Apr2017, Opinion&Letters
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Dating Tips for a New Coder

Do you just need to add a couple error bars and copy-and-paste into Word without dealing with a tantrum and-a-half? Many a Quest researcher, amateur, or Keystoner, are looking for something a little more serious. It may take a bit of a deeper commitment to know the ins and outs of your new-found data partner, but if you take the time to learn their quirks, the payback that comes in your straightforward data analysis is as clear as can be.

In today’s age of superficial Excel-style speed dating it can be hard to find out which coding syntax you want to go steady with! So which one is right for you? As someone who experimented with a few options in my time at Quest, here’s how I analyze two candidates: Python (Pat), the quickest developing open-source coding language in science research; and Mathematica (Mica), a proprietary language produced by Wolfram Research, is used mainly in math, education, and data visualisation and can be easily linked via software packages to other programs such as excel, Open Office, Sage Math and more. A big signal I look out for in my dating is whether my code works for me or whether I’m working for my code, so here’s a short list of these guys’ best qualities:

Style and Personality

Pat: Barebones and upfront, but hiding some deeper layers. What you put in is what you get out of your communication. Pat’s harder to get to know at first but then feels like you’ve been best friends your whole life. Pat will never freeze up on you; he is full of hidden gems and has a world of experience—you just have to know the right way to ask.

Mica: Makes life altogether easy. Has a great appearance, seems easy to understand, and drops lots of helpful hints. When you suggest something, Mica even completes your sentences (and not in an annoying way like your last partner, Excel)! They do, however, demand some serious buy-in to start a relationship with. Although the first few dates will be paid for, you’ll be shelling out the big bucks to keep Mica around long-term: $150 upfront, $225 over the course of the year. Often the social butterfly (read: you can link it with other programs), Mica gets quickly overwhelmed, and needs simple tasks to avoid freezing up.

The Online Support Network, How-To’s, and Documentation

Pat: Pat’s support network is massive; when writing your love-letters (read: scripts) to Pat, be prepared for twice as many suggestions (read: opinions, unwanted) about your relationship. It may seem like Pat’s family doesn’t care about your own contributions to the relationship, but rest easy knowing your “recipe” for cherry pie (read: also a script) might well be a huge hit among everyone. Stackexchange is a great family forum for advice, plus you may find job listings or scouts who lurk there, reveling in your scripts. When you find yourself in a rut with Pat (because, let’s be honest, Pat has some specific ideas about the way things “should” run), the family prefers it when you work on the problem on your own first.  When you do finally hit the “advice column” stage (read: browsing online forums in frustration), you’ll often find friendly folks to help you problem solve.

Mica: Mica’s family is small but cohesive and comes as a high-standard package. The way Mica’s family sees it: once you’ve paid your dues, you’re in. Then it’s okay if you aren’t as “experienced” as Mica’s other users, because they’ve got plenty of resources, and they’re there to help. They’ll even check in on your well being without your asking: while I dated Mica, their family members sent me invites to reunions and workshops, like, every few months…  

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I hope the comparison of these two options helps you embark on your analytical endeavours. There are many more text files in the hard drive! It may seem daunting to branch out and commit to working with someone a little harder to get to know than Excel. Or maybe it’s just that “we accept the love we think we deserve” (that’s right, Perks of Being a Wallflower). My advice is simple: start or deepen your relationship with one language; give it your best go; and remember, nothing is a lifelong commitment!

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