Becoming a Polyglot Programmer

We .NET developers have always had the security blanket of a general purpose language like C# or VB.NET that we’ve been able to use for pretty much anything we need. However, it is becoming increasingly important for a developer to know several languages covering different paradigms and to have the ability to choose the best language for the problem at hand.

The Pragmatic Programmer recommends learning a new language every year. I’m currently taking that to the extreme and have several languages on the go.

C

I never learned C. I went straight from a basic understanding of Java to ASP/VBScript (ah, those were so not the days). So now I’m playing catch-up, learning about exciting things like pointers and memory allocation – all things that I have heard about many times, but never fully understood.

I’m current reading The C Programming Language, which is a very concise (only 274 pages) and superbly written book. If you know C#, then most of what’s covered will not be new. In fact, C is nowhere near as intimidating as I thought it would be, and it’s really made me appreciate the things I took for granted in modern C-based languages.

Haskell

Functional languages are hitting the mainstream, big time. I learned basic functional language principals using Haskell at Uni over 10 years ago. Back then it was pretty much an academic language that complemented a mathematics paper I was doing. These days, functional languages offer a promising solution to concurrency problems with software running on multi-core processors. Haskell is a purely functional language, which means you cannot sneak in a for-each loop when the going gets tough. It’s a great way to learn how to solve a problem in a functional manner, using a functional mindset.

It’s easy to get started with Haskell. I’m currently making my way through this excellent tutorial: Learn You a Haskell for Great Good.

Javascript

I already know Javascript. Or at least I thought I did. Javascript has made a big comeback recently with the increasing popularity of client-side web programming for creating rich websites. The emergence of excellent frameworks like JQuery take the pain out of cross-browser support and DOM manipulation, which has always been the bane of Javascript development. On the surface, Javascript looks like a weak language with some bad features. But strip away the bad parts and there’s a really neat, powerful and dynamic language that runs pretty much anywhere!

With web applications becoming increasingly reliant on rich-client capabilities, it is important for any web developer to have a solid understanding of Javascript. If you are already familiar with Javascript, I would recommend the book Javascript: The Good Parts to take you to the next level.

Ruby

I previously posted on my adventures in Ruby and mentioned some good resources for getting started. Ruby is a very powerful, dynamic and portable language that can be used for many tasks big or small. From building full-scale web applications using Rails, to writing build scripts using Rake. Many .NET developers are replacing the XML-heavy NAnt build files with Rake scripts, which allow much greater flexibility by using the expressiveness of Ruby to coordinate the build tasks. The potent combination of RSpec and Cucumber for writing BDD specs make good use of Ruby’s dynamic and readable syntax. With the release of IronRuby on the horizon, .NET developers will be able to get the benefits of this great language running natively on the .NET Framework via the Dynamic Language Runtime.

F#

F# is a multi-paradigm language for the .NET framework and encompasses both functional and imperative elements. I’ve barely scratched the surface of F#, but it looks very promising indeed. The more we require functional elements in our day-to-day programming, the more important it is to have a language that fully supports functional programming. C# 3.0 has some great functional features, such as LINQ and lambda expressions, but F# looks to offer much more powerful set of functional features.

Conclusion

So, I have a lot of learn! I don’t expect to become an expert in all these languages at once. But I think having a basic understanding of each has already helped me to improve my general programming skills and to approach problems in different ways.

If you are interested in learning a new language, I would recommend you know at least one dynamic and one functional language. If you’re feeling particularly up for a challenge, try LISP 🙂

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