When PHP Actually Is Your First Programming Language

I have read a few articles about how PHP is a perfectly good first language and how it should never be a first. These articles are interesting because my first programming language was PHP and I have been using it extensively since 2004.

One thing is true: it’s really easy to get started with PHP. My first real job was creating a system to log phone call metadata from a PBX. I was able to get a working version up quickly because 90% of it was in PHP. There’s a function for nearly everything, and if there isn’t, you’ll find sample code online quickly. I had the project done in a month with very little prior experience. However, because it was so easy, it was horrible. Procedural, PHP inline with HTML, calls directly to mysql library functions, really bad logic.

When I was brought on to develop on their flagship web application, my coding practices improved from exposure to a better codebase. The biggest improvement was when I started working with PHP code developed by a new coworker that I would later learn was heavily influenced by Java. I went from looking at objects as namespaces to a representation of something. I learned to separate logic from presentation. I started to think about code more logically. I was baffled at problems caused by PHP’s lax nature (such as when (0 == 'hey') is true). However, I had knowledgeable coworkers to explain these problems when the language wouldn’t.

The best thing about PHP is that it takes away the need to manage “stuff” and let’s you get started right away. For me, I was able to more quickly grasp object oriented programming because PHP was more forgiving. This later helped me embrace objects in JavaScript, understand polymorphism, and become a better web developer.

That’s also why it’s so awful. If it weren’t for my exposure to good PHP code influenced by proper programming practices, I would have remained a contributor to the vast amount of bad PHP code out there. The unfortunate problem is that most new developers who use PHP stay in that place, because their stuff works. For most jobs, that will suffice. It’s only when they move to other languages that the frustration begins.

Making PHP my first language made it harder to grasp pointers, strong types, and memory management in other languages. It initially made it more difficult to use OOP properly. However, if I didn’t make PHP my first language, I may have been so intimidated by the “stuff” that I may have given up.

Whatever you choose to learn as your first language, the key is to learn from great code. You will make mistakes and your language, framework, or mentor should be there to guide you. If you don’t, you’re only going to become frustrated and confused later.

Update: There’s a good discussion about this article on Hacker News.

My first languages were actually Applesoft BASIC followed by VB6, but nothing serious came out of my experimentations with them except for a brief stint working on ignitionServer.