The Challenges Facing an Old Programmer Learning a New Language

17th July 2021

Going back to BASIC !

In my youth I wrote BASIC language but I really only dabbled by copying out of a book to create programmes like naughts and crosses (called Tick, Tack Toe in US books). Much later I became a competent programmer using dBASE III and Clipper, and with a Senior Partner at Rawlinson and Hunter, had a hand in writing Fund Management software. 

Then MS-Access, VB  and VB.Net arrived, languages started changing as fast as fashion, remember Paradox and Delphi? The confusing variety of versions and incarnations were often incompatible with each other and the only semblance of stability seemed to be in languages like C, PhP, Perl, Javascript.

Having helped transform businesses using code, I began getting more involved in the non-technology side of business and ‘process change’. Whereas once I might have been referred to as an expert, I would now describe myself as a sophisticated user. The discipline, logic, thinking and planning has served me well outside of programming. Helping people and organisations with processes and change draws heavily upon these skills.

“coding languages started changing as fast as fashion”

Often I will work with a client on a business problem and in parallel with thinking about the process I find myself thinking about the programme which would deliver the automated solution. Of course I cannot now offer the client a custom solution using dBASE III and Clipper. We are now so dazzled by graphics, buttons and dashboards that what is sometimes described as green-screen technology (because the text was often green on a black screen) is laughed at.

This is of course except in banking where the huge reliance upon legacy green-screen technology is more a cause for concern rather than mirth. And this isn’t because it doesn’t do its job brilliantly, but because nobody wants to write old-style code, making innovation difficult.

Instead I teamed-up with a developer and I would prototype something, possibly using PhP and MySQL and then say, “build that in your modern language”. This allowed me to conceive and test data structures and processes without the need to build complex user validation and security which isn’t needed in a demo-prototype but is of the highest importance in modern software development.

“The discipline, logic, thinking and planning has served me well outside of programming”

I keep thinking I should go back to coding, perhaps Python, or Ruby on Rails. So over the covid period I subscribed to courses on Javascript ES6 and HTML + CSS Fundamentals. This is like getting into a Ford Escort familiar in 1980 and discovering that the 2020 model is a whole new experience. I knew how to drive it, but I also learned a whole lot more.

The HTML + CSS Fundamentals was straight-forward given my experience and I finished each week-long module in a day. The Javascript ES6 started easy, but then got steep toward the end and on the road to NODE.js I found it interesting and rewarding with just the right balance of familiarity and new challenge.

To be honest I doubt I am going to use it for commercial application development. It makes better sense to outsource or sub-contract that work to people who can think and type with the benefit of 40 hours per week of coding competence. But I really enjoyed the re-learning process and understanding just how powerful modern languages can be, and how rapidly applications can be developed as a result.

I have written lots of little utilities and file manipulation tools, but I am sensible enough to understand that the programming logic is often the smallest and easiest element of application development nowadays. More challenging is the entry validation and security. It is obvious to me that the field saying Date is expecting  dd/mm/yyyy and not the word “Yesterday” but error trapping is a necessary and time-consuming part of code which is a small overhead if you are writing lots of code and have utilities, functions and libraries but cumbersome if you are doing something  only once.

So I will probably continue to prototype solutions, but now using Javascript ES6, and then pass to the professionals when it comes to commercial applications.

Overall I would rank the experience as a useful use of the covid period and a valuable workout for the brain!

Tim HJ Rogers 

MBA Management Consultant + Change Practitioner 

ICF Trained Coach IoD Business Mentor

Tutor / Trainer for the Chartered Management Institute.