Monday, August 30, 2010

"debugging hell" - running code over and over, making random changes and seeing if they worked - HAHA!

My post on the nature of programming seems to have struck a nerve. Many commenters pondered what makes a developer great. “Ka” thought that:

“You [are] not born [a] good or great programmer, you become one with time and study and hard work. At the beginning, everybody is a bad programmer.”

I disagree. Developers are not born “great,” but greatness does not automatically come with experience. Conversely, lack of experience does not make a developer “bad.” The difference between a great developer and a bad developer is not in their domain knowledge, but their methodology. The distinguishing mark of a great developer is that he codes consciously. Put another way, a good developer always knows why he is doing something. From the perspective of personal ethics, this requires intellectual courage and integrity.

Let me give an illustration of what I mean from personal experience:

When I got into Objective-C development, I was a “bad” developer. Most of my experience is with .Net code. Jumping into the iPhone dev world was intimidating. As as a result, I lacked the courage to learn the architecture. I tried to manipulate blocks of code found on the web without understanding what they were doing. I would copy and paste blocks of code and just change variable names. When things didn’t work, I would look for another block of code to substitute for the failing one, or enter “debugging hell” – running code over and over, making random changes and seeing if they worked. This is the hallmark of a bad developer – imitating without understanding. I kept this up for over a year. It’s not that I didn’t try to learn the language. I got several books and watched iTunes U classes. But the way I used the learning materials was to memorize blocks of code and look for places to stuff them into my code. I wasn’t actually learning the platform, just collecting samples. Some developers spend their entire careers this way. They carry collections of old code everywhere they go, and just grab chunks to insert into new programs. They may never select File => New File or File => New Project in their whole career.

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