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What Programming Language Should I Learn? A Guide to SQL, Python & More


Tables of Contents

  1. Programming Basics
  2. Is SQL a Programming Language?
  3. Is HTML a Programming Language?
  4. What Is Java Programming?
  5. Python Web Programming
  6. Prepare for a Coding Career

Illustration of a man looking at lines of code on a computer screen

The broad range of opportunities in software development can make it challenging for aspiring developers to know which professional path to take. For many, the journey toward a career in this field starts with the question, What programming language should I learn?

There’s no easy answer, considering there are more than 500 programming languages currently in use. But given the software industry’s strong growth outlook, it’s worth weighing the options.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts that jobs for software developers will increase by 21% between 2018 and 2028, and as of May 2018, the median annual salary for application developers was $103,620. Job prospects and salaries are also impressive for database administrators and web developers, two other professions that rely on coding ability.

This guide provides a wealth of information and resources for students who are looking to develop the programming skills they need to tap into this expanding job market.

Infographic featuring a list of the 10 most popular programming languages in 2020, according to TIOBE

Programming Basics

A computer program consists of lines of code arranged in a specific syntax, or orderly system, similar to human language made up of words arranged in an order that gives them meaning. The code instructs a computer to perform a specific function, such as adding the numbers in a spreadsheet column, searching a database for a monthly sales total, or displaying the elements of a web page in a specific order.

Those are the programming basics, although few programming operations are as straightforward as these examples. Fortunately, the art of programming has advanced to a point that puts incredible coding power in the hands of everyone.

What Is a Programming Language?

Just as any of the thousands of human languages can be used to communicate with others, any of the many different programming languages can be used to instruct a computer to perform some action. The only requirement is that the computer be capable of reading the code, understanding the instructions, and carrying out the intended action.

Programming Language Definition

Techopedia defines a programming language as a computer language designed to create a standard form of commands that can be converted to code that a computer understands. The two basic elements of a programming language are semantics and syntax:

  • Semantics defines the meaning of individual code elements, similar to word meanings in human language.
  • Syntax defines the order in which the semantic elements are arranged to form commands and instructions that tell the computer what to do.

These are the basic elements of a programming language, as listed by Guru99:

  • Programming environment
  • Data type
  • Variables
  • Keywords
  • Logical and arithmetical operators
  • If else conditions
  • Loops
  • Numbers, characters, and arrays
  • Functions
  • Input and output operators

Standard Programming Languages vs. Nonstandard Programming Languages

All high-level programming languages use a compiler to convert their code to a version of assembly language that the computer’s CPU understands. Assembly languages generate the machine language — the 0s and 1s of binary code — that powers all computers and other digital devices.

High-level languages are either standard programming languages based on the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard for that language, or nonstandard, which means they use proprietary code that may not be compatible with other versions of the language.

However, as Opensource.com explains, not all standards-based languages are considered “open source,” which means their code is readily available for others to access. For example, the OASIS nonprofit consortium differs from national and international standards bodies by developing standards that meet specific “open” criteria:

  • Created by domain experts rather than standards-body staff
  • Open for public review and debate
  • Easy to access and adopt
  • Anyone can contribute to the standard’s development
  • No hidden patents
  • Can be implemented freely
  • Safe for governments to endorse

Types of Programming Languages

Programming languages are categorized by the method they use to instruct the computer to read the code, understand its meaning, and take the desired action. The basic types are interpreted, compiled, procedural, scripting, and markup.

Interpreted: Basic, Lisp, Perl, Python, Ruby

An interpreted programming language converts a program’s code to a form the computer can process by running the code through an interpreter utility that is built into the language. The interpreter transforms the human-readable code into machine-readable code “on the fly,” as Lifewire explains.

The advantage of interpreted languages such as Python and Ruby is that the interpreted programs can run on any system that has the required software, including Windows, Linux, and macOS. Interpreted code is also easier to access and alter if necessary than doing so on compiled code, which has to be recompiled and redeployed after every change.

Compiled: C/C++/C#, COBOL, Java, Objective-C, Visual Basic

Programming languages that use compilers to prepare the code for running on the target machine are able to process the code faster than their interpreted counterparts, which speeds up the computer’s performance. The compiler checks each line of code for errors one at a time rather than checking all the code at once, which facilitates error checking.

A compiled program has to be recompiled for every hardware platform and OS it runs on, however. Also, a program may be compiled successfully but still not run as expected on the target machine, so each application has to be tested separately on each platform it is designed for.

Procedural: Java, C/C++, Pascal, MATLAB, PL/I, RPG

Techopedia defines a procedural programming language as one that uses “a series of well-structured steps and procedures within its programming context” to create a program. They are also called imperative languages. They use a systematic order of predefined statements, functions, and commands to instruct the computer to perform a task.

Procedural languages perform operations by applying procedures and functions to the data and variables. The procedures can be called, or invoked, from anywhere in the program code’s hierarchy, including by other procedures. This is among the most common types of programming language, including Java, C/C++, and Pascal. By contrast, declarative languages, or nonprocedural languages, explicitly state the characteristics of the desired result but not how the result is to be obtained, as Encyclopedia.com explains.

Scripting: AppleScript, ColdFusion, JavaScript, PHP, VBScript, Windows PowerShell

A scripting language is a programming language that doesn’t need to be compiled because the code is interpreted directly, as the Python Guru explains. The features that distinguish a scripting language from a compiled language are a reduction in the amount of code required to run a program, automation of the code interpretation by the target machine, and retrieval of information from the data sets included in the program.

Markup: SGML, HTML, XML, XHTML

Markup languages differ from programming languages in that rather than instructing the computer to perform some action, markup languages merely embed instructions in the text that tell the computer how to manipulate the text and other elements that appear on a web page. Lifewire explains that markup languages can usually be read by humans because the annotated instructions are separate from the actual text that will be displayed.

Other Types of Languages

  • Logic-based programming languages are defined by Encyclopedia.com as a subclass of declarative languages that use logical formulas to instruct the interpreter on how to solve a problem.
  • Concurrent programming languages run multiple sequences of operations at the same time, as Toptal describes. They allow programs to run as independent processes that work together toward a specific goal, but they are complex to design.
  • Object-oriented programming languages define a program’s data and all associated processing, or methods, as self-contained entities called objects, as PCMag.com explains. They include languages such as C++ and Java that provide a formal set of rules for creating and managing objects.

Programming Basics Resources

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Is SQL a Programming Language?

Application programming creates software that creates data. Database programming uses data to create business intelligence. Since the arrival of the modern database about 40 years ago, the Structured Query Language (SQL) has been the principal tool used by database programmers to generate reports by querying business databases. SQL’s popularity is due in part to its availability on many different platforms and systems. Generally speaking, SQL is a programming language. More specifically, SQL is a database query language.

Database Programming vs. Application Programming

The two common roles for database programmers are database developer and database administrator, as Discover Data Science describes:

  • Database developers are also called database designers; they design, program, build, and update databases.
  • Database administrators manage and maintain databases, ensuring users have access to the resources they need and safeguarding the data from damage or theft.

By contrast, application programmers design, develop, test, and implement software that creates data in the form of text documents, spreadsheets, images, and other types. The BLS describes the typical duties of a software developer:

  • Design the various components of an application or system based on the needs of users.
  • Use models, flowcharts, and other diagrams to illustrate to programmers the code required in the software development process.
  • Confirm a program operates as expected by continually testing, maintaining, and updating the program.
  • Document all aspects of the program and its use to facilitate future maintenance and upgrades.

Database Languages

Binary Terms defines database languages as sets of statements used to define and manipulate a database. While SQL remains the most popular database language among developers and administrators, NoSQL continues to gain in popularity, as indicated by a recent poll conducted by ScaleGrid.

  • 5% of the organizations surveyed use SQL
  • 5% of the organizations use NoSL

However, Oracle, the open-source MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, and the open-source PostgreSQL give SQL the top four positions in DB-Engines’ monthly database ranking.

SQL Command Categories

In SQL and other relational database management systems (DBMS), there are four types of database languages, as explained on Computerworld:

  • Data Definition Language (DDL) manages the database’s tables and index structures; its synchronized commands are used to create, alter, and delete tables.
  • Data Manipulation Language (DML) manipulates data using four modes (retrieve, update, delete, and insert) and four commands (Select, Insert, Update, and Delete).
  • Data Control Language (DCL) manages access to the database and user permissions using the commands Grant and Revoke.
  • Data Query Language (DQL) is similar to and works with DML to select, insert, update, and delete data.

Other SQL commands cover data administration and transactional control via statements.

SQL vs. NoSQL

The primary difference between SQL and NoSQL is that SQL relies on establishing relations between the data values stored in its many tables. It does so by using predefined schemas to structure data. The schema allows SQL and other relational DBMSs to store and process large amounts of structured data quickly and efficiently.

By contrast, NoSQL doesn’t require a fixed schema, so it accommodates a greater variety of data types, such as images, videos, emails, and social media data streams. The four types of NoSQL DBMSs are column oriented, document oriented, graph based, and Key value store, all of which support dynamic schemas for processing unstructured data.

Relational vs. Nonrelational Databases

As mentioned above, relational databases impose a predefined schema on the databases, which makes the database and relations between data elements more complex as the system grows. When relational DBMSes become too complex, they risk being isolated in such a way that information is no longer shared between systems.

MongoDB, the top-rated nonrelational DBMS on the DB-Engines database ranking, cites several reasons why a nonrelational database is more amenable to modern database applications:

  • A flexible data model makes it easy to store and combine data of various structures, including modifying the schema dynamically to accommodate the data without affecting the database’s performance.
  • Improved scalability and performance through the use of sharding or partitioning, which supports the use of commodity hardware on premises or in the cloud as the database scales up.
  • Always-on global deployments improve availability over SQL databases. NoSQL databases run across many nodes and replicate automatically across servers, racks, and data centers.

Standard SQL vs. MySQL, PostgreSQL, Microsoft SQL Server, and Other Variations

The current ANSI SQL standard is ISO/IEC 9075:2016. However, the various versions of SQL are incompatible because vendors add nonstandard features to their products. As a result, Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle SQL, and other SQL versions take unique approaches to implementing the language.

The Benefits of SQL Standardization

Despite the many proprietary extensions to SQL in commercial versions of the database, SQL itself and MySQL are open source, as are PostgreSQL and many other versions of SQL. This means the underlying code and advice on using the language are readily available on popular programmer and developer sites.

Also, SQL is comparatively easy to learn, and many people who learn SQL as their first experience with programming go on to learn C++, JavaScript, Python, and other programming languages.

The Advantages Offered by Nonstandard Versions of SQL

  • MySQL: Edureka lists the best features of MySQL, including its event scheduler that automates tasks and its extensive plugin libraries for embedding the database in a range of applications.
  • PostgreSQL: Among the prominent features in PostgreSQL, according to Guru99, are its compatibility with many different platforms and languages, and its ability to link to NoSQL and other data stores.
  • Microsoft SQL Server: TechTarget points out that Microsoft SQL Server’s link to the Transact-SQL implementation adds proprietary extensions for data management, business intelligence, and data visualization.
  • MongoDB: This document-oriented NoSQL DBMS is noted for its support for distributed transactions that enforce consistency and data integrity, and its enterprise-grade security via Field Level Encryption, according to DZone.
  • Redis: Among the advantages DZone lists for this open-source in-memory DBMS are its ability to store key and value pairs as large as 512MB, and its data replication that provides automatic updates of master-slave cache nodes.
  • Apache Cassandra: The open-source NoSQL DBMS features a distributed architecture that allows it to run on a cluster of nodes to provide high availability, fault tolerance, and scalability, as the Emumba blog explains.
  • Elasticsearch: According to Towards Data Science, this open-source full-text search and analytics engine lets organizations store, search, and analyze massive amounts of data in near real time.

SQL Programming Resources

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Infographic featuring a list of the 10 most popular database management systems in 2020, according to DB-Engines

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Is HTML a Programming Language?

The Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) determines how text, images, and other elements appear and function on a web page. The Mozilla Foundation explains the basic building blocks of HTML:

  • Hypertext refers to the links that connect certain page elements to other web pages, whether on the same site or different sites.
  • Markup describes how text, images, and other page elements are annotated for display in a web browser.
  • Tags are used to distinguish HTML elements on the page using element names within opening and closing brackets, such as “<title>Page Title</title>” to designate the page’s title.

Markup Languages vs. Programming Languages

HTML is not a programming language in that it isn’t used to create applications or program a database. It is correctly called a markup language because it describes how web elements appear on a page.

The primary difference between markup languages and programming languages is that markup languages describe the appearance and behavior of the various elements that are presented on a web page, while programming languages are used to create applications that perform specific functions, such as a calculator, spreadsheet, or word processor.

Web Programming Basics

All web pages are made up of elements identified by tags. For example, a paragraph comprises text and other material enclosed within the tags <p></p>. Elements can be nested by placing tag pairs within other tag pairs:

  • <p>This is an example of <em>the emphasis tags</em> embedded within paragraph tags.</p>

Two noteworthy types of elements are block-level elements and inline elements:

  • Block-level elements create a visible block on the page that is separate from the page’s other content. They commonly represent paragraphs, lists, navigation menus, footers, and other page formatting.
  • Inline elements are placed within block-level elements and apply only to specific content on the page, such as the hyperlink tags <a></a> and strong tags <strong></strong> for highlighting text.

Attributes within the HTML tags describe other characteristics of the element enclosed in the tags that won’t appear on the web page. An example is the “href” attribute added to the hyperlink tags <a></a> that indicate the page the link will open when clicked:

  • <a href=”https://online.maryville.edu/online-bachelors-degrees/management-information-systems/”>Maryville University Bachelor’s Degree in Management Information Systems Online</a>

HTML vs. Cascading Style Sheets

Modern websites have a great number of dynamic and static elements that would be difficult to manage using HTML alone. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) describe how web pages are presented on various types of devices and formats, such as mobile devices and oversized computer displays.

CSS works with HTML and other markup languages, including the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and XHTML, which is a version of HTML that uses XML syntax. CSS makes it easier to maintain and update site content by allowing global changes via shared style sheets across pages and by environment or content type.

HTML vs. JavaScript

JavaScript is a scripting language for presenting complex elements, such as video and interactive graphics, on a web page. The Mozilla Foundation explains that JavaScript allows elements to be updated dynamically, such as stock tickers and sports scores. The two types of JavaScript are client side and server side:

  • Client-side programming features run on the client, or user, machine. They specify responses to actions such as clicks, and also allow values to be stored inside variables and operations to be applied to connect elements, such as the “name” variable attaching to a string to identify a game player.
  • Server-side programming displays different data to various categories of visitors to a page based on identifying elements that accompany the request for the page to load in the person’s browser. It typically retrieves data from a server-hosted database to display on the page, including targeted ads and other custom content.

XHTML and Other HTML Extensions

The Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML) reformulates HTML as an application of XML, as TechTarget explains. It is extensible in that it allows new approaches to web content and actions to be implemented without having to wait for the features to be added to the HTML standard.

XHTML enforces rules more strictly than in HTML, requiring that all tags have both opening and closing components, for example. More importantly, it promotes more structure and conception when creating web content, and when combined with CSS, more creative ways of presenting the content.

Other HTML extensions supported by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) include CSS Style attributes, the Internationalization Tag Set, and Image Description (longdesc), which links detailed text descriptions to HTML images.

HTML Programming Resources

  • com describes more than 35 HTML and CSS resources for beginners, including tutorials, comprehensive lists of HTML elements, and text editors designed for HTML and CSS.
  • HTML Goodies calls itself “the ultimate HTML resource,” offering primers on HTML, JavaScript, SQL, and the PERL and CGI scripting languages.
  • Google’s site for web developers features a range of information related to securing the content on web pages, including encryption of data in transit, Content Security Policies (CSP), and ensuring that all content displays properly over HTTPS (secure) web connections.

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What Is Java Programming?

Java is a general-purpose, object-oriented programming language that is similar to C and C++ but intended to be easier to use than those two languages, as JavaWorld explains. Java programming is designed to let developers focus on solving business problems rather than on how to work within the constraints of a programming language.

Other features that set Java apart from other programming languages are its extensive network library for linking to many types of networks, the reliability of the code it generates, and its built-in security features for running Java apps in distributed and networked environments.

Java’s Object-Oriented Focus

Because Java is object-oriented, the language allows developers to create Java apps to meet a wide range of business needs. Unlike highly structured languages such as C, Java allows objects to be created without having to specify the object’s state or behaviors. For example, an object called “savings account” can be used in Java without having to specify its state, such as the account balance, or its behaviors, such as deposits and withdrawals, as C requires.

Architecture Neutral

Java applications run relatively unchanged on a variety of hardware platforms and operating systems. Many languages require apps to generate instructions that are designed specifically for individual platforms. By contrast, Java’s bytecode instructions are easy for any platform to interpret via use of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) and other techniques.

Portability

One aspect of Java’s architecture neutrality is its ability to create apps that are easy to port to nearly every computer platform. This is in part because of its bytecode instructions. It’s also due to its many libraries that include types linking Java code with platform-specific functions.

High Performance, Multithreaded

Much of Java’s fast performance relates to its interpretation, but the language also features just-in-time compilation to analyze interpreted bytecode instruction sequences. This allows frequently interpreted bytecode instruction sequences to be compiled based on platform-specific instructions, which results in even faster performance.

Dynamic Distribution

In Java, the connections between code and Java libraries are made dynamically at runtime, so developers don’t have to make the connections explicitly. Whenever a program or a library updates, developers need only distribute the updated version rather than recompile and redistribute the entire package. This minimizes the amount of code that must be distributed, but it can lead to version conflicts.

Java Editions, Java Platform, and the Java Virtual Machine

There are three primary versions of Java, along with a Java platform that includes the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) and an execution environment.

Java Standard Edition (SE), Enterprise Edition (EE), and Micro Edition (ME)

  • Java Standard Edition is a platform for developing client-side applications for desktop PCs and applets that run in web browsers, although support for applets has been discontinued due to security concerns.
  • Java Enterprise Edition is a platform for developing server applications that run on enterprise networks. These include server-side Java servlets that are similar to the applets that run in browsers.
  • Java Micro Edition runs on Java SE and is used to develop MIDlets, which are applications that run on mobile devices, and Xlets, which are applications that run on embedded devices.

Java Platform for Running Compiled Code

One distinguishing feature of Java is that it serves as both a programming language and a platform. This allows Java programs to include their own built-in platform for compiling their code. The primary means of achieving this is JVM and the execution environment that allows the JVM to run the program code.

Java Virtual Machine (JVM)

The JVM includes components for loading, verifying, and executing Java code, such as a just-in-time compiler that compiles the bytecode sequence to the target platform’s native code automatically to speed up the execution of the program.

When an application executes, the JVM may be instructed by the bytecode instructions to open a file, display text or images on the screen, or perform some other task that requires interaction with the native platform. The JVM uses the Java Native Interface (JNI) bridge technology to work in conjunction with the native platform to carry out the required task.

Java Programming Resources

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Python Web Programming

The Python Software Foundation defines Python as an “interpreted, object-oriented, high-level programming language with dynamic semantics.” Python web programming entails choosing a framework such as Django, Flask, or Pyramid, as Full Stack Python explains. Python frameworks make it easy to reuse code and structure projects in a way that is simple for other developers to build and maintain.

Python Characteristics

ZDNet notes that Python is “the hottest programming language on the planet” because it combines ease of use, versatility, and power. Paragyte Technologies lists Python’s strength and weaknesses:

  • Strength: Python code is easy to read, and its standard library support makes it easy to execute complex functions.
  • Strength: It works with many different types of systems and platforms.
  • Strength: Apps are developed quickly and require less code.
  • Weakness: There are fewer experienced Python developers compared to Java and other languages.
  • Weakness: It doesn’t support multiprocessors and isn’t as fast as other languages.
  • Weakness: It isn’t a good development environment for mobile apps or memory-intensive tasks.

Interpreted, Object-Oriented, High-Level Programming

Python is an interpreted language in that its source code is compiled in bytecode that is subsequently interpreted. It is object-oriented because it models items in the real world, such as a person, in terms of their properties and behaviors in addition to their relations with other entities, or objects. It is a high-level programming language in that its code must be interpreted separately rather than by the local processor directly.

Dynamic Semantics

  • Dynamic typing and dynamic binding: As Hackr.io explains, Python supports dynamic typing and dynamic binding to facilitate compiling.
  • Built-in data structures: Memory management in Python uses a data structure called a private heap to represent the queue and hold all objects and data structures.
  • Syntax built for simplicity, readability, easy maintenance: The language’s syntax is easy to read compared to C, C++, and other languages, which makes code maintenance much easier.

Python and Rapid Application Development (RAD)

Python is frequently used as part of rapid application development projects. RAD replaces the traditional waterfall model of software development, in which design, testing, deployment, and maintenance are done sequentially, with a virtuous circle, in which all tasks in the development and operations life cycle occur simultaneously.

Web services firm QBurst lists the reasons why the Django framework for Python web programming is well suited to RAD projects:

  • It relies on reusable and pluggable components.
  • It follows the DRY (don’t rewrite yourself) principle.
  • It facilitates code maintenance.

Python and DevOps

DevOps combines application development and operations by applying an agile methodology that prepares and installs updates and fixes to code continuously. Python features several tools designed specifically to support DevOps, as Full Stack Python explains:

  • Fabric is a high-level Python library that executes shell commands remotely over the SSH (Secure Shell) protocol.
  • Jenkins allows a continuous integration server to be set up for Python applications.
  • Buildbot is based on a job scheduling system that supports distributed, parallel execution of Python jobs across multiple platforms.
  • GitPython is a Python library for interacting with Git repositories, which are used to track changes to files in Python projects.

Python Programming Resources

  • Geekflare describes the nine best Python frameworks for building applications of all sizes. Frameworks include Django, Flask, Bottle, Zope, and TurboGears.
  • Microsoft has created a 44-part video tutorial titled Python for Beginners, designed to provide nonprogrammers with a foundation on Python programming basics.
  • The Python Software Foundation provides a comprehensive introduction to programming with Python that covers such topics as installing and learning Python, and finding specific Python applications.

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Prepare for a Coding Career

To someone just starting their research into programming careers, the many different programming languages now in use can make it difficult to know which to start with. For many professional software developers and database administrators, learning one language quickly leads to learning a second, a third, and possibly a fourth language in the course of their careers.

Learning any programming language introduces budding computer professionals to concepts and principles that will apply in many other technology contexts. Knowing what programming language will be best to learn first depends on which aspect of software and database development best matches the person’s interests and goals. Consider this decision just the start of a long-lasting relationship with programming technology.

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Additional Sources

Kissflow, “Rapid Application Development: Changing How Developers Work”

Packt, “Key Skills Every Database Programmer Should Have”

Plutora (via Medium), “What Is Rapid Application Development? 5 Reasons to Use RAD”

Python, What Is Python? Executive Summary

Stack Overflow, Developer Survey Results 2019

Techopedia, Structured Query Language (SQL)

TechTarget, Rapid Application Development (RAD)

TIOBE, TIOBE Index for May 2020

TypesnUses.com, “What Is a Programming Language and Different Types”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Computer Programmers

World Wide Web Consortium, HTML & CSS

Xplenty, “SQL vs NoSQL: 5 Critical Differences”

ZDNet, “Microsoft: We Want You to Learn Python Programming Language for Free”

ZDNet, “Python Is Eating the World: How One Developer’s Side Project Became the Hottest Programming Language on the Planet”