Saturday, March 20, 2010

How to be a Programmer

Time and time again, I return to this classic essay by Robert L. Read.

Debugging is the cornerstone of being a programmer. The first meaning of the verb to debug is to remove errors, but the meaning that really matters is to see into the execution of a program by examining it. A programmer that cannot debug effectively is blind.

Idealists that think design, or analysis, or complexity theory, or whatnot, are more fundamental are not working programmers. The working programmer does not live in an ideal world. Even if you are perfect, your are surrounded by and must interact with code written by major software companies, organizations like GNU, and your colleagues. Most of this code is imperfect and imperfectly documented. Without the ability to gain visibility into the execution of this code the slightest bump will throw you permanently. Often this visibility can only be gained by experimentation, that is, debugging. 
 If you're an engineer, this is a must-read.   Related: this thread on Quora. And more quotes from the essay after the break.


Debugging is fun, because it begins with a mystery. You think it should do something, but instead it does something else. It is not always quite so simple---any examples I can give will be contrived compared to what sometimes happens in practice. Debugging requires creativity and ingenuity.

On documentation:
Life is too short to write crap nobody will read; if you write crap, nobody will read it. Therefore a little good documentation is best. [...] Writing good documentation is, first of all, good writing. I suggest you find books on writing, study them, and practice. But even if you are a lousy writer or have poor command of the language in which you must document, the Golden Rule is all you really need: ``Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'' Take time to really think about who will be reading your documentation, what they need to get out of it, and how you can teach that to them. If you do that, you will be an above average documentation writer, and a good programmer. 

on bad code:
It is very common to have to work with poor quality code that someone else has written. Don't think too poorly of them, however, until you have walked in their shoes. They may have been asked very consciously to get something done quickly to meet schedule pressure. Regardless, in order to work with unclear code you must understand it. To understand it takes learning time, and that time will have to come out of some schedule, somewhere, and you must insist on it. To understand it, you will have to read the source code. You will probably have to experiment with it. 

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