Let’s set the scene. You’re a sophomore or junior CS major in NYU CAS. You’ve crushed Intro to Computer Science, destroyed it in Data Structures. You strut into your next course, Computer Systems Organization, confident that you’ll defeat it as well. Only to find yourself in for a rude awakening.
You’re introduced to this weird, old language C. All of your hard honed Java skills are now utterly useless. Your errors go from the carefully detailed stack traces of Java to the blunt, barebones Segmentation Faults of C. No line numbers, no function names. Nothing. You go fom the nice bubble of managed memory, with its constructors and references to the nitty grittiness of pointers and malloc. Your code appears to just randomly break apart for no reason. You’re confused, stressed and failing all your stupid test cases. What do you do?
Computer Systems Organization, or CSO, is the third class in NYU CAS’s computer science program and arguably the most difficult of the CS curriculum.
This is for good reasons. The class covers a lot of ground, from the C language to systems architecture to concurrency. This is especially tricky because students face a massive paradigm shift from the relatively high level bubble of Python and Java with its managed memory and forgiving error messages, to the raw, bare metal of C and x86 assembly. It’s kind of like going from driving a 2019 Mercedes to a Model T.
I was lucky enough to come into the class with some C experience. I’ve also learned some more useful techniques for systems development after I took CSO. I hope that by writing up a quick guide for preparing and surviving CSO, future students can be more prepared, get better grades and be happier people. Well, at least the first two. The last one might require incremental lifestyle changes sustained over time.
This guide is applicable whether you have an entire summer to prepare, a few weeks to practice or even if you’re in the middle of the course and struggling.
Quick aside, if you’re in CSO already and worried that you’re going to fail, don’t panic. You are almost certainly not the only person in this situation. In fact, there’s a decent chance a lot of people are in the same boat. CSO generally has a reasonable curve to it. Not that you should rely on the curve to pass. Now let’s get to work:
Tooling is a seriously underrated aspect of programming. While a good programmer should be productive on any platform with any tools, a well cultivated set of tools can speed up productivity and prevent bugs. Unfortunately, most professors don’t go over tooling except for the bare minimum needed to run the labs. There’s a whole lot more than that.
You don’t have to set up all of these things immediately. My advice is to set up the bare minimum, then tinker with your set up every few weeks and see if you can improve something. Tooling is always something you can refine in some shape or form. I’m always playing around with new editors and new tools.
The Absolute Bare Minimum You Need To Do
Memorize these 3 flags:
-Wall -Wpedantic -Wextra. Flags are ways of
modifying your compiler and how it views your code. Like how you can
flip a switch on some cars and go into sports mode. These three flags
basically turn up your compiler’s standards for code quality. You see,
compilers by default attempt to accept as much code as possible. Even
code that is clearly wrong or nonsensical. This is not good, as it
leaves you open to make a whole bunch of mistakes. By adding these
flags, The compiler will now warn you about potential issues in your
One side effect is that when you run your code, you may get a gigantic boatload of errors. That’s fine. The compiler is your friend, who’s warning you about potential issues in your code. Better the compiler than the professor’s test suite.
You can, naturally, call the compiler manually with these flags. That
means entering something like
gcc -Wall -Wpedantic -Wextra main.c
into the command line. Or you can add it to your
if your professor hasn’t explained, is a way of automatically building
your project. Make only compiles the files that have changed, saving
you time. It’s very useful and extremely common in the systems world.
I can’t emphasize how important these flags are. As long as you use these three flags, I guarantee your debugging experience will improve immensely. Probably the best bang for your buck in this whole post.
Valgrind is another extremely useful tool. It helps detect memory leaks and threading issues, basically the most common bugs you’ll encounter in CSO. I’d highly recommend running your code with it automatically.
If you haven’t already, seriously consider learning git. Version control allows you to save various versions of your code, making it easier to store and roll back your code changes. I know, I know, you’re saying to me, “git’s confusing and besides, I’m the only one making changes”. Yeah yeah, it’s still very useful. If you keep your code in git, you can fearlessly change stuff knowing that you can always revert back to an old version. Besides, quite literally every single reasonable programming job uses git, so I’d just bite the bullet and learn it. There’s a lot of great resources online for git.
Just FYI, don’t host your repos publicly. People will find your repo and they will copy you. Then professors will find out too and you’ll have to answer questions about why your code was in a public repo.
A good editor is worth its weight in gold. Text editors are extremely powerful underneath the hood, allowing you to quickly navigate and modify code. Some CSO professors teach Vim, which is an excellent old school editor. The main benefit of Vim is that it’s already installed on most computers (or vi, its predecessor). Personally, I use emacs, another excellent old school editor. But really you can use any editor1. My only suggestion is that it should be usable via the shell, as CSO requires a lot of shell usage.
If you want, you can also download yourself a copy of CLion. You get it free with your NYU email! You should totally take advantage of this for all of JetBrains editors—they’re awesome.
Which brings me to the final area: learn to use bash. Bash is a Unix shell. It’s what you use to build your code and run commands. You can navigate directories with bash, write simple scripts and even access remote servers. On Mac, you can run bash with the Terminal. On Linux you can use Command Line. If you’re using Windows, you’ll need to either install a Linux VM, dual boot Linux or use the Linux subsystem.
For CSO, your TA usually has you set up a Linux VM to run your code. That’s perfectly fine, although personally I run the VM headless and SSH into it. That way I don’t have to interact with the VM except via Terminal.
I’d encourage learning some basic commands like
etc. It’ll make your life a lot easier.
(C)lash of Clangs
Okay, so you’ve gotten your tooling all set up, or you’ve skipped the tooling section cause tooling’s boring. What’s the next thing you can do? Simple. Learn C.
C is a rather tricky language, even for very experienced programmers. It has a lot of ways to shoot yourself in the foot, or in programmer parlance, it has a lot of footguns. If you can learn it ahead of time, you’ll save yourself a lot of pain and confusion.
Find yourself a good source to learn or relearn C. I’m not up to date on the best books for C. And frankly, this will depend on your personal learning style and experiences. Some people prefer terse, tricky books, while others prefer more verbose volumes. Personally I used The C Programming Language by Kernighan & Ritchie, or K&R as it’s known. Dennis Ritchie, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is one of the creators of C. However, K&R teaches a very old fashioned style with terrible variable names (like atoi) and really…optimistic uses of memory.
Instead, do your own research. Look at some lists online, maybe peruse some reddit threads. Don’t feel like you have to stick to one book by the way. I tend to bounce around a few sources, generally a mixture of books and online tutorials.
The Absolute Bare Minimum You Need To Do (Again)
Yeah yeah, I hear you, you don’t have time to read a goddamn book on C. You got other shit to do in your life. Watch Netflix, go on dates, endlessly simmer on the film Avatar’s usage of Papyrus, whatever.
For C, “all” you need to learn is pointers. What are pointers? A pointer is a memory address. Think of it as essentially an index into the reeeaallly big array that is computer memory. Pointers are the one and only way of handling memory in C.
Languages like Java or Python abstract away pointers with the idea of references. C has no such concept. Instead, you have pointers that point to places in memory which can contain whatever data you choose. One crucial fact you need to keep in mind when writing C is that pointers are just a value. Pointers are simply positive integers that refer to places in memory. You can store them, pass them into functions, return them from functions, really whatever you can do with any value. They’re not magic. And yet, they’re incredibly powerful. Pointers allow for indirection. They allow you to create data structures, to create abstraction, to go from playing with a glorified calculator to, well, programming. I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of pointers here cause that takes a lot more time and space and a far better author than me.
You should understand pointers well enough that you can build simple data structures like a linked list, a hash table, and a binary tree in C. If you can do that, you’re in a great place.
Debugging in C is very different due to how C handles (or doesn’t handle) errors. Java will generally spit out nice stack traces which you can just follow to find your problems. In C, the most common error you’ll get is a segfault. A segfault often happens when you’re attempting to go to a location in memory that doesn’t make sense. Think of it as like telling your computer to go to Platform 9 3/4. Segfaults do NOT give stack traces and they basically immediately halt the program. The way I debug segfaults personally is to print out markers at various parts in my code, then see which markers get printed before my code segfaults. For instance, let’s say we have the following code:
printf("1\n"); char* x = NULL; printf("2\n"); *x = 5; printf("3\n");
It’s totally okay if you don’t understand this. Come back to it once you’ve learned some C. In most cases this will print out:
1 2 Segmentation fault: 11
3 is NOT printed out. This is because segfaults
immediately halt program execution. This will allow me to say “huh, I
guess my error is in between 2 and 3”. In fact, you can kinda binary
code by putting one marker in the middle of your code, then if it gets
printed out, putting a new marker between the old one and the end of
your code, otherwise putting a new marker between the beginning of
your code and the old marker, etc.
However contrary to popular belief, segfaults are not the worst errors in C. The worst errors in C are the silent ones. These are errors that don’t manifest until you happen to run a particular input or until a particular thread wins. The only way to really ensure that your code works 100% is to test it yourself. Now, entire books have been written on proper, thorough testing. But a quick gist is to always test for bad input. Passing in a pointer? Make it NULL, 0, -1, anything you want. Giving in integers? What if they’re really large? What if they’re negative? Write code that runs through these situations.
Under no circumstances should you ever submit code that you have not compiled and run. Never assume your code will work. Test and verify.
Arrays and Strings
One final note, arrays and strings are a big point of trickiness in
C. Well, actually, I repeat myself. Strings in C are arrays. They’re
arrays of characters. Well, arrays of characters followed by a special
\0 character. And arrays? They’re basically just contiguous pieces
of memory. An array of 10 integers? Just 10 integers sitting together
in memory. These facts lead to some confusion, especially when coming
from a high level language. For one, you can’t just get the length of
an array. If you ask C for the length, it’ll do the digital equivalent
of shrugging. You need to store that information in a separate
variable. Likewise, you can’t just combine (or concatenate if you’re
fancy) strings in C. Combining strings requires allocating a new chunk
of memory and coping both strings into that chunk. Kinda a pain.
If you have some extra time after pointers, I’d spend a solid bit of time learning the ins and outs of strings and arrays. It’ll definitely be worth your time.
That’s all I’m going to talk about for now. In the next post I’ll cover x86 assembly, some concurrency and other miscellaneous topics. Stay tuned!
nano, vim, emacs, micro, ed if you’re hardcore ↩