Slightly related image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

One of the most common misconceptions I’ve heard about programming is that you have to be a math whiz to be a good programmer. I’ve mentioned this before but I want to attack that particular stereotype more directly.

It is true that there are similarities between math and programming – programming uses some math terms like function and variable, it’ll be a lot easier to get things onto the screen if you understand coordinate systems, and of course to do math or programming you spend a lot of time manipulating symbols and thinking abstractly, but you know, programming is also a lot like language. I mean, they call them programming languages for a reason. To quote Hal Abelson, Jerry Sussman and Julie Sussman’s book Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs:

First, we want to establish the idea that a computer language is not just a way of getting a computer to perform operations but rather that it is a novel formal medium for expressing ideas about methodology. Thus, programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.

Programming is fundamentally about communication. Not only are you communicating with the machine, you’re communicating with your future self, the rest of your team, and potentially other teams if you end up working for a large enough company. And that’s just when you’re writing code! You’ve also got to make sure you’re building the right thing and let other people who are waiting for that thing know how it’s going. You know what’s great practice for communication? That’s right, English classes! Sarah Mei has a great blog post about the same point I’m trying to make in this one, here’s an especially interesting quote:

The students I saw – all adults – came from a wide range of backgrounds. People with a math background did fine, of course, but people with a heavy language background often did better.

Nobody seems to have an official study on this, but I think there’s something there. Language requires just as much abstract thought as math does, with the added benefit (to your communication skills) of failing your classes if you can’t make yourself understood to anyone else. As a bit of an aside, the biggest problems I’ve run into at work have never been problems of pure programming skill (although those ones do suck a lot), they’ve been communication problems with team members, other teams, management, other departments entirely and other offices.

And to stick another nail in the coffin of the idea that programming is math, I’ve been a developer for ten years now and the most complicated math I’ve ever had to do at work is stuff like “if I have a div that’s x pixels wide and y pixels tall and I want it centered inside another div that’s a pixels wide and b pixels tall, what should my margins be?” I used to believe that programming was math, and some programming is certainly math heavy, but it’s hard to argue with the lack of math in my day to day job over ten years and four companies.

So given that programming is not math, why do so many people think it is? I’m going to quote Sarah again because she already said it really well:

When programming was just getting started, early in the last century, we used it to solve highly mathematical problems like calculating missile trajectories and decrypting secret messages. At that point, you had to be good at math to even approach programming. Tools, such as programming languages, were designed specifically to solve mathematical problems, because those were the ones we thought it was worth spending money on. Computers were for doing math.

I think another issue is the way we teach programming (credit where it’s due, I stole that idea directly from a comment on Sarah’s post). Computers are great at doing boring and tedious calculations, plus it’s easy to tell them how to do it, so why not start teaching programming by having students make the computer calculate something for them? It makes it really easy for the students to check their work too – assuming they’re able to do the math problem themselves, they can easily check if the computer got the same answer.

That assumption can be a real problem, though. If you can’t do the math problem or don’t care about the math problem, you end up effectively shut out of programming, something you could very well be great at, because of something that has next to nothing to do with the actual job of software development.

If you can do basic arithmetic and deal with the concept of variables, congrats, you can be a programmer! That is literally all the math you actually need!