Bilingual programmers wanted from schools

The classified ad read, “Cobol programmer wanted,” yet earlier in the year the professor had distinctly and repeatedly sullied that language’s name, calling it the most useless on the face of the earth.

Instead, the student was told that one should learn a pure language, well-structured, with elegant constructs and an easy syntax … something along the lines of Pascal. Now if only the job market would realize this too, and offer jobs where Pascal is the language of choice.

This situation arises far too often today, especially at the university level where the languages taught often have little bearing upon the industry’s immediate needs.

It can be frustrating for a recent graduate to have to learn a programming language over again in order to contribute in a work environment.

Granted, it is not overly difficult to learn the syntax and structure of a new language, especially when one is already familiar with programming concepts and algorithms.

However, it does beg the question is the teaching out of touch with the real world?

Muddled thinking

There are many reasons why post-secondary institutions, especially universities, may teach little-used languages. First and foremost, it is not so important to teach the constructs of Pascal rather than Fortran, as it is to teach the elements of structured thinking.

Initial training in the right language is of little help if muddled thinking reduces the programmer’s efficiency.

It is far more important to teach how recurison works than the exact syntax in Pascal as opposed to C.

It is also desirable to simplify learning for beginners through the use of teaching languages, where the syntax lends itself to a painless introduction of basic concepts.

It is not necessary to needlessly complicate the demonstration of loops, for example, by using an arcane language which can confuse learners.

This is somewhat similar to learning a second language, where one learns the different words of the new language that convey a similar meaning as in the original language. Indeed, one of the values of Pascal, and more recently, Turing, are their suitability as good teaching languages.

Then there is the value of advanced research.

Some languages taught in post-secondary institutions may not have a commercial use today, but serve to lay the foundation for the next generation of languages or programming techniques.

It is ludicrous to expect all teaching to be about current languages because that would effectively cut off research and development.

Massive libraries

That, however, does not solve the needs of businesses. There is little cost-benefit in rewriting massive libraries of custom programs, especially when they are time-tested and work well. Indeed, it is often more beneficial to maintain and expand those programs, and this of course entails hiring programmers versed in the original language.

The end result is that schools should continue teaching advanced techniques, but hand-in-hand with established languages, and programmers should learn whatever language is needed in the marketplace in addition to what they are taught. In other words, they should become bilingual.

Patrick Abtan is in charge of the computer program at Agincourt Collegiate Institute in Agincourt, Ont. A former computer consultant, his current projects include the development of software for the medical and business fields.