Can we Rely on C?

whycI have written several times on this blog about the odd propensity of the “EDA” business to consider the C and C++ languages “high level” languages. They are what I use almost daily for most of the demo-order programming I do, but I still don’t consider them very high-level. High-level for me is scripting (Python, Lua, …) or domain-specific languages (DML, Lex, Yacc, MatLab, …) or model-driven development (UML, LabView, Simulink, …) or languages which at least provide sensible and reasonably safe semantics (Erlang, Java, …).

However, in fact, most the embedded industry and the “virtual platform” industry rely on C and C++ to get our daily jobs done. Question is, how much longer can we expect to do that? An interesting post at by Michael Barr brought back my argument that modeling needs to move up in levels of abstraction just like mainstream programming.

Michael Barr wrote the column “Real Programmers Program in C“, where he points out that knowledge of C is declining among computer science graduates. It is simply not efficient enough for simple mainstream work like creating web services and custom IT applications.

Clever though he is, the young man admitted he wasn’t making that quote up on the spot. That “real men program in C” is part of a lingo he and his fellow computer science students developed while categorizing the usefulness of the various programming languages available to them. Exploring a bit, I learned the quiche-like phrase assigns both a high difficulty factor to the C language and a certain age group to C programmers. Put simply, C was too hard for programmers of their generation to bother mastering.

Obviously, if you take this argument to the extreme, you end up with the Monthy Python sketch where a bunch of old men are trying to trumph each other with the tough childhoods they had. In the end, they claim to have eaten just a handful of cold gravel for breakfast, walked 50 km to school, and having to clean the road each day… and kids these days, they just don’t understand…

But apart from the fact that kids in the western world today are very lazy and can’t stomach running 15km to school each day and therefore lack the toughness to match Kenyans in marathons there is a real issue here.

The bottom line is that embedded programmers aren’t going to stop using C anytime soon. There are several reasons for this. First, C compilers are available for the vast majority of 8-, 16-, and 32-bit CPUs. Second, C offers just the right mix of low-level and high-level language features for programming at the processor and driver level. Until the use of C starts to turn down in future such surveys, C programming skills will remain important.

The issue is that universities are moving up in the efficiency scale of languages, teaching students good things rather than hard things. Not all universities do (and I am trying my best to lobby for keeping assembly language and device driver programming in the core computer science curriculum whenever I can), but it is clear that the market for “general IT stuff” is so much bigger that it will attract more students to “easy” languages like Ruby and VisualBasic.

So we need to move both embedded programming and virtual platform technology much more in this direction to maintain  a steady influx of smart people into the field. High-level synthesis of hardware and virtual platform models from a VisualBasic form? Sounds like a stretch…

We also need to jump into the education system and create the courses and motivate professors to teach lower-level languages. Not all are that familiar with actual practices in industry, unfortunately.

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