The case against Java as a first programming language

First of all: I am biased. I taught myself to program long before I went to university and I started programming with the high high-level programming languages. Ruby, Python, Haskell, Javascript, even PHP.

So while I didn’t have any problems following the curriculum I saw how many of my fellow students struggled and were overwhelmed with what they were introduced to.

What you learn in higher level languages is different. Different from what you would learn in a programming language like C or Java. You don’t have to care about pointers, references or object oriented programming in the beginning. These high-level programming languages let you forget that you work with the dumbest thing in the world: a computer. You can just start by playing about. The languages are merciful, especially ruby, where it is normal to have more than just one way to solve a problem.

If you start to learn programming in Java, there is a lot of overhead. Think about a Hello World example.

public class MyFirstProgram {

    public static void main(String [] args) {
         System.out.println("Hello World");


That example still terrifies me. People say that Java is an easy language, while this example shows the complete opposite. Sure, if you are familiar with object oriented programming you can understand what is going on, but as a beginner you would be definitely overwhelmed. Compare that to a language like Ruby

puts "Hello World"

Look how simple it is. All it takes is a text editor and 1 line of code. That’s it. Your students have written their first program, and the best part is you didn’t have to explain what class, static, void and all these dots do. You can concentrate on the concepts you want to teach and not the language. When explaining the different data types you can be sure to explain it without the need of technical details like the internal implementation of a string or the binary representation of an integer. These are important topics of course, but at the moment you want to show how to write a simple program, not how a computer works. Higher level languages abstract these implementation details away, so that nobody has to care about things like overflow errors. Programming is a complex subject, but it is also fun to play around with the language and see instant results and that’s possible in such an environment. It’s not necessary to use everything a higher level language provides, like the syntactic sugar of an .each loop in ruby, you can still use the also accepted old-school imperative way with a for loop to iterate over an array, yet modern tools like a REPL help to get instant feedback without the need of an heavy-weight IDE.

After grasping a first glance at how to write simple programs and what object oriented programming is about, it is easy to adapt the mind to a statically typed language like Java. Students are now familiar with the fundamental concepts of programming and after a while they will figure out that it is not the best idea to represent the 1000th fibonacci number as an int variable or how resource intensive a resizable array can be. They will be grateful for all the heavy lifting the programming language did to keep the quirks of computers out of sight. In the end everyone had a more pleasant experience, teachers because they are not compelled to skip questions about the weird “public static void main” syntax and students because of a smooth start and instant successes.

I don’t suggest to dumb down the programming part in a computer science degree or to teach only Ruby, but instead to concentrate on the ideas behind programming and the mental models it is build around, not the quirks of complex languages. Java, C#, C++ and C are all powerful langauges and one should certainly learn how to program in them, but please not as the first programming language. We can do better than that.

Especially in academia I sometimes encounter the feeling, that there’s a bizarre love to express easy things in a complex manner. I don’t know who came up with the idea to let freshman students implement math formulae as computer science assignments, but it is a more than just foolish thought, to believe that a challenging subject like programming gets any easier by combining it with higher mathematics. We should stop making things harder than they have to be and show programming as the fun it is.