My boss has a saying: "You can't eat an elephant in one bite." This applies all too well to the volumes of documentation that accompany Visual Basic. If you have the professional edition on CD, there are hundreds of pages of printed documentation, megabytes of help files, Visual Basic Books Online, the MSDN Visual Basic Starter Kit, and a variety of other miscellaneous files to wade through.
If you don't already know where to look for the information you need, it can feel very much like looking for a needle in a haystack. Don't despair, however, its not as bad as it looks when you open the box and install the software.
Printed and Online Books
First, a large portion of what's found in the documentation is reference material. Its not something you sit down and read, but rather something you look up when you need it. While you might learn something by reading the "Language Reference" from cover to cover, your time would probably be better spent writing code.
There are, however, some sections which are worth reading:
- Programmer's Guide
Read through the first eight chapters for an introduction to using VB, creating forms and controls, attaching code to events, and some programming fundamentals.
- Creating OLE Servers
If you're going to be diving into creating OLE servers - and in my opinion you should be - this book will give you a good introduction to what OLE servers are and some of the basics you should know before getting started.
- Guide to Data Access Objects
One of the most popular areas for VB developers is using the database engine. The first three chapters of this book will give you an introduction to using the Jet database engine and some fundamentals of relational database design. You might also want to check out Chapter 6, Writing SQL Queries. SQL is the heart of most databases today, including Jet. To really understand managing a database, you'll need to understand SQL.
- Help Compiler Guide
To create a finished application, you'll need to provide a help file. Even if you won't be the help author, you should at least have a basic understanding of how the help system works. At a mimumum, take a look at the first two chapters to get an introduction to creating Windows help files. You'll find the book in VB Books Online.
- Windows Interface Guidelines for Software Design
Found in the MSDN/VB Starter Kit, this is the bible of design guidelines. If you're going to be writing software for anyone other than yourself, you should understand the material presented here. The first two chapters will give you a good general overview. If you're looking for a shortcut through the material, check out Appendix C - Guidelines Summary.
Nearly everything you need to know about writing Visual Basic applications can be found in the help files. Every statement, function, property, method and event is fully documented. However, that doesn't really help you very much if you don't know what the keyword is that you need to find to accomplish your objective.
However, one of the benefits that you have as a student of programming is that you're likely to already be a Windows "power user." As such, you're probably well versed in searching help files for the information you need. The VB help files are well indexed and with VB4 offer the capability of full-text searching. In most cases, if you can't find what you're looking for in the contents or the index, you can find it with a full-text search.
One of the other great things about any decent development platform is the degree to which the help files are integrated into the code editor. Visual Basic is no exception. If you get stumped by a keyword in your code or need the syntax for using it, click on the word in the code window and press F1 to display the relevant help topic.
Just in case you haven't already discovered or guessed it, you should be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time studying the material in the online help and browsing through jumps to related topics.
Remember that VB is a large, complex application. You can't learn everything overnight and it will take real effort to gain a thorough understanding of all there is to learn. Plan to do a lot of reading.
By Joe Garrick