. I’ve been getting better over the years but I’m still slow, especially if there’s a good amount of API design involved. While I think that writing lots of code will make me faster over time, I do wish there was a more structured, focused approach.

In general, I wish there was more by the way of études for programming — problems and exercises of considerable difficulty designed to provide practice material for a particular (set of) skills. There are of course great textbooks for programming and computer science and those books have good exercises (I particularly like SICP and the K&R C book), however in most of those cases the point is to teach first and practice second. What I’d like to see is the reverse – assume that the reader already knows about functional programming or the C language but needs to “level up”, so to speak. The exercises would be harder and more in number but would also cover a broad area in terms of application of the concepts involved.

This is related to what I’ve written earlier in terms of deliberate practice for programmers. That post talks about “level up” lists – a list of programs to make that help explore the different areas of computer science and help you gain experience and hence “level up” as a developer. On the other hand études would focus on depth rather than breadth – each one would focus on a small technique or technology and fully explore that area. Together a continuous habit of working on études and doing level-up projects would give programmers a steady stream of deliberate practice exercises to work on.

The question is, where are we to find these études? I’m not sure if there are programming books out there that fit that description. If there are, I’d love to here about them. But in the meantime I’ve found an acceptable alternative — homework and assignments for college level courses. This semester I’m the TA for a course on functional programming and throughout the semester we have a set of 6 assignments for students to do. Each of them have about 3 to 4 problems (each with multiple parts) that tackle a small area of functional programming. I think exercises like this are great material for études. I’m currently working through the exercises at the same time as the students (other TAs are making them). Even though I’m already familiar with most of the material it’s been a good learning and great practice for me. I can’t really measure if I’m improving (apart from running my solutions through the test harness) but it’s more direct and practice in functional programming that I’ve ever had.

I’ll be done with this particular étude in a few months. I don’t think I’ll be releasing the code since the problems often get reused. However I do think there will be lot more where those came from. There are lots of college courses with website out there and there’s lots to learn. I’ll probably try compilers next. All that being said, it would be great to see some curation and collection. With Amazon’s Kindle Shorts and the growing interest in short, self-published books putting together a regular series of études might be a pretty lucrative endeavor.

One thought on “Etudes for programming

  1. Please see my book “Etudes for Programmers” on Amazon. If you are interested in suggesting ideas for a new edition, I’d like to hear from you.

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