Monday, October 18, 2010

Top 9 of 97 Things every programmer should know

I recently finished 97 Things every programmer should know. Well to be completely honest I did skim over a couple of the 97, but all and all this was a very nice compilation of thoughts and topics about software development from very experienced authors. Well worth a read.

A couple of the "97 Things" discussed, stood out more than the others, the following would be the ones I rank as my top 9.

1. The Boy Scout Rule - Robert C. Martin (Uncle Bob)
"You don’t have to make every module perfect before you check it in. You simply have to make it a little bit better than when you checked it out."

To be honest this is not something I have followed throughout my career, and although I certainly try improve code where I can, I never did it per check-in. I do however feel that it is an awesome principle and should be something that is actually part of a code review process. It is all to easy to just say:
"It was like that already"
"that nasty code was there for years, I am not going to touch it."
"It never had any tests"

I work in a corporate environment were applications often last for 4-10 years. If part of the process is always to just make something a little better, everything from deleting unused code to writing a single extra unit test, year after year... it will end up with saving a lot of people a lot of time and money.

2. Beauty Is in Simplicity - Jørn Ølmheim
"The bottom line is that beautiful code is simple code."

Over the years this has become particularly important to me. Earlier in my career, especially when starting somewhere new I would design the crap out of something.
It would be: "Welcome to the school of over-engineering", everything would be abstracted to the nth degree, there would be patterns for the patterns, interfaces on interfaces for the abstractions and a huge amount of code and components catering for every "what if" that ever existed, that only I understood. All of this would lead to very "fancy" code, and me stroking my ego, but at what cost?
Only the minor little one: an utter nightmare to maintain. I have for a while now favored the simplest implementation of almost any solution, even if it is not necessarily the prefect technical implementation. In the world of long living software, maintainability should quite often outweigh other concerns.

3. Step Back and Automate, Automate, Automate - Cay Horstmann
I believe in automating everything possible: builds, deploys, code analysis, unit testing, functional testing, integration testing. None of us actually want to look at that stuff everyday and automation is the only way to get away from that. Can't say automate enough. Automate, Automate, Automate.

4. Continuous Learning - Clint Shank
This is a very important topic, we are in a industry that is constantly growing, changing, shifting and as a programmer you need to be learning and improving yourself wherever you can. It's very easy to get into a comfort zone and just rest on your laurels, I did that for a couple years, and I do regret it now.
Things I am trying to do to keep up and would recommend:
1. Get a Kindle... then buy & read books.
2. Use Google Reader add the popular blogs and website RSS feeds for your specific field as well as a couple outside your field that interest you.
3. Start a blog, by putting my code and thoughts out there, I put in more effort knowing that it's going to visible than if I just wrote the code/article for myself. I also force myself to do 1 - 2 posts a week, ensuring that I must always find new content to learn about.
4. Join an open source community, we generally don't get to do enough "technical" development in our corporate environments.

5. Check Your Code First Before Looking to Blame Others - Allan Kelly
Exactly what it the title says, we all look to put the blame on anything other than our "perfect" code. Everything from the OS to the network guys, the DBAs to the JVM, 3rd party libraries to other teams' interfaces are always blamed first. This often leads to countless hours of wasted effort, or completely avoiding the issue that eventually comes back to bite you in the butt. Most of us can mention moments where we have done this, it's frighteningly common.

6. Hard Work Does Not Pay Off - Olve Maudal
"truth is that by working less, you might achieve more"

"If you are trying to be focused and “productive” for more than 30 hours a week, you
are probably working too hard."

I couldn't agree more with Olve Maudal. A lot of us have been there, we have spent the days, weeks, months at work, but we often don't see the negative sides of what happens when you work 50-70 hours a week. Everything from common logic to motivation and team dynamics go out the window. Even if the short term goals are achieved, quite often the long term repercussions are a lot worse. No one goes back and see's why they have to re-write a system 4 years down the line because the architecture or code is failing. I'd love to know how many of those were because of ludicrous hours and impossible time lines. I can think of at least 2 "re-writes" that I was involved in where you could see it was the result of long hours. People you know to write great code end up hacking solutions at 1am in the morning.
There are times and there always will be, where a couple extra hours are required, just try keep them down to a minimum.

7. Comment Only What the Code Cannot Say - Kevlin Henney
Exactly that... Don't tell another programmer what he can see in the code. Comments stating the business reason or requirement behind a particular complex algorithm is a lot more useful than //loop through the outcomes and add 1.

8. Know Your IDE - Heinz Kabutz
Something a lot of us are guilty of, we spend a couple hours a day in our IDE, learn the shortcuts, learn the features, we probably couldn't begin to calculate the time that would be saved if everyone used their IDE to it's full potential.

9. Learn to Estimate - Giovanni Asproni
I feel this is something that comes with experience, I pride myself on my estimates and over the years I have tried to nurture this "skill". I have a couple points I would like to share on how I get better estimates:
1. Be honest with yourself, make sure you know what you think you know, and openly admit what you don't. This is the quickest way to end up in trouble.
2. Keep track of what you do and how long it, not necessarily for the project manager, but for yourself, see point 1.
3. Don't rely on other peoples perceived skills and timing, see point 1.

Will try get through the rest of 97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know in the next week or so, will be interesting to see how it compares to the programmer one and how much overlaps.


  1. I think the same about productivity. more than 30 hours and thinking hard on problems - will indeed fatigue you.

    I think out of the 8 hours we spend each day in work - we hardly spend 40-50% of the time being really really productive and engaging ourselves to the utmost extent we can go.

  2. Great top 9. I like very much the 2nd thing: Beauty Is in Simplicity.

  3. Here are my picks from "97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know"

  4. Nice revise, I also get "12 Things Every Programmer Should Know"

  5. Excellent guidelines, all of them are crucial and true at the same time. nice!

  6. I like this "boy scout rule". It is something I try to do always and blogged about as "continuous improvement". If every day you do something advancing a project to completion, no matter how big it is, it will finally crumble.

    I didn't think of programming per se, as I am a mathematician (only hobbyist programmer, my projects are really small), but I see I am not the first to think about it (I already knew, but it is always enlightening :).



  7. Good guidelines quite useful for me.

  8. After reading this post I decided to buy the book. It's a very useful reading.

  9. Estimates estimates estimates - the thought of estimates makes me want to hurl. I think we need a book called '97 things you should know before coming up with an estimate / 97 things you should know before demanding an estimate'

    It would include things like:
    1. 99.999% of the time, the deadline is already agreed, so an estimate and the time spent estimating is as worthless as investing Zimbabwe Dollars.
    2. Decide on a reasonable unit of estimation - half days are reasonable. 0.1 of an hour down to the nearest 5 minutes is unreasonable.
    3. Estimates are ALWAYS wrong. ALWAYS. But that's fine because it's a constant, which means you can plan for it. If someone says 'This task will take x hours', you can plan for the fact that it will probably take x+30% hours. There will always be that live issue that chewed up a day, or that complication with a particular piece of technology that you didn't foresee, or just because you've forgotten that some task will take so long because it's been 6 months or a year since you last looked at it.
    4. What is the correct reaction to running over the time specified by an estimate? Frustration - why? You already knew the estimate was wrong. A re-estimation? It will probably also be wrong. Move the deadline out? Only in your dreams. I my opinion, running over an estimate is not the developers problem, it's a planning problem. Do you dump the task that is dragging, or do you dump another task because you're running out of time? The guy working on the issue is most probably not in a position to make that call.

    This is call to someone to write this book.

  10. fantastic article man, these tips are simply great for any programmer. by the way I have also blogged my experience as comparator and comparable in java with example . let me know how do you find it.

  11. This should be no 1...
    2. Beauty Is in Simplicity - Jørn Ølmheim

  12. Hi
    Great article, one question, what do you use instead google reader?

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