Programming is not math, huh?

You’re right, programming isn’t math. But when someone says this, chances are it’s a programmer misunderstanding mathematics.

I often hear the refrain that programmers don’t need to know any math to be proficient and have perfectly respectable careers. And generally I agree. I happen to think that programming only becomes fun when you incorporate mathematical ideas, and I happen to write a blog about the many ways to do that, but that doesn’t stop me from realizing that the vast majority of programmers completely ignore mathematics because they don’t absolutely need it.

So when Sarah Mei argues in her article “Programming is not Math” that math skills should not be considered the only indicator of a would-be programmer’s potential, I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve never heard anyone make that argument, but I’m much younger than she is. Having faith in Mei’s vast life experience, I’ll assume it was this way everywhere when she was writing Fortran in school, and it seems plausible that the attitude lingers at the most prestigious universities today.

But then she goes on to write about mathematics. As much as I respect her experience and viewpoints, her article misses the title’s claim by a long shot. It’s clear to me that it’s because she doesn’t understand the mathematics part of her argument. Here’s the best bit:

Specifically, learning to program is more like learning a new language than it is like doing math problems. And the experience of programming today, in industry, is more about language than it is about math.

This is the core of her misunderstanding: being good at math is not about being good at “doing math problems” (from the context of her article it’s clear that she equates this with computation, e.g. computing Riemann sums). And the experience of programming in your particular corner of industry is not representative of what programming is about. The reality of the mathematics/programming relationship is more like this:

  1. Mathematics is primarily about conjecture, proof, and building theories, not doing slews of computations.
  2. Learning to do mathematics is much more like learning language than learning to program is like learning language.
  3. Large amounts of effort are spent on tedious tasks in industry for no reason other than that we haven’t figured out how to automate them yet. And novel automations of tedious tasks involve interesting mathematics by rule, not exception.
  4. That doesn’t change how crucially reliant every programmer (and every company) is on the mathematical applications to programming that allow them to do their work.

 Mathematics is closer to language

Item 2 is probably why Mei isn’t able to find any research on the similarities between math and programming. There is a ton of research relating mathematics to language learning. For an extended bibliography with a nice narrative, see Keith Devlin’s book The Math Gene.

One big reason that mathematics is much more like language than programming, is that doing mathematics involves resolving ambiguities. In programming you have a compiler/interpreter that just dictates how an ambiguity resolves. But in mathematics, as in real language, you have to resolve them yourself based on context. This happens both in the modeling side of mathematics and in the hard-core theory side. Contrary to the most common internet wisdom, almost no working mathematicians do math from a purely axiomatic standpoint. The potential for ambiguities arises in trying to communicate a proof from one person to another in an elegant and easy-to-understand way. Note the focus on communicating. This is essentially the content of a first course in proofs, which, by the way, is usually titled something like “A transition to advanced mathematics.” The reason that this never shows up when you’re computing Riemann sums is because in that context you’re playing the role of the computer and not the mathematician. It’s like getting the part of a spear carrier in a play and claiming, “acting is just about standing around looking fierce!” It’s a small, albeit important, part of a much larger picture.

Having studied all three subjects, I’d argue that mathematics falls between language and programming on the hierarchy of rigor.

and the hierarchy of abstraction is the exact reverse, with programming being the most concrete and language being the most abstract. Perhaps this is why people consider mathematics a bridge between human language and programming. Because it allows you to express more formal ideas in a more concrete language, without making you worry about such specific hardware details like whether your integers are capped at 32 bits or 64. Indeed, if you think that the core of programming is expressing abstract ideas in a concrete language, then this makes a lot of sense.

This is precisely why learning mathematics is “better” at helping you learn the kind of abstract thinking you want for programming than language. Because mathematics is closer to programming on the hierarchy. It helps even more that mathematics and programming readily share topics. You teach graph coloring for register allocation, linear algebra and vector calculus for graphics, combinatorics for algorithms. It’s not because you need to know graph coloring or how to count subsets of permutations, but because it shows the process of reasoning about an idea do you can understand the best way to organize your code. If you want to connect language to programming you almost always have to do so through mathematics (direct modeling of sentence structure via programming is a well-tried and unwieldy method for most linguistic applications).

 Big-O is “pretty much meaningless”

Another issue I have with Mei’s article is on her claim that “big-O” is meaningless in the real world. More specifically, she says it only matters what the runtime of an algorithm is on “your data.”

Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way. I can name many ways in which a result in improving the worst-case asymptotic complexity of an algorithm has literally changed the world. Perhaps the biggest is the fast Fourier transform. So if you’re applying to work at a company like Google, which deservingly gets credit for changing the world, it makes total sense for interviewees to be familiar with the kind of mathematical content that has changed the world in the past. Maybe it’s a mistake for smaller companies to emulate Google, but you can’t blame them for wanting to hire people who would do well at Google.

But at a deeper level I don’t believe Mei’s argument. Her example is this.

An algorithm that is O(n**2) for arbitrary data may actually be constant time (meaning O(1)) on your particular data, and thus faster than an algorithm that is O(n log n) no matter what data you give it.

First, the chance is absolutely negligible that you will come across a nontrivial problem where the runtime of a standard algorithm meets the worst case on “your” data, but when you use a generally-considered worse algorithm it does much better. Second, there is a very rich mathematical theory of, “algorithms that run extremely fast and return correct answers to queries with high probability.” So again, you can turn to mathematics where the expectations are quantifiable rather than arbitrary and guessed.

But more deeply, nobody in industry has any clue what it is that characterizes “real world data” that allows you to make worst-case guarantees. They have a fuzzy idea (real social networks are usually sparse, etc.), but little in the way of a comprehensive understanding. This is a huge topic, but it’s a topic of active research, which is uncoincidentally filled to the brim with mathematics. The takeaway is that even if you have an algorithm that seems to run quickly on “your” data, “seems” is the best you’ll be able to say without answering big open research questions. You won’t be able to guarantee anything, which means you’ll be stuck telling your manager that you’re introducing more points of failure into the system, and you risk being paged in the middle of the night because the company has expanded to China and their data happens to break your algorithm on average.

But you’re a smart engineer, so what do you do? You run your clever algorithm and track how long it takes; if it takes too long, you abort and do the standard O(n log n) solution instead. Problem solved. But wait! You needed to know the difference between your algorithm’s worst case complexity and the baseline complexity, and you had to determine how long to wait before aborting.

The fact is, you can’t function without knowing the baselines, and asymptotic runtime (big-O) is the gold standard for comparing algorithms. Certainly you can mix things up as appropriate, as the fictional engineer in our story did, but if you’re going to do a more detailed analysis you have to have a reference frame. At a company where a one-in-a-million error happens a hundred times a day, mathematical guarantees are (literally) what help you sleep at night. Not every programmer deals with these questions regularly (which is why I don’t think math is necessary to be a programmer), but if you want to be a great programmer you had better bet you’ll need it. Companies like Google and Amazon and Microsoft face these problems, aspire to greatness, and want to hire great programmers. And great programmers can discuss the balance issues of various algorithms.

But Sarah Mei is right, there might be some interesting ways to model algorithms running better on “your” data than the worst case (and if I were interviewing someone I would gladly entertain such a discussion), but I can say with relative certainty that even an above-average math-phobic interviewee is not going to have any new and deep insights there. And even if one does, one needs to be able to answer the question of how this relates to what is already known about the problem. Without that how can you know your solution is better?

 A “minor specialization”

Now my biggest beef is with her conclusive dismissal of mathematics.

If a small and shrinking set of programming applications require math, so much so that we cordon you off into your own language to do it, then it’s pretty clear that heavy math is, these days, a minor specialization.

Oh please. You can’t possible think that every mathematician who programs does so in Fortran or Haskell. I’m a counterexample: I’m proficient in C, C++, Java, Python, Javascript, HTML and CSS. I have only really dabbled in Haskell and Racket and other functional languages (I like them a lot, but I just get more done in Python).

But what’s worse is that I have so many programming applications of mathematics that I don’t know what to do with them all. It’s like they’re sprouting from my ears!

Let’s take the examples of what Mei thinks are purely unmathematical uses of programming: “ease of use, connectivity, and interface.” I’m assuming she means the human-computer interaction version of these questions. So this is like, how to organize a website to make it easy for users to find information and streamline their workflow. I’d question whether anyone in the industry can really be said to be “solving” these problems rather than just continually debating which solution they arbitrarily think is best. In fact, I’m more inclined to argue that companies change their interface to entice users to pay for updates more than to make things easier to use (I’m looking at you, Microsoft Word).

In any case, it’s clear that Mei is biased toward one very specific kind of programming, which does have mathematical aspects (see below). But moreover, she blurs the distinction between an application of mathematics to programming and what she finds herself and her colleagues actively doing in her work. Let me counter with my own, more quantifiable examples of the mind-bogglingly widespread applications of mathematics to industry, both passive and active.

Optimization: the big Kahuna of mathematical applications to the real world. Literally every industrial company relies on state of the art optimization techniques to optimize their factories, shipping lines, material usage, product design. And I’m not even talking about the software industry here. I’m talking about Chevron, Walmart, Goldman Sachs. Every single Fortune 500 company applies more “heavy” math on a daily basis than could be taught in four years of undergraduate education. They don’t care about ease of use, they care about getting that extra 0.05% profit margin. And as every mathematician knows, there is a huge theory of optimization that ranges from linear programming to functional analysis to weird biology-inspired metaheuristics.

Signal processing: No electric device or wireless communication system would exist without signal processing. The entire computer industry relies on digital signal processing techniques and algorithms proliferated via mathematics. Literally every time you type a key on your keyboard, you’re relying on applications of mathematics to programming. Sure, you don’t need to know how to build a car to drive it, but signal processing techniques extend to other areas of programming, such as graphics, data mining, and optimization, and a large portion of the software industry is disguised as the hardware industry because they use languages like VHDL instead of Ruby. They really need to know this topic, and it’s not fair to forget them. That being said, let’s not forget all the engineers who do signal processing in Matlab. Our list just keeps getting bigger and bigger, huh?

Statistics: Every company needs to manage their risk and finances via statistics, and every application of mathematics and statistics to risk and finance is done via programming. Whether you use SAS, JMP, R, or just Excel, it’s all programming and all requires mathematical understanding. This is not even to mention all of the statistical modeling (via programming) that goes on in a non-financial setting. For example, in Obama’s presidential campaign and in sports forecasting. Even as I write this, NPR is reporting on the Malaysia flight that was shot down in Ukraine, and how technicians are using “mathematics and algorithms” to pinpoint the location of the crash.

Machine Learning: A hot topic these days, but for a long time engineers have been trying to answer the question, “what does it mean for a computer to learn?” Surprise, surprise, the generally accepted answer these days came from mathematicians. The theory of PAC-learning, and more generally its relationship to the many widely-used machine learning techniques, paved the way for things like boosting and the study of statistical query algorithms. Figuring out smart ad serving? Try bandit-learning techniques. It’s mathematics all the way down.

Graphics/Layout: You want ease of use in human computer interaction? You want graphics. You want special effects in movies? You need linear algebra, dynamical systems, lots of calculus, and lots of graphics programming. You want video games? Data structures, computational geometry, and twice as much graphics as you thought you’d ever need. You want a dynamic, adaptive, tile-based layout on your website? Get ready for packing heuristics, because that stuff is NP-hard! Information trees, word clouds, rankings, all of these layout concepts have rich mathematical underpinnings.

You see, Mei’s fundamental misconception is that the kind of applications that we haven’t yet automated and modularized constitutes what programming is all about. We don’t know how to automate the translation of obscure and ambiguous business rules to code. We don’t know how to automate the translation from a picture you drew of what you want your website to look like to industry-strength CSS. We don’t know how to automate the organization of our code so as to allow us to easily add new features while maintaining backwards compatibility. So of course most of what goes on in the programming industry is on that side of the fence. And before we had compilers we spent all our time tracking memory locations and allocating registers by hand, too, but that’s no more the heart and soul of programming than implementing business rules.

And by analogy, most of writing is not literature but fact reporting and budget paperback romance novels, but we teach students via Twain and Wilde. And most cooking is reheating frozen food, not farm-to-table fine cuisine, so should a culinary student study McDonald’s?

But if you wanted to genuinely improve on any of these things, if you wanted to figure out how to automate the translation of drawn sketches to good HTML and CSS, you can count on there being some real mathematical meat for you to tenderize. I hope you try, because without mathematics we programmers are going to have an extremely hard time making real progress in our field.


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