Learning to Code Online

Programming With Biscuits

Last week I wrote about the benefits of working on programming fluency. But before a programmer can work on fluency, they need to learn to program in the first place. Until recently, prospective programmers had to go through a complicated setup process to get their compiler and environment up and running. There’s something to be learned from that process, but it can be a stumbling block for beginners. These days, it’s possible to skip that initial setup process completely. Over the last few years, dozens of sites have sprung up to teach programming in the browser. You can open a web site, and write your first line of code in a few seconds. Free options include Codecademy, Khan Academy Computer Programming, Code.org, and numerous others. There are also paid sites like CodeSchool and Treehouse. For a more do-it-yourself approach, or for those following a tutorial in a book, there are online compilers such as Coding Ground (formerly CompileOnline) and Ideone. You can find many more of these by searching online compiler. Online compilers are less likely to have built-in tutorials, but they do allow programmers to skip the compiler setup step, or write a quick program from someone else’s computer.

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Communicating Fluently with Your Computer

Paris Cafe

As you know if you’ve been following along, I’m currently working through a book called Competitive Programming 3. Each chapter has a set of practice problems, some of which are identified as “starred problems,” and are especially recommended. Chapter 1 contains 39 starred problems, categorized as “ad-hoc problems.” This generally means that they don’t focus on the standard algorithms that a beginning computer science student might learn. They only require some knowledge of a programming language, and the ability to turn a problem statement into an algorithm. This doesn’t mean these problems are trivial. A few are, but in general they do require some creative thinking. Some problems, such as How Many Knights, require almost no coding, but take some time to work out on paper. Others, such as Jollo, require a greater command of a programming language, and the ability to write and debug short programs (75-100 lines or so). And although these ad-hoc problems don’t involve implementing standard algorithms like binary search trees, some of them do involve well-known puzzles like finding all anagrams of a string.

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The Bathtub Puzzle

Bathtub cat

As I mentioned in my post introducing Project 462, I have spent some time in the past working on historical CodeForces problems to get some idea of what their programming competitions are like. I thought it would be interesting to go through one of those problems, Hot Bath, from the perspective of a CodeForces beginner. In CodeForces Beta Round #93, Hot Bath was Problem C in the Division 2 contest, and Problem A in the Division 1 contest. In the CodeForces system, that means the problem is targeted at Division 1 (more experienced) contestants who are just getting their fingers warmed up at the beginning of a contest, and at Division 2 (less experienced) contestants who have finished a couple of easier problems, and are ready for something that requires more thinking. Based on the information in the standings report for that round, several top Division 1 contestants submitted an accepted solution in about ten minutes, so we can take that as a reasonable lower bound.

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Project 462

462 stars

The Story So Far

Long ago (2008), I read a post on the “xkcd blag” (yes, Randall Munroe occasionally just writes regular blog posts) about “a site with a lot of math-oriented programming problems that you can solve in any language.” I like math and programming, so that seemed like fun. I spent a few years on and off working through the first 76 problems on Project Euler, at which point the problems started to require more math than I had at my disposal. Around that time (2011), I heard about a site called CodeEval that was coming out of beta. CodeEval also has programming puzzles, but with less of a math emphasis. As I’m writing this post (early 2015), I have finished 107 puzzles on CodeEval. Back in 2011, a site called CoderCharts (no longer online) was briefly popular. CoderCharts hosted contests that ran over several days, like the long contests on CodeChef. That was my first experience with contests that allowed participants to compete against each other during an event. However, the schedule allowed a day or so for each problem, so there was plenty of time to think.

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