The Origins of Learning D

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In ealearningdrly 2015, Adam Ruppe asked in the D forums if anyone was interested in authoring a new book for Packt Publishing, the company that published his D Cookbook. I had submitted a book proposal to Packt a few months before, one with a different concept, and had heard nothing back. So I began to mull over the idea of putting my name forward, but I was concerned about the time investment. Before I could decide, Packt contacted me with some details and an offer. With a target publication date of November 2015, I figured I had plenty of time to get it done, so I accepted. It wasn’t long before I learned how my concept of “plenty of time” was quite a bit off base.

Learning D was not the first programming book I had worked on. I coauthored Learn to Tango with D, which was published in 2008 by Apress, with three other D users. It was a book that simply aimed to introduce the language (version 1) and Tango, the community-driven alternative standard library for D1. I wrote two chapters and had nothing to do with the outline. It was a relatively easy experience that left me completely unprepared for the process of authoring an in-depth programming language book on my own. Tango was a bit controversial at the time and, though it’s no longer actively developed, a fork is still maintained and usable with modern D for those so inclined. The recently released Ocean library from Sociomantic Labs is derived from Tango.

When all the legalities were out of the way, work on the book began in earnest. Packt proposed an outline, with a handful of topics they specifically wanted me to cover. I also had to decide how to approach the book and who my target audience would be. Andrei Alexandrescu’s The D Programming Language already served as the language reference and Ali Çehreli’s Programming in D was targeting programming novices. I wanted to hit somewhere in the middle. I envisioned a young college student or recent undergraduate who, having already picked up some level of proficiency with a C-family language, was not a complete beginner, but also did not yet have the level of experience required to easily think in different languages.

Once I had an imaginary reader to talk to, I had a good idea of what I wanted to say. It was fairly easy to create two groups of features: those fundamental to become proficient enough with the language and the standard library to be productive, and those that are not essential or could be more aptly considered advanced. The former group would comprise the major focus of the book. But in addition to teaching the language, I had a general message I wanted to drive home.

Through all my years of visiting the D forums and maintaining a popular set of bindings to C libraries, I had encountered more than one new D user who was trying to program C++ or Java in D. While that approach will certainly enable some progress, it is bound to lead to compiler errors or unexpected results sooner rather than later. I explicitly pushed this message early in the book, and reiterated it each time I discussed one of the features that look like C++ or Java, but behave differently. Thinking in one language while learning another is a mistake that requires experience–it’s not the sort of thing novices do–and, as such, it’s a hard habit to break. My goal was to help minimize the pain.

I also wanted to create a sample program that demonstrated the language and library features I was discussing. My original plan was to create a new version of the program whenever a new paradigm was discussed. After gaining a false sense of confidence from completing Chapter 1 well before the deadline, Chapter 2 quickly disabused me of any thoughts that the whole book would go that way. It went well over the page budget and took longer than I had estimated, which meant the program for Chapter 2 was written over the space of a few hours during an all-night marathon. It was rightly lambasted by the technical reviewers. In the end, I scrapped the sample programs during the revision process and created a single program that evolves with new features as the book progresses. It didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, but it does show working examples of different paradigms in one program. The web app version developed in Chapter 10, which demonstrates the use of vibe.d, went more smoothly. Since it was the focus of the chapter, I was able to develop it in tandem with the text.

Speaking of the reviewers, the book would have been a mess had it not been for their valuable feedback. In the past, I had always believed authors were simply being kind when they said such a thing, but I can now attest that it is absolutely true. Packt asked me to recommend some technical reviewers, so I gave them a shortlist of people whom I knew to have strengths in areas where I was weak. John Colvin, Jonathan M. Davis, David Nadlinger, and Steven Schveighoffer came in early on, and were later joined by Kingsley Hendrickse and Ilya Yaroshenko. I was determined to be discriminating in implementing their suggestions, but they were so good that I agreed with and implemented most of them. And their criticisms were spot-on, catching coding errors, Big-O crimes, incorrect statements, and so much more. They taught me a few things I hadn’t known about D, cleared up a few misconceptions, and even spotted a couple of compiler bugs.

In the Foreword, Walter Bright says that this book, like D itself, is a labor of love. He is entirely correct. I first encountered D in 2003 and have been using it ever since. It’s just such a fun language. Though it’s a cliché to any long-time D user, I will tell anyone who cares to listen that this language is very much the sum of its parts; it’s not any one specific feature that makes D such a pleasure to use, but all of them taken together. Yes, it has its warts. Yes, it’s possible to encounter frustrating scenarios that require less-than-attractive workarounds. But, for me, my list of cons is nowhere near long enough to detract from the overall experience. I simply enjoy it. I want to see the cons list shrink and hope that more people see in the language what I see in it, so that one day ads looking for a D programmer are as common as those for other major languages. I accepted the offer to write this book as a way to contribute to that process. Most gratifyingly, I have received personal messages from a few readers letting me know that it helped them learn D. As a long time teacher, that’s a feeling I will never get tired of.

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