Ultra(re)learning Java - My takeaways

Published by Paul at 2022-12-24


As a regular participant in the annual Pet Project competition at work, I always try to find a project where I can learn something new. In this post, I would like to share my takeaways after revisiting Java. You can read about my motivations in my "Creative universe" post:

Creative universe

I have been programming in Java back in the days as a university student, and even my Diploma Thesis I implemented in Java (it would require some overhaul so that it is fully compatible with a recent version of Java, though - It still compiles and runs, but with a lot of warnings, though!):

VS-Sim: Distributed systems simulator

However, after that, I became a Linux Sysadmin and mainly continued programming in Perl, Puppet, bash, and a little Python. For personal use, I also programmed a bit in Haskell and C. After my Sysadmin role, I moved to London and became a Site Reliability Engineer (SRE), where I mainly programmed in Ruby, bash, Puppet and Golang and a little bit of C.

At my workplace, as an SRE, I don't do Java a lot. I have been reading Java code to understand the software better so I can apply and suggest workarounds or fixes to existing issues and bugs. However, most of our stack is in Java, and our Software Engineers use Java as their primary programming language.

Stuck at Java 1.4

Over time, I had been missing out on many new features that were added to the language since Java 1.4, so I decided to implement my next Pet Project in Java and learn every further aspect of the language as my main goal. Of course, I still liked the idea of winning a Pet Project Prize, but my main objective was to level up my Java skills.

Ultra(re)lerning & upskilling to Java 18

Effective Java

This book was recommended by my brother and also by at least another colleague at work to be one of the best, if not the best, book about Java programming. I read the whole book from the beginning to the end and immersed myself in it. I fully agree; this is a great book. Every Java developer or Java software engineer should read it!


I recommend reading the 90-part effective Java Series on dev.to. It's a perfect companion to the book as it explains all the chapters again but from a slightly different perspective and helps you to really understand the content.

Kyle Carter's 90-part Effective Java Series

Java Pub House

During my lunch breaks, I usually have a walk around the block or in a nearby park. I used that time to listen to the Java Pub House podcast. I listened to *every* episode and learned tons of new stuff. I can highly recommend this podcast. Especially GraalVM, a high-performance JDK distribution written for Java and other JVM languages, captured my attention. GraalVM can compile Java code into native binaries, improving performance and easing the distribution of Java programs. Because of the latter, I should release a VS-Sim GraalVM edition one day through a Linux AppImage ;-).

https://www.javapubhouse.com
https://www.graalvm.org

Java Concurrency course

I also watched a course on O'Reilly Safari Books online about Java Concurrency. That gave an excellent refresher on how the Java thread pools work and what were the concurrency primitives available in the standard library.

Read a lot of Java code

First, the source code is often the best documentation (if programmed nicely), and second, it helps to get the hang of the language and standard practices. I started to read more and more Java code at work. I did that whenever I had to understand how something, in particular, worked (e.g. while troubleshooting and debugging an issue).

Observed Java code reviews

Another great way to get the hang of Java again was to sneak into the code reviews of the Software Engineer colleagues. They are the expert on the matter and are a great source to copy knowledge. It's OK to stay passive and only follow the reviews. Sometimes, it's OK to step up and take ownership of the review. The developers will also always be happy to answer any naive questions which come up.

Took ownership of a roadmap-Java project

Besides my Pet Project, I also took ownership of a regular roadmap Java project at work, making an internal Java service capable of running in Kubernetes. This was a bunch of minor changes and adding a bunch of classes and unit tests dealing with the statelessness and a persistent job queue in Redis. The job also involved reading and understanding a lot of already existing Java code. It wasn't part of my job description, but it was fun, and I learned a lot. The service runs smoothly in production now. Of course, all of my code got reviewed by my Software Engineering colleagues.

The good

From the new language features and syntaxes, there are many personal takeaways, and I can't possibly list them all, but here are some of my personal highlights:

The bad and the ugly

There are also many ugly corners in Java. Many are doomed to stay there forever due to historical decisions and ensuring backward compatibility with older versions of the Java language and the Java standard library.

Conclusion

While (re)learning Java, I felt like a student again and was quite enthusiastic about it initially. I invested around half a year, immersing myself intensively in Java (again). The last time I did that was many years ago as a university student. I even won a Silver Prize at work, implementing a project this year (2022 as of writing this). I feel confident now with understanding, debugging and patching Java code at work, which boosted my debugging and troubleshooting skills.

I don't hate Java, but I don't love programming in it, either. I will, I guess, always see Java as the necessary to get stuff done (reading code to understand how the service works, adding a tiny feature to make my life easier, adding a quick bug fix to overcome an obstacle...).

Although Java has significantly improved since 1.4, its code still tends to be more boilerplate. Not mainly because due to lines of code (Golang code tends to be quite repetitive, primarily when no generics are used), but due to the levels of abstractions it uses. Class hierarchies can be ten classes or deeper, and it is challenging to understand what the code is doing. Good test coverage and much documentation can mitigate the problem partially. Big enterprises use Java, and that also reflects to the language. There are too many libraries and too many abstractions that are bundled with too many legacy abstractions and interfaces and too many exceptions in the library APIs. There's even an external library named Lombok, which aims to reduce Java boilerplate code. Why is there a need for an external library? It should be all part of Java itself.

https://projectlombok.org/

Java needs a clean cut. The clean cut shall be incompatible with previous versions of Java and only promote modern best practices without all the legacy burden carried around. The same can be said for other languages, e.g. Perl, but in Perl, they already attack the problem with the use of flags which change the behaviour of the language to more modern standards. Or do it like Python, where they had a hard (incompatible) cut from version 2 to version 3. It will be painful, for sure. But that would be the only way I would enjoy using that language as one of my primary languages to code new stuff regularly. Currently, my Java will stay limited to very few projects and the more minor things already mentioned in this post.

Am I a Java expert now? No, by far not. But I am better now than before :-).

E-Mail your comments to paul at buetow dot org! :-)

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