C++ Foundations

February 2021 ยท 7 minute read

When I left my old job at Austrian Post, my colleagues got me an amazing parting-gift: An Amazon Deep Racer :)

While it is quite easy to work with Deep Racer using AWS Sagemaker, I wanted to program Deep Racer directly. Deep Racer runs on Ubuntu Linux with the Robot Operating System (ROS).

ROS is primarily programmed in C++ (although there are wrappers for Python and Julia). I took a C/C++ course many years ago at university and so I decided maybe this is the perfect reason to dive into C++ again, so here I am :)

Since my knowledge of C++ is extremely rusty/non-existent anymore, I decided to start from the foundations again.

Getting started

Maybe it’s best to take a quick look at the C++ core guidelines first. You can find them here. The core guidelines outline lot’s of different best practices one can follow.

The most important namespace of cpp is the standard library std::. Use std::vector to access the vector class in the SL and include the necessary head file: `#include ’.

Perhaps the single most frustrating thing about compiled languages is that they need to be compiled (I know, shocking:) and often there is no “official” compiler. The same is true for cpp. There are lots of different compilers to choose (e.g. g++, clang, or the visual studio c++ compiler).

If you are working with VS Code, there is a very nice overview how to setup everything to get started programming in cpp here.

To help simplify the build process you can use so called ‘build tools’ (again shocking, righ?:). Popular ones are MAKE and CMAKE. Build tools automate compiling lots of different source code files into object files and finally linking them together to create an executable. They are also often smart enough to figure out to rebuild only files that changed and so can speed up the build process quite a bit.

Since I am working on both Windows and Linux systems, I will probably stick to CMAKE.

You can also install the clang-format VS Code extension to help format your code in a consistent manner.

Intro to C++ Syntax

Contrary to R or Python, every C++ program contains a main() function that is executed automatically when the program starts. This is the entry point to your code:

#include <iostream> // preprocessor command: executed before compilation - gets iostream.h

using std::cout;    // this is cpp's version of Python's from foo import bar
int main() {        // main returns int

    // print to standard out
    cout << "Hello World!" << "\n";

    return 0;       // 0 = success

You also have to end your commands with ; unfortunately…

A very important container type to store data is the vector.

#include <iostream>
#include <vector>

using std::vector;
using std::cout;

int main() {
    vector<int> vec_1{0, 1, 2};
    vector<int> vec_2 = {3,4,5};
    vector<int> vec_3;
    vec_3 = {6};

    //nested vector
    vector<vector<int>> vec_nested {{1,2}, {3,4}};

    cout << "Vectors rock XD \n";

    return 0;

If you don’t want to bother specifying the type manually, you can use auto to let the compiler figure out the type (but that can lead to problems if you accidentally get ints instead of floats for example):

    vector<int> vec_manual = {1,2}
    auto vec_auto = {3,4}

You can access vector elements like so (Attention R people - 0 based indexing:):

vector<int> vec = {0, 1, 2, 3, 4};
    cout << vec[0];
    cout << vec[1];
    cout << vec[100];   //Undefined behavior!
    cout << vec.size()

    vec.push_back(5)    // Add item to end of vecto

Now let’s take a look at looping:

//index-based loop:
for (int i=0; i < 10; i++) { //start condition; run until; de-/increment by ...
    cout << i << "\n";

//range-based loop:
vector<vector<int>> vec = {{1,2,3,4}, {5}};
for (vector<int> i: vec) {
    for(int j: i){
        cout << j << "\n";

While loops work as follows:

int i = 1;
while(i < 11){
    if(i % 2 == 0) {
        cout << i << "\n";

Declaring functions is also straightforward:

//use 'void' if your function does not return values
return_type SomeFunctionName(type_param1 param1, type_param2 param2) {
    // stuff
    return something_with_return_type;

Now let’s take a look at enum, short for enumerator. You can use enum to define custom types in cpp. A color type could look like this:

// create the enum class
enum class Color {white, black, blue, red};

// set my_color to blue
Color my_color = Color::blue;

You can pass values by reference like so:

int AddOne(int &i){
    return i++;

Use const if you want to enforce that a variable is not mutated after it is initalized at runtime. constexpr is used to guarantee that a variable can be evaluated at compile time and is not mutated after initialization.

If you want to guard against accidentally changing a variable that is passed by reference, use const.

Header files

Usually, cpp expects all function and class declarations to be in order.

For example this will work:

void fun1(int i) {
    cout << i;
void fun2(int i) {

but this will not:

void fun2(int i) {
void fun1(int i) {
    cout << i;

One way to solve this problem is to declare all functions, etc at the top of the file:

#include <iostream>
//function declarations at the top
void fun1(int);
void fun2(int);

void fun2(int i) {
void fun1(int i) {
    cout << i;

Another is to use header files (file type .h):

#ifndef HEADER_EXAMPLE_H   //include guards prevent a file from being included multiple times

// If you need includes, put them here, not before the include guard!

void fun1(int);
void fun2(int); //int& if its pass-by-reference


which we can use in our .cpp file like so:

#include "headerfile.h"

Note the quotes here: They tell the preprocessor to look for the file in the same directory as our .cpp file.

CMake and Make

To compile multiple files you need to specify them all individually for the compiler to use. While you can use g++ *.cpp to simplify things a bit, you still need to either recompile all files or remember which files you changed and compile only those. This is where build systems like cmake and make enter the picture and the reason many large c++ projects them.

When you compile code there are multiple steps happening in sequence:

  1. The preprocessor looks for any statements with an # to ensure all necessary code is in the files
  2. Each file is compiled to an object file that has platfrom specific machine code
  3. All object files are linked to creat an executable

Now let’s look into how cmake can help us with that:)

cmake works with a configuration file called CMakeList.txt that tell it how to build projects.

A cmake file might look like this:

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.5.1)



add_executable(your_executable_name  path_to_file_1  path_to_file_2 ...)

cmake is usually run from within a /build folder on the same level as the cmake file. Navigate to the /build folder and run:

cmake ..
//followed by:


Now let’s switch to everyone’s favorite topic: pointers :)

Pointers, as the name implies point somewhere: specifically to an address in your computers memory. A pointer is simply a variable that holds this address.

You can take a look at memory addresses by printing points:

#include <iostream>
using std::cout;

int main() {
    int i = 10;
    int* j = &i;   // get address of i and store it in pointer j
    cout << "Value of variable that j points to: " << *j << "\n";
    cout << "Hex address stored in j is: " << j << "\n";
    cout << "Hex address of i is: " << &i << "\n";


We used & to get the address from the pointer. When we used * before pointer j we dereferenced the pointer to get the value from the address it points to.

That is basically it. Pointers also support addition and substraction, which is called pointer arithmetic and gives you a new address in memory.

If you are wondering “How exactly is a pointer different or more/less useful than a reference?” you can use the following rule of thumb:

If you don’t have a reason to prefer pointers, use references

Practially speaking, if an object already exists, you don’t need a pointer.