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Learning C++

Learning C++


The most important thing to do when learning C++ is to focus on concepts and not get lost in language-technical details. The purpose of learning a programming language is to become a better programmer; that is, to become more effective at designing and implementing new systems and at maintaining old ones. For this, an appreciation of programming and design techniques is far more important than an understanding of details; that understanding comes with time and practice. C++ supports a variety of programming styles. All are based on strong static type checking, and most aim at achieving a high level of abstraction and a direct representation of the programmer’s ideas. Each style can achieve its aims effectively while maintaining run-time and space efficiency. A programmer coming from a different language (say C, Fortran, Smalltalk, Lisp, ML, Ada, Eiffel, Pascal, or Modula-2) should realize that to gain the benefits of C++, they must spend time learning and internalizing programming styles and techniques suitable to C++. The same applies to programmers used to an earlier and less expressive version of C++. Thoughtlessly applying techniques effective in one language to another typically leads to awkward, poorly performing, and hard-to-maintain code. Such code is also most frustrating to write because every line of code and every compiler error message reminds the programmer that the language used differs from ‘‘the old language.’’ You can write in the style of Fortran, C, Smalltalk, etc., in any language, but doing so is neither pleasant nor economical in a language with a different philosophy. Every language can be a fertile source of ideas of how to write C++ programs.

However, ideas must be transformed into something that fits with the general structure and type system of C++ in order to be effective in the different context. Over the basic type system of a language, only Pyrrhic victories are possible. C++ supports a gradual approach to learning. How you approach learning a new programming language depends on what you already know and what you aim to learn. There is no one approach that suits everyone. My assumption is that you are learning C++ to become a better programmer and designer. That is, I assume that your purpose in learning C++ is not simply to learn a new syntax for doing things the way you used to, but to learn new and better ways of building systems. This has to be done gradually because acquiring any significant new skill takes time and requires practice. Consider how long it would take to learn a new natural language well or to learn to play a new musical instrument well. Becoming a better system designer is easier and faster, but not as much easier and faster as most people would like it to be. It follows that you will be using C++ – often for building real systems – before understanding every language feature and technique. By supporting several programming paradigms (Chapter 2), C++ supports productive programming at several levels of expertise. Each new style of programming adds another tool to your toolbox, but each is effective on its own and each adds to your effectiveness as a programmer. C++ is organized so that you can learn its concepts in a roughly linear order and gain practical benefits along the way. This is important because it allows you to gain benefits roughly in proportion to the effort expended. In the continuing debate on whether one needs to learn C before C++, I am firmly convinced that it is best to go directly to C++. C++ is safer, more expressive, and reduces the need to focus on low-level techniques. It is easier for you to learn the trickier parts of C that are needed to compensate for its lack of higher-level facilities after you have been exposed to the common subset of C and C++ and to some of the higher-level techniques supported directly in C++. Appendix B is a guide for programmers going from C++ to C, say, to deal with legacy code. Several independently developed and distributed implementations of C++ exist. A wealth of tools, libraries, and software development environments are also available. A mass of textbooks, manuals, journals, newsletters, electronic bulletin boards, mailing lists, conferences, and courses are available to inform you about the latest developments in C++, its use, tools, libraries, implementations, etc. If you plan to use C++ seriously, I strongly suggest that you gain access to such sources. Each has its own emphasis and bias, so use at least two. For example, see [Barton,1994], [Booch,1994], [Henricson,1997], [Koenig,1997], [Martin,1995].

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