An introduction to programming languages

The high demand for computing specialists has boomed over the past decade as technology has become integral to our lives. All the apps we use daily are developed with programming languages, but what are programming languages all about? We at Cybernews Academy sat down with Dr. Lyndon J B Nixon, Assistant Professor at the School of Applied Data Science at Modul University of Vienna, Austria, to help introduce our readers to the complex and intriguing world of programming languages.

Programming languages

A simple definition is a language that computers can understand. The main part of the computer (the central processing unit) can process binary numerical values of zero and one, which isn’t particularly useful to humans. So, programmers constructed programming languages to help them communicate with computers. These programming languages are scripts containing instructions the CPU will understand and execute.

Programming levels

There are a few layers of programming that we should pay attention to. First is machine language, or binary, which is your lowest-level language. The following programming level is assembly languages comprised of numbers, symbols, and abbreviations that are then translated into machine-executable code. These layers become more complex as programming languages like C and C++ come into play. C and C++ are compiled languages meaning that code is directly converted into binary, making it very fast and giving the user more control over the hardware. Finally, you have high-level programming languages. For the sake of simplicity, we will mention Java, JavaScript, and Python as our high-level programming languages, but there are many more for you to explore.

The origins of programming languages

Dr. Nixon explained the foundations of programming to Cybernews Academy: “The core of any computing system is binary zero and one. In the early days of computing programming, a computer was told to move or change certain parts of its memory from zero to one or back.” This was a shallow level and very challenging to understand, so thankfully, developers realized that creating more human-readable languages would make sense. Dr. Nixon gave an example of one of the first commands given in human-readable languages, what we know today as programming languages. For example, the first command was the term “Hello World,” and the computer would print the phrase. The original programming language was complicated to understand and hard to navigate, so programmers created new languages using instructions in English words to make the process easier.

The perfect recipe

A good programming language would read like a recipe, says Dr. Nixon, “you have a set of instructions in the order they should be executed with the commands using English wording.” The professor told us we must have our terminology down to understand programming fundamentals. Dr. Nixon gave an example: “Just as a lawyer has to understand legal vocabulary, or a doctor has to understand medical terminology, the programmer has to learn the vocabulary of the programming language.”

The recipe metaphor appeared a few times during our conversation with Dr. Nixon. He told Cybernews Academy that there are many ‘recipes’ and as long as you understand the cooking principles, you can change the recipe to get what you want out of it. This is the same for coding. You can find many examples online and make anything you want out of them if you understand what you’re doing. He mentioned, "It is a standard fact that the chosen vocabulary used in programming languages tends to use English words.” So, if you understand English and have a basic understanding of the principles of programming languages, you’re already off to a great start.

Building your foundations

A stable foundation is fundamental to obtaining a good knowledge of coding and programming languages. Dr. Nixon said, “We tend to assume in our university courses that students join without previous programming knowledge.” So, he suggests a foundation computing course is an excellent first step before starting your undergraduate degree, as this gives you a baseline understanding of programming. For example, Dr. Nixon’s university, Modul University of Vienna, offers a one-year foundation course that helps with programming as you learn about mathematics, statistics, and other components that you need to know. Dr. Nixon told us that “mathematics and statistics are core computational competencies” that a student needs to have to succeed in subjects that include programming. That’s why a foundation course may be a great option if you are considering undertaking a course that requires programming knowledge.

Cracking the code

There are many different ways to learn programming. Dr. Nixon told Cybernews Academy, "It’s perfectly fine to learn programming with brute force, where you can write instruction that you want to do in the language correctly (without errors), and the program creates what it should.” However, when it comes to being a professional programmer, there are best practices and various types of approaches you can take. So you can be more efficient and use less memory, which is essential when working with larger data sets, especially with AI. There are a few best practices that can be introduced when working with code. For example, writing as few lines of code as possible, using appropriate naming conventions, using indentations to mark the beginning and the end of control structures, and using the DRY or don’t repeat yourself principle. There is no rule of thumb when it comes to time in coding. Dr. Nixon said, “Depending on how you are programming, the program might take two hours to conclude or two weeks.” You should assess a few things before you undertake a course in coding. Some of the best approaches are figuring out why you want to learn to code, choosing the language you wish to learn, and finding the right course.

Putting programming languages into practice

Once you have the basics down, you should be ready to start your hand at programming. However, you must understand that particular tasks require a specific type of language. Dr. Nixon said, “Most languages are multi-purpose as long as someone has created a library.” For example, you can use Python for frontend development, backend development, web development, and AI– depending on your chosen library. Libraries are word or vocabulary banks full of pre-written code that can help you with specific and joint problems. As languages are used for particular things, assessing why you want to start programming is essential. Maybe you want to develop an interactive website; JavaScript might be the best software. Or do you want to focus on data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence? Well, Python may be useful. Or perhaps you want to develop an Android application or a desktop app; Java may be most helpful.

When you have all your resources and have assessed your goals, you should start playing around with different projects. Reading about the languages and how it works will only get you so far, so challenging yourself with tasks will help strengthen your skills. Don’t know where to start? Various online resources are available; these include coding challenges for beginners, mini-projects, or portfolio projects designed to showcase your abilities.

Where to get started

There are plenty of avenues to go down if you want to get into coding. Dr. Nixon recommends looking at different websites as they are full of helpful information on programming. Dr. Nixon said, "You’re very likely to come across pages from sites like Stock Exchange, Quora, and other sites where people are discussing things.” You can even Google typical programming questions; many forums will have answers to help you develop your skills. Once you have a basic understanding of computer programming, you can delve into online resources. As stated above, the internet is teeming with mini-challenges, portfolio projects, and collaborative endeavors. You can start quickly with other people's code if you're a self-proclaimed coding novice. This code is found on sites like Github and Google Colab, Google’s programming platform.

High demand languages

In the vast expanse of the technological age, programming languages play a vital role in understanding and navigating the digital world. More so than ever, programmers and those with a great understanding of programming languages are sought after. According to Turing, “the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the demand for software developers, including software engineers, will increase by 22 percent between 2022 and 2023” compared to other careers. IT jobs in the U.S. are projected to grow by 11% from 2019 to 2029. In the United States, there were 10.9 million jobs posted requiring basic digital skills, and 4.9 million jobs required core IT competencies. It’s evident that there is a high demand for IT professionals that must have a good understanding of popular and long-standing programming languages.

Cybernews Academy has spotlighted three popular programming languages that helped develop popular applications we know and love.

Python has continued to be one of the most popular programming languages and is used due to its unique set of codes and its efficiency.. Big tech companies like Netflix and Facebook started using Python as their primary programming language. Python can perform several tasks, from more straightforward tasks like scripting to more advanced functions like task automation. With the rise of artificial intelligence, Python is a critical component of AI.

Java is another popular programming language as it's easy to use, versatile, and has many libraries. Many influential apps have been developed using Java– Spotify, X (formally known as Twitter), and CashApp are some of the most popular apps created using Java.

JavaScript is often known as the language of the web browser as it is one of the core technologies that help develop the World Wide Web, along with HTML and CSS. It is known for creating user-friendly and dynamic web pages that respond to the user's actions. Many apps have been created using JavaScript– Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Linkedin, Facebook, Uber, and many others.

The world of programming languages is incredibly dense and complex. Alongside Dr. Lyndon J B Nixon’s insight, we at Cybernews Academy hope to have shed some light on this topic through our short introduction to programming languages.