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How to think like a programmer.

What is this?

This is a tutorial on how to think like a programmer, and to learn some programming along the way. It teaches you fundamental ideas and concepts present in all programming systems, from “real” programming languages over scripting languages and configuration files to domain-specific languages.

Table of Contents

Part 1: The Basics

  1. Values and Expressions
  2. Testing Programs
  3. Types
  4. Functions

Part 2: Making Programming Useful

  1. Structured Values
  2. Collections
  3. Decisions and Calculations
  4. Instantiation

Part 3: Dealing with Mutable State

In this part I will discuss how to systematically deal with mutable state (everything so far was purely functional), and also introduce abstractions that are specifically built to deal with program behavior that is state-dependent, in particular, state machines.

Part 4: Scaling Up – Building Systems

This final part of the tutorial will look at common ways how software engineering deals with larger-scale systems, and how this affects languages and programs. This includes modularization, information hiding, contracts, inheritance and specialization as well as separation of concerns.

Why, and Why now?

In almost all domains, computers are getting more prevalent. And while those computers are progressively changing their interface to one that is closer to how humans intuitively communicate (natural language, voice input, “guessing” of what people want through machine learning), there is also an increased requirement for professionals in all domains to communicate with computers on their terms. This means that humans have to think in a structured and formal way. They don’t have to become professional programmers, but they have to understand some of the same ideas and concepts as programmers. This tutorial teaches many of these basics.

Who is this for?

There is a whole range of audiences for this tutorial:

Learning how to “think like a computer” is of course not the only skill relevant in this general area; data processing and statistics is another one that is relevant in many fields. But even to do competent Big Data analyses requires you to be a little bit of a programmer.

How is it different from a programming tutorial?

This tutorial is quite different. First, it does not try to teach you a particular programming language. The language used here, KernelF, is not widely used (outside the DSLs we build for our customers). But it embodies many ideas and concepts you will find in essentially all programming languages used in the real world. So I want to teach you these ideas, not the particular language.

I don’t want to teach you sophisticated algorithms. I don’t expect you to become a “performance optimizer”. I don’t even expect you to be able to build your own sophisticated abstractions and reusable libraries. I want you to become a competent user of high-level languages, possibly languages that are tailor-made to your domain (DSLs). This also means that, as we go along and explain concepts, we introduce intuitive language concepts that make those concepts intuitively accessible.

We don’t look at the typical programmer tools, and in particular, we don’t care about compilers. Everything you learn here is expected to be executed in an interactive, live environment, with as little hassle as possible.

Finally, I want to start from something you are familiar with: we start our tutorial on the basis of spreadsheets, since I assume that everybody knows Excel and its brethren. If not, doesn’t matter, you’ll learn something about those along the way :-)

I suggest you start out with Values and Expressions.

Notes on Style

The tutorial intentionally a colloquial tone of voice. If necessary, it prioritizes understandability and intuition over technical or scientific precision. This is not a science paper! We rely on lots of examples which are embedded as images expoerted from our tool, Jetbrains MPS. A few paragraphs use special markers:

Paragraphs marked this way contain advanced contents, targeted at people who want to look behind the scenes, or who have had some previous experience with programming. You can safely skip those paragraphs if you are not interested.

Paragraphs marked with this icon contain specific guidance on how to do something in MPS. For example, keyboard shortcuts or hints at menu items are mentioned in paragraphs marked this way. These will become relevant once exercises are available.

These are bugs or other issues that need to be fixed. There shouldn’t be too many of those in the tutorial when you read it :-)

Where can I run the examples?

Currently, it involves several steps to get the examples to run. We are working on a much simpler (one-click) solution, but for now you have to work through the following steps:

  1. Download and install Jetbrains MPS, Version 2018.2.x in the variant specific to your operating system. MPS is implemented in Java, but it brings along its own JDK.

  2. Install the mbeddr.platform. This is a whole set of extensions to MPS that have been used in the implementation of this tutorial.
    • Download the mbeddr.platform; when prompted to log into the build server, use the Log in as Guest link.
    • Unzip the ZIP file; this leads to a whole set of 50 or so folders, each representing MPS plugins. Check out this picture if you are unsure which folders exactly to copy.
    • Take this set of folders and copy them into the plugins (note the “s”) folder of your MPS installation
  3. Install the iets3.opensource. This contains the KernelF language on which this tutorial is based.
    • Download iets3.opensource
    • Follow the same unzip/copy routine as with the mbeddr.platform above.
  4. Download the sources from this repository, eiter by cloning the repository or by downloading (and then unzipping) the source ZIP file. There’s a bright green button on the linked page.

  5. Run MPS. Open the project that contains the examples. In MPS, projects are folders with a .mps subfolder in it. The src/programmingBasics is the project that contains the example code.

About KernelF

(You don’t need to know or care when you want to learn programming with this tutorial, but just in case you are interested …)

KernelF is a functional programming language that was built at itemis based on Jetbrains MPS. It is intended to be used (and it is actually used) as the core of domain-specific languages. These languages address domains such as finance, insurance or healthcare and are thus used by non-programmers. Hence the focus of this tutorial in the first place.

If you don’t want to learn programming per se, but understand KernelF as a programming language and how we use it for DSLs, please check out the language reference at

Are there Exercises?

We are working on those :-)

Who is behind this tutorial?