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Computer programming

Related subjects: Computer Programming

Background Information

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Computer programming (often shortened to programming or coding), sometimes considered a branch of applied mathematics, is the process of writing, testing, debugging/troubleshooting, and maintaining the source code of computer programs. This source code is written in a programming language. The code may be a modification of an existing source or something completely new. The purpose of programming is to create a program that exhibits a certain desired behaviour (customization). The process of writing source code requires expertise in many different subjects, including knowledge of the application domain, specialized algorithms and formal logic.

Software development process
Coding Shots Annual Plan high res-5.jpg
A software developer at work
Activities and steps
  • Requirements
  • Specification
  • Architecture
  • Construction
  • Design
  • Testing
  • Debugging
  • Deployment
  • Maintenance
  • Waterfall
  • Prototype model
  • Incremental
  • Iterative
  • V-Model
  • Spiral
  • Scrum
  • Cleanroom
  • RAD
  • DSDM
  • RUP
  • XP
  • Agile
  • Lean
  • Dual Vee Model
  • TDD
  • FDD
Supporting disciplines
  • Configuration management
  • Documentation
  • Quality assurance (SQA)
  • Project management
  • User experience design
  • Compiler
  • Debugger
  • Profiler
  • GUI designer
  • IDE
  • Build automation

Within software engineering, programming (the implementation) is regarded as one phase in a software development process.

There is an ongoing debate on the extent to which the writing of programs is an art, a craft or an engineering discipline. Good programming is generally considered to be the measured application of all three, with the goal of producing an efficient and maintainable software solution (the criteria for "efficient" and "maintainable" vary considerably). The discipline differs from many other technical professions in that programmers generally do not need to be licensed or pass any standardized (or governmentally regulated) certification tests in order to call themselves "programmers" or even "software engineers".

Another ongoing debate is the extent to which the programming language used in writing programs affects the form that the final program takes. This debate is analogous to that surrounding the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, that postulates that a particular language's nature influences the habitual thought of its speakers. Different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. This idea challenges the possibility of representing the world perfectly with language, because it acknowledges that the mechanisms of any language condition the thoughts of its speaker community.


Computer programmers are those who write computer software. Their job usually involves:

  • Requirements analysis
  • Specification
  • Software architecture
  • Coding
  • Compilation
  • Software testing
  • Documentation
  • Integration
  • Maintenance

Programming languages

Different programming languages support different styles of programming (called programming paradigms). The choice of language used is subject to many considerations, such as company policy, suitability to task, availability of third-party packages, or individual preference. Ideally, the programming language best suited for the task at hand will be selected. Trade-offs from this ideal involve finding enough programmers who know the language to build a team, the availability of compilers for that language, and the efficiency with which programs written in a given language execute.

Allen Downey, in his book How To Think Like A Computer Scientist, writes:

The details look different in different languages, but a few basic instructions appear in just about every language: input: Get data from the keyboard, a file, or some other device. output: Display data on the screen or send data to a file or other device. math: Perform basic mathematical operations like addition and multiplication. conditional execution: Check for certain conditions and execute the appropriate sequence of statements. repetition: Perform some action repeatedly, usually with some variation.

Many computer languages provide a mechanism to call functions provided by libraries. Provided the functions in a library follow the appropriate runtime conventions (eg, method of passing arguments), then these functions may be written in any other language.

History of programming

Wired plug board for an IBM 402 Accounting Machine.

The earliest programmable machine (that is a machine whose behaviour can be controlled by changes to a "program") was Al-Jazari's programmable humanoid robot in 1206. Al-Jazari's robot was originally a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties. His mechanism had a programmable drum machine with pegs ( cams) that bump into little levers that operate the percussion. The drummer could be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns by moving the pegs to different locations.

The Jacquard Loom, developed in 1801, is often quoted as a source of prior art. The machine used a series of pasteboard cards with holes punched in them. The hole pattern represented the pattern that the loom had to follow in weaving cloth. The loom could produce entirely different weaves using different sets of cards. The use of punched cards was also adopted by Charles Babbage around 1830, to control his Analytical Engine.

This innovation was later refined by Herman Hollerith who, in 1896 founded the Tabulating Machine Company (which became IBM). He invented the Hollerith punched card, the card reader, and the key punch machine. These inventions were the foundation of the modern information processing industry. The addition of a plug-board to his 1906 Type I Tabulator allowed it to do different jobs without having to be rebuilt (the first step toward programming). By the late 1940s there were a variety of plug-board programmable machines, called unit record equipment, to perform data processing tasks (card reading). The early computers were also programmed using plug-boards.

A box of punch cards with several program decks.

The invention of the Von Neumann architecture allowed computer programs to be stored in computer memory. Early programs had to be painstakingly crafted using the instructions of the particular machine, often in binary notation. Every model of computer would be likely to need different instructions to do the same task. Later assembly languages were developed that let the programmer specify each instruction in a text format, entering abbreviations for each operation code instead of a number and specifying addresses in symbolic form (e.g. ADD X, TOTAL). In 1954 Fortran, the first higher level programming language, was invented. This allowed programmers to specify calculations by entering a formula directly (e.g. Y = X*2 + 5*X + 9). The program text, or source, was converted into machine instructions using a special program called a compiler. Many other languages were developed, including ones for commercial programming, such as COBOL. Programs were mostly still entered using punch cards or paper tape. (See computer programming in the punch card era). By the late 1960s, data storage devices and computer terminals became inexpensive enough so programs could be created by typing directly into the computers. Text editors were developed that allowed changes and corrections to be made much more easily than with punch cards.

As time has progressed, computers have made giant leaps in the area of processing power. This has brought about newer programming languages that are more abstracted from the underlying hardware. Although these more abstracted languages require additional overhead, in most cases the huge increase in speed of modern computers has brought about little performance decrease compared to earlier counterparts. The benefits of these more abstracted languages is that they allow both an easier learning curve for people less familiar with the older lower-level programming languages, and they also allow a more experienced programmer to develop simple applications quickly. Despite these benefits, large complicated programs, and programs that are more dependent on speed still require the faster and relatively lower-level languages with today's hardware. (The same concerns were raised about the original Fortran language.)

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, programming was an attractive career in most developed countries. Some forms of programming have been increasingly subject to offshore outsourcing (importing software and services from other countries, usually at a lower wage), making programming career decisions in developed countries more complicated, while increasing economic opportunities in less developed areas. It is unclear how far this trend will continue and how deeply it will impact programmer wages and opportunities.

Modern programming

Quality requirements

Whatever the approach to software development may be, the final program must satisfy some fundamental properties. The following five properties are among the most relevant:

  • Efficiency: the amount of system resources a program consumes (processor time, memory space, slow devices, network bandwidth and to some extent even user interaction), the less the better.
  • Reliability: how often the results of a program are correct. This depends on prevention of error propagation resulting from data conversion and prevention of errors resulting from buffer overflows, underflows and zero division.
  • Robustness: how well a program anticipates situations of data type conflict and other incompatibilities that result in run time errors and program halts. The focus is mainly on user interaction and the handling of exceptions.
  • Usability: the clearity and intuitiveness of a programs output can make or break it's success. This involves a wide range of textual and graphical elements that makes a program easy and comfortable to use.
  • Portability: the range of hardware and OS platforms on which the source code of a program can be compiled and run. This depends mainly on the range of platform specific compilers for the language of the source code rather than anything having to do with the program directly.

Algorithmic complexity

The academic field and the engineering practice of computer programming are both largely concerned with discovering and implementing the most efficient algorithms for a given class of problem. For this purpose, algorithms are classified into orders using so-called Big O notation, O(n), which expresses resource use, such as execution time or memory consumption, in terms of the size of an input. Expert programmers are familiar with a variety of well-established algorithms and their respective complexities and use this knowledge to choose algorithms that are best suited to the circumstances.


The first step in most formal software development projects is requirements analysis, followed by modeling, implementation, and failure elimination ( debugging). There exist a lot of differing approaches for each of those tasks. One approach popular for requirements analysis is Use Case analysis.

Popular modeling techniques include Object-Oriented Analysis and Design ( OOAD) and Model-Driven Architecture ( MDA). The Unified Modeling Language ( UML) is a notation used for both OOAD and MDA.

A similar technique used for database design is Entity-Relationship Modeling ( ER Modeling).

Implementation techniques include imperative languages ( object-oriented or procedural), functional languages, and logic languages.

Debugging is most often done with IDEs like Visual Studio, NetBeans, and Eclipse. Separate debuggers like gdb are also used.

Measuring language usage

It is very difficult to determine what are the most popular of modern programming languages. Some languages are very popular for particular kinds of applications (e.g., COBOL is still strong in the corporate data centre, often on large mainframes, FORTRAN in engineering applications, and C in embedded applications), while some languages are regularly used to write many different kinds of applications.

Methods of measuring language popularity include: counting the number of job advertisements that mention the language, the number of books teaching the language that are sold (this overestimates the importance of newer languages), and estimates of the number of existing lines of code written in the language (this underestimates the number of users of business languages such as COBOL).


Debugging is a very important task in the software development process, because an erroneous program can have significant consequences for its users. Some languages are more prone to some kinds of faults because their specification does not require compilers to perform as much checking as other languages. Use of a static analysis tool can help detect some possible problems.

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