Computer scientist codes his way to success

James Noble (supplied)
James Noble (supplied)

We all use computers every day, but few of us know how to write the code that makes them work.

A Wellington computer scientist has been trying to fix that, and has now been recognised internationally for his efforts.

Prof James Noble of Victoria University's School of Engineering and Computer Science has been awarded the 2016 AITO Dahl-Nygaard Senior Prize, considered one of the most prestigious awards of its kind in the world.

He's in good company; last year's winner was Bjarne Stroustrup, the creator of C++, a computer language used to build everything from Microsoft Windows, Photoshop, web browsers, iPod software and Outlook.

"You know, it's the only award I really wanted to win," he tells Newshub.

C++ is a complex language, not really for beginners. For the past half-decade Prof Noble has been working, with others, on Grace -- a language designed from the bottom-up to be easy to use.

"People can find programming languages daunting or frustrating, but they shouldn't," he explains.

"Grace has flexibility -- that is, students can be introduced to it in stages, and can grow to the full version at their pace."

Some languages presently considered easier to learn -- such as Python, Java and JavaScript -- can throw off beginners by having "15 different kinds of numbers", among other complexities.

"In JavaScript there are lots of things that you have to do in just the right way or something weird will happen, and we try and at least make [Grace] regular, predictable and understandable."

Prof Noble earned his PhD in 1996, and has published more than 300 papers on object-oriented programming.

One of his students, Sam Minns, is a musician who has incorporated Grace into his art.

"I can create and perform music by writing code live in front of the audience or dance floor," he says. "This shows just how usable Grace can be, and how different people can get value out of programming."

Computer scientist codes his way to success

Grace can be run inside your web browser, and is open source -- meaning anyone can use it, free of charge.

Prof Noble, who teaches when he's not winning prizes and doing research, likes the idea of having coding taught in schools -- but says it's not as easy as just putting it in the curriculum.

"There's always two difficulties -- one of which is, what do you displace to put coding in? And the other one is, who do you get to teach it? We already have this problem with maths. Good maths teachers are as rare as hen's teeth.

"Finding people who are good enough programmers to teach it, and good enough teachers to be able to teach, is difficult."

Before winning the AITO Dahl-Nygaard Senior Prize, Prof Noble was the first computer scientist to be awarded a James Cook Research Fellowship. When that's over, he plans to get back in the classroom.

"I enjoy doing research, and I enjoy teaching… marking is a different matter."