Book review: Think Like a Programmer

Think Like a ProgrammerI was excited to get a copy of Think Like a Programmer for review. The subtitle is, “an introduction to creative problem solving,” which is something that I think is very important to being a good software engineer. I’ve talked a lot to younger engineers about thinking critically to solve problems and not just relying on prescribed solutions all the time. I was truly hoping that this book would be one I could recommend to software engineers looking to take the next step.

The first chapter talks about problem-solving strategies and is pure gold. It talks about classic puzzles that were made famous as interview questions at places like Microsoft and Google. There are a bunch of interesting problems to look at, and a great discussion of how to solve the problems. The author gives a lot of great advice on how to solve difficult problems which break down to always having a plan, restating the problem until it makes sense, dividing the problem into smaller problems, starting with what you know, reducing the problem to a simpler problem first, looking for analogies, and experimenting to see how close you are getting. This first chapter needs to be read by anyone who wants to improve their problem-solving skills. I've never seen the process of problem-solving broken down so well as I did in this chapter. It really made me look forward to the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, the book very quickly turned into an introductory programming book. Chapter 2 jumps right in with C++ examples and the rest of the book is pretty much about solving simple problems in C++. Unfortunately, because C++ is quite a unique language, a lot of the lessons learned aren't directly applicable in other, higher-level languages. After chapter 1, this book basically becomes another introduction to programming book focused on C++. The sort of problems focused on are the kinds of problems you would look at in a computer science course.

I found the dramatic change from chapter 1 to the rest of the chapters frustrating, because chapter 1 was truly unique and not at all language-specific. I was hoping this book would be about problem solving, a guide for non-programmers as well as programmers, and what I found was a chapter on problem solving and the book on learning the basics of C++. That's not to say that it doesn't give a good job teaching things like how to use pointers and why linked lists are useful, but for somebody who has already been in the industry and already graduated from a computer science program, these are really just reviews the fundamentals and not all that interesting.

So, if you didn't take C++ in high school or college and want exposure to some basic constructs and approaches, then you are a good candidate for this book. Anyone with even a little bit of experience will probably not get much out of this book past chapter 1. It's unfortunate, because I think the author really hit on a great topic in that first chapter and I would've loved an entire book that delves more deeply into the problem-solving process.

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