Understanding the language of IT: Your coding questions answered

Prospective students are often anxious about what programming languages they will learn during their time at Deakin University. For example, a common question is: ‘Do I need to know how to program to enrol in an IT degree? If so, which programming language is best?’

Which of the many programming languages does Deakin teach? Or perhaps more importantly – which ones are most likely to land you a job at the end of your course?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s back up and take a look at the basics.

What are programming languages?

Unlike spoken languages, programming languages are the different types of syntax and semantics that people use to create computer-based applications. Natural languages, English, French or Mandarin have syntax and semantics, so too computer programming languages. The difference being that programming languages have a very limited syntax, semantics and vocabulary, the poor cousins of natural language.

Deakin Professor Peter Eklund says programming languages are used to code software, from desktop apps, websites, smartphone apps, computer games, even to control and operate aircraft. In short, code tells a computer how to operate.

How many are there?

Programming languages have been with us since the 1950s. There are thousands of variants, ranging from Fortran – used in the moon landing – to more playful modern designs like Emojicode (code that consists entirely of emojis), and Cow (based around the keyword ‘moo’).

Prof. Eklund says many programming languages fall into either of two mainstream paradigms.

The first, the imperative paradigm, gives the computer explicit instructions on a sequence of operations to perform. The second, the declarative, spells out the desired result and lets the machine figure out how to achieve the declared goal.

What are the most common coding languages?

If programming languages were a family tree, the language ‘C’ would be one of the grandparents of many modern program languages, Prof. Eklund says. That includes the programming language C++ and C# (pronounced C Sharp), which is ‘Microsoft’s answer to Java,’ he says. Java, which Prof. Eklund dubs the other ‘grandparent’ of modern programming languages, is another general-purpose language, designed around objects and so dubbed object-oriented.

Python and JavaScript can trace their lineage to both grandparents.

So what is Python?

Prof. Eklund says Python is easy to learn – it helps programmers write clear, logical and readable code. Python is widely used in artificial intelligence and data science circles.

‘Python is popular because there are lots of mathematical libraries that are written in Python that the programmer can reuse,’ he says. ‘It can perform optimisation, it can do machine learning, image processing and recognition. Moreover, it’s versatile and can be run on a laptop or be easily deployed on the cloud in a high-performance setting.’

But it’s not just tech industry types that use Python, Prof. Eklund says.

Anyone working in data analysis, could be an environmental scientist or a social scientist, is also likely to use Python to crunch their data.

‘If you’ve got big data, and you want to analyse it, you want to solve problems with that big data, you will want to visualise it, in these cases you need tools that allow the analysis to scale,’ he says

Which coding languages does Deakin teach?

Deakin teaches C and Java in its foundational units, but the selection of programming language depends on its purpose.

A domain-specific programming language, like SQL, is specific to relational databases, so when you study databases, then you naturally learn some SQL. Likewise, if you study webdev, you’d use Javascript because it natively runs in the web browser. If you study machine learning and AI, you’ll use Python.

Prof. Eklund says the specific programming language you learn in any degree is largely irrelevant – it’s the generic skills that matter.

‘Programming is a thought process not reliant on the specificities of the programming language you’ve learned,’ he says.

‘Switching programming languages is like driving someone else’s car. A little different at first but you soon get used to it.’

But what about my future job?

If you learn one coding language at university, but your future employer uses another, there’s no need to panic.

Once you’ve learned one mainstream language it won’t be much of a stretch to switch to another, given they’re all related to the same family tree.

‘Once you have that license to program, you’ll be able to drive any programming language you like,’ Prof. Eklund says.

What you need to know about coding before starting university

You won’t be expected to be a coding guru in your first semester at university. However, some exposure to programming – perhaps through scripting a spreadsheet or writing some JavaScript – is helpful; mainly to know what coding is, partly to test whether you have an aptitude for programming and more importantly to find out if you enjoy it,’ says Prof. Eklund.

‘Showing up without ever having programmed anything in your life is probably not a good idea,’ he says, ‘although I confess that’s exactly what I did back in the day – luckily I enjoyed it!’

But returning to the question of do we expect that a student to be an expert programmer when they arrive? ‘No, of course not, that’s one of the many things you’ve come here to learn.’

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