## Review of Essential Algorithms

Working in computer science means knowing how to work with computer languages, but it also means knowing how to use math to obtain the results you want. Some math is relatively straightforward, but some becomes so complicated that you really do need some type of process or procedure for working with it. Essential Algorithms by Rod Stephens, “defines steps for performing a task in a certain way.” The first chapter begins by defining what an algorithm is and moves on from there to show you how they can help improve your ability to write complex applications.

The examples are written in a pseudocode that the author explains in Chapter 1. In fact, the explanation is accompanied by some examples of how to turn the pseudocode into an actual programming language. I’m almost positive some readers will take exception to the use of pseudocode because it doesn’t relate the example in their specific programming language, which would make implementation of the code as easy as possible for the reader. In this case, the use of pseudocode is impossible to avoid because the book would be far less useful without it.

This text could easily be used in a college. Each chapter ends with exercises that help the reader understand the concepts better (or at least determine whether any of the material actually sunk in). The answers to the examples appear in an appendix at the end of the book. However, in a college setting it might be possible to create a student version of the book without the appendix and a teacher version that includes the answers. The author also uses many of the same examples that I used when I was a student in college, but with an emphasis on diagrams to pictorially show how the examples work. The addition of graphics makes the examples considerably easier to understand.

The early chapters discuss specific kinds of algorithms that are used in every programming language that exists. For example, the author tackles the topic of randomizing data and ensuring that the randomizing process is fair. Of course, getting truly random data on a computer is impossible, but it’s possible to create random sequences of such complexity that the average human would never notice they aren’t random. This book discusses the topic at a length that I wish the text I had used in college would have provided.

Don’t get the idea that Essential Algorithms is light on the computer science aspects of using algorithms. For example, you’ll find coverage of all the basic structures used by most languages: linked lists, arrays, stacks, and queues. I could have wished for coverage of dequeues because many languages modify dequeues to create stacks and queues. Understanding how this essential structure works would have been great.

There are separate chapters for sorting and searching. These two tasks are performed so often by applications that an in depth knowledge really is a necessity for any computer scientist. All the common sorts are covered in sufficient detail that the reader should understand them with relative ease: insertion, selection, bubble, heap, quick, and merge. In addition, you find the counting and bucket sorts (two types of sorts that are completely missing my my college text—I took the time to check). The list of searches are likewise complete: linear, binary, and interpolation.

The opening chapters are finished with chapters on hash tables and recursion. I thought the chapter on hash tables was a bit light and their use as dictionaries in languages such as Python is only mentioned in passing. The chapter on recursion was far better done. I found the material on the various kinds of curves: Koch, Hilbert, and Sierpinski, exceptional.

The middle of the book (starting with Chapter 10) is taken up with trees, networks, and strings. There should be enough material here for anyone who really wants to learn the information. The author seems to hit his stride in these chapters—they’re both interesting and well written.

The end of the book starts with cryptography in Chapter 16. It’s the part of the book that just about anyone will find helpful and it’s also the part that separates this book from being a mere college text and more of a reference book. The chapter on complexity theory is exceptionally nice. Even if you’re already an expert in other areas of this book, it’s likely that you’ll find some new ideas in this part of the book—enough ideas to make it well worth the purchase price.

Overall, Essential Algorithms is the text I wish I had when studying the topic in college and it’ll make a fine addition to my bookshelf. I’ll likely use it as a reference book when trying to understand how various programming languages are implementing a practical need, such as determining how to work with structures such as stacks. I don’t delve deeply into security issues very often, but I’m sure that material will see use as well. There are some holes in the book, but I wouldn’t consider them deal killers and could provide great fodder for the author in the form of articles and blog posts. This is a great book and one that you need on your shelf.

## Review of MCSD Certification Toolkit (Exam 70-483): Programming in C#

You’re really excited about becoming a Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD)! How do you proceed to make your venture a success? Having been through several certifications myself, I understand the importance of having a great certification guide to help you overcome some of the less intuitive parts of the examination process. Tiberiu Covaci, Gerry O’Brien, Rod Stephens, and Vincent Varallo have provided such a guide with MCSD Certification Toolkit (Exam 70-483): Programming in C#. Anyone planning to take exam 70-483 will benefit from this book because it presents the exam topics in a highly organized manner. You can also look at checking out the microsoft exam dumps on sites like Exam Topics to see how this can further help you out.

Let me get one of the gripes out about the book before I discuss all of the good material though. It seems as if every certification guide I’ve ever looked at includes topics such as, “Why Get Certified?” The problem with these topics is that they waste space and bore the reader. The reader already knows why certification is important, so there is no need to discuss the topic, plus if they need help with the 70-480 certification exam, as well as others, they can look towards websites such as itexams.com for the necessary help. The reasons for getting certified vary, of course, but the vast majority of people can sum it up in one word, money. Certification will open a door to a better job, help the candidate keep an existing job, or move the candidate one step further up the corporate ladder. The topic is unimportant because the only thing the reader wants to know is how to ace the exam (or at least get a passing score). I feel strongly that the authors could have used the space spent in preaching to the choir to provide additional helps and aids. If your tolerance for less useful material is low, then you’ll want to skip directly to page 11 of the book and start reading “How to Study for the Exam Using This Book.”

After you get past Chapter 1, the rest of the book starts to take on a predictable pattern. You read the theory behind each of the topics that the exam will test. Code Labs give you hands on experience putting the theory into practice. My favorite sections are the Real-World Case Scenario, which helps you understand how the theory is actually used to write an application that could exist in the real world. A problem with many certification guides is that they pursue a purely academic course-this book avoids that particular problem and gives you practical knowledge as well.

Each chapter ends with a Chapter Test Questions section that contains a few questions you can use to check what you have absorbed. The questions will typically be useful for one or two uses, so you need to ensure you read the chapter and go through the exercises before you attempt to try the test questions. Otherwise, you won’t really know whether you have absorbed the material. Personally, I found the number of questions a bit small. The authors could have beefed up this section to provide the reader with a better idea of how the exam will appear. Having this type of valuable insight into how the exam will be laid out and what type of questions they may ask you, could help you to achieve a higher score. It may also be worth having a look at something similar to these mb-300 exam questions, (if this is the certification you’re taking), in order for you to see how the material you’re reading can be incorporated within the exam. At least this way you will have a better idea about what the questions will be like, so you’re better prepared.

The Cheat Sheet and Review of Key Terms sections provide an outstanding method for refreshing your memory the day before the exam. One of the mistakes I (and probably many others) made in preparing for a certification exam is to study too hard the night before. If you don’t know the material the night before, you most definitely won’t pass the exam because these exams are designed to thwart people who cram. A reminder, an overview of what you should know, is really all you need the night before. Relaxing and getting the rest you need are essential.

I wasn’t quite sure about the Additional Reading and Resources section found in each chapter. This section is helpful, but only if you’re using the book as a reference after the exam, rather than as a means for preparing for the exam. The authors could have possibly skipped this section in favor of providing more questions or other kinds of hands on learning activities (one of my favorite CNE books used puzzles as a learning aid). Then again, having the book as a reference after the example will likely prove useful too-just don’t cloud your mind with too many competing sources of information before the exam. The trick is to keep your mind clear and focused on your objective (passing the exam).

Overall, the text is written in a clear manner and you’ll find that the authors carefully lead you from one topic to the next. Developers who are already familiar with C# application development may find the book a bit boring because it really does cover all the details. The book is more designed for someone who hasn’t programmed using C# in the past. In fact, the authors recommend that more advanced readers simply skim the book and look for areas of weakness, which seems to be a winning strategy.

Of course, the big question is whether a book is worth the price you pay for it. In this case, you’re getting a bargain. The book is well written and will serve the needs of anyone who needs to take the 70-483 exam. Certification usually brings some significant benefit, so anything you spend on materials today will reap financial rewards in the future. Getting a book is also a lot less expensive than taking a course. Using this book will save you money in the long run.

## Review of Visual Basic 2012 Programmer’s Reference

As you might expect, Visual Basic 2012 Programmer’s Reference is a heavy tome at 798 pages. Of course, those pages could be filled with fluff, but that isn’t the case with this book. Rod Stephens does a great job of covering a wide variety of topics that anyone who wants to know how to write Visual Basic applications will need to know. The book starts with the assumption that you have never worked with Visual Studio before. Actually, it’s a good start for some developers who have been coding a while because they are self-taught and really haven’t explored everything Visual Studio has to offer.

The first part of the book discusses using the tools of the trade—a topic that most books seem to miss for whatever reason. I’m not talking a quick overview either. Rod provides six full chapters, 77 pages, worth of material on how to use the Visual Studio IDE for various kinds of application development including both Windows Forms and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). This may not seem very important at first, but quite a few readers of my books have problems with the IDE they’re using and even more have no idea that the IDE supports certain functionality. In short, many developers don’t have a firm grasp of the tool that they’re using to write code, so they can’t perform their best work. However, if you’re already completely familiar with the IDE, it’s probably a good idea to skip this part of the book because it is quite detailed. Missing from this part of the book is material on working with Metro applications. In fact, that material doesn’t appear until Chapter 21, so this really isn’t a strong Windows 8 offering from a building Metro applications perspective.

The second part of the book is entitled, “Getting Started,” which I view as a misnomer. Yes, you’re getting started writing code, but anyone who skips the first part really hasn’t gotten a good start. This part of the book introduces the reader to controls, forms, and other objects used to create applications. There are six chapters of this sort of material. Again, you can’t expect to create great applications if you don’t know what objects are already available to you. Developers who don’t really know what objects are available will tend to reinvent the wheel or assume that the language isn’t capable of performing a specific task. Rod does an outstanding job of making the reader aware of what is available and how to use it effectively. There are 100 pages worth of extremely useful material of this sort.

Chapter 13 should have begun a new part. Rod leaves controls, forms, and other objects in this chapter to begin working with applications. It’s one of the few organizational errors in the book, but one that is easily forgiven. The next six chapters, 160 pages worth, discuss basic programming topics such as variable data types and the use of programming structures. Chapter 18 provides an excellent discourse on error handling and will be one of the chapters that even experienced developers will want to read.

Chapters 19 and 20 provide extremely basic, but thorough coverage of database topics. This is not a book about database development. Rather, it exposes you to the topic of database development and you’ll need to obtain another book on the topic to finish your education. This said, what this book is really doing is helping you understand database development at an extremely basic level so that the second book you get, the one specifically about database development, will make sense.

Chapter 21 (which is only 12 pages), likewise, is an extremely basic view of Metro development. Again, this isn’t a Windows 8 book and it doesn’t appear that the author ever intended it to fulfill that role. What Chapter 21 does is introduce you to Metro in a basic way so that you can go on to work with a Windows 8-specific book and make sense of the material it contains. That said, I did notice that Chapter 21 does miss out on a few fundamentals, such as obtaining a license for developing apps. Rod doesn’t appear to mention that the target application will only work when running Windows 8 either (at least, I wasn’t able to get it to run on Windows 7).

Starting with Part III, you learn about Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) techniques in detail. Chapter 22 is a must read chapter because it provides the theory that many books on the market lack. It describes what OOP is all about. It’s tough to understand coding examples when you don’t understand the basis for those examples and Rod fills all of the gaps for you. In the chapters that follow, Rod leads the reader through basic class development, structures, and namespaces. The book then continues with some specifies on collection classes and generics. Again, all of this material is designed around a person who really doesn’t know anything about Visual Basic, so Rod takes time to explain the details not found in other books.

Part IV of the book fills out some basic information needed to create standard desktop applications, such as printing in Chapter 27 and the use of configuration information in Chapter 28. The use of streams and filesystem objects come next in Chapters 29 and 30 respectively. The book closes out with an enormous array of appendices (22 of them) that contain all sorts of useful reference information. After you’ve gone through the book, the example applications and this reference material continue to provide you with long term value.

Overall, this is the book that you want when learning Visual Basic. It provides the details needed to write robust applications quickly. However, getting this information is like getting any other sort of education—it takes time and you must work through the examples. This isn’t a quick reference book, nor is it going to provide you with details about specific technologies such as database development or writing Metro apps. Where the book does touch on specifics, it covers those specifics at a basic level with an emphasis on helping people understand the underlying technology. If you’re looking for a book that provides quick answers, a cookbook approach to solving problems, or detailed information about specific technologies, you really do need to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you’re tired of being confused by online examples and tutorials that don’t really teach you anything, then this is the book you want.

## Rod Stephens’ Visual Basic Programming 24-Hour Trainer

Learning a new skill, such as programminglearning it quickly and easily, is much harder than it sounds, but “Rod Stephens’ Visual Basic 24-Hour Trainer” makes the task considerably easier. The book begins with possibly the best Introduction I’ve ever seen. The author tells you precisely how to use his book to learn how to code in Visual Basic in a short interval. Additionally, he makes it clear what the book won’t tell you. This is most definitely a book for the rank beginnersomeone who has never written code before and the author makes it clear that better educated developers need not apply. (More advanced readers will benefit more from another of Rod’s books, “Visual Basic 2010 Programmer’s Reference“.)

The chapters tell you how to perform most basic tasks associated with desktop applications. You won’t find any Web development techniques in this book, but the author makes that clear in the Introduction. The reason for focusing on the desktop is that it provides a controlled environment that works anywhereno Internet connection required, no special setup needed. All you need is your system and Visual Basic.

The first chapter is the usual description of how to get Visual Basic installed on your system. Rod discusses a few different options and doesn’t wimp out by covering only Visual Basic 2010 Express Edition like many beginner books do. Because of the target audience for this book, Visual Basic 2010 Express Edition works fine.

The book takes the usual college approach of starting with a basic application, working through variables and structures, and then moving toward more complex application types. You learn all of the basics of working with classes, printing documents, working with the clipboard, and other usual fare for a book of this type. Rod does provide a couple of nice perks such as working with LINQ and databases using the entity framework. The goal is to learn how to use Visual Basic at a basic level, so these exercises will serve the reader well. Someone looking to start by creating a relatively complex example almost immediately will be disappointed. I know that some readers look for this approach now and Rod’s book definitely won’t serve their needs; this book is more traditional (and proven) in its approach.

Each of the chapters provides several methods to learn the material. You can read about the technique, try it yourself on your machine, work through exercises, and even watch a video. Most readers will find a technique that works well for them. Rod suggests using some or ideally all of the techniques to obtain a better learning experience.

The videos are a nice touch and Rod does them well. The longest video I watched came in at 17 minutes, the shortest at 4 minutes. He has a nice speaking voice and an easy manner of approaching the topic. The reader should definitely feel at ease during the presentation. Rod doesn’t resort to humor to cover up a lack of depth in his book. It’s not that he’s incredibly serioushe’s simply straightforward and businesslike in his approach.

Will you actually get through this book in 24 hours as the title says? I doubt it. I tried out a number of the chapters and found that I averaged about an hour in doing them fully (including the exercises) at a rapid pace. There are 39 chapters in the book for a total of 39 hours of training as a minimum. Even if you attack the book at a rabbit-like pace and skip some of the features, you still won’t get through it in 24 hours and manage to gain anything worthwhile. I’d suggest setting aside at least 40 hours of focused time to get through this tome.

The bottom line is that this is a great book for the rank novice to learn a new skill and discover the joys of programming. It’s not the sort of book that anyone who has written code before will want and it’s also not the sort of book that the impatient reader will find helpful. Rod has done a marvelous job of presenting a complex topic in a manner that will help most people get up to speed working with Visual Basic in a short time.