I was poking around in /r/javahelp, saw a question about something I haven’t personally done, and found what I strongly suspect was the answer right away. I try to explain how I found the answer when I answer questions like that because “oh it’s _____” isn’t really that helpful in the long term. I mean, what is the question asker supposed to do next time if I’m busy or sick or on vacation?
But how do you explain “well obviously that’s a_____ problem”? I can explain that I googled a thing and didn’t get very helpful results so I googled another thing and found what I needed, but not how I knew what to search for in the first place.
learning better perception skills such as differentiating two musical tones from one another or categorizations of spatial and temporal patterns relevant to real-world expertise as in reading, seeing relations among chess pieces, knowing whether or not an X-ray image shows a tumor.
After you’ve worked with enough code and seen enough different kinds of problems, you just kind of know what the answer is (or at least a few things it could be) when you see a new problem. And that, finally, is what being an experienced programmer really means. It’s not about some magical level of skill or about instantly knowing the perfect solution for every problem or even finally feeling like you know what you’re doing, it’s just about having seen enough problems that you end up with a library of them in your head.
I can’t tell you how long that will take but on the upside I can tell you it will definitely happen if you just keep coding. Okay, there are people with “ten years of experience” who really just have one year ten times, but if you care enough about programming to bother reading my blog, you’re not one of them.
Another part of being an experienced programmer is that once you feel confident about getting your code to do what you wanted, you sort of move up a level and start worrying about whether it’s a good idea to do it that way. That’s where people with one year of experience ten times really fall down, they can make things work but can’t make them maintainable. Getting to the point where you worry about the right way to do things takes a little more deliberate effort, but the most important step is just to care about whether it’s possible to change your code.
Once you’re past struggling to get your for loops to work and once you’re past feeling totally overwhelmed by starting a new project, it’s really tempting to think that you’re done, you’re a “real” programmer now and there’s nothing else you need to learn. But if you stop there, not only will you never be a very good programmer, but more importantly you’ll miss out on one of my favourite parts of programming, which is figuring out how to design things so you won’t curse your name in six months when you need to change them. For me that’s way more fun than Strings and Arrays.
All this is to say that if you’re a beginner programmer and you see a job posting looking for developers with x years of experience, all they really want is someone who can reliably get things to work (not necessarily immediately) and who knows a bad idea when they see one. If you can do that, go ahead and apply. It’s not unusual for job postings to be more of a wishlist than a list of what the job actually requires, anyway :)
The academic year is ending pretty soon and students are probably starting to look for co-op jobs, so hey, why not throw some unsolicited resume advice at people?
First a quick disclaimer, I help review resumes now and then but I don’t have a huge amount of experience with it. Some of the stuff I’m going to tell you is stuff I’m really sure I’m right about, and some of it is just my opinion.
My first piece of advice, and the one I’m the most sure about, is proofreading. Proofread your resume! Put it away for a little while (at least a few days), and proofread it again! Get a friend to proofread it! Get your parents to proofread it! Go to your school’s career center and get them to proofread it! Wow, the word proofread looks really weird when you use it that much :)
But seriously, proofread! Why am I harping on that one so much? Because a resume with mistakes on it shows you aren’t good at fiddly little details. That’s a serious problem because programming is fiddly little details. Compilers and IDEs and syntax highlighting text editors can help you catch a lot of bugs, but they can’t catch logic errors for you. To find and fix logic errors, you have to pay really close attention to the code and keep track of every little detail. If your resume has mistakes, that makes me very worried that you’re going to struggle with programming in general and logic errors in particular and honestly, that’s going to make me very likely to set your resume aside. I say “very likely” because it is possible that if you had some really great projects on your resume I would still consider your resume, but you know, it’s a lot easier just to proofread the hell out of your resume :)
On top of making me worried about your ability to program, having mistakes on your resume just looks sloppy. That’s really not the first impression you want to make on a potential employer. In school it’s not as big of a deal if you lose a couple of points for having a typo or an autocorrect fail, but when you’re applying for a job that’s very likely to take your resume out of consideration entirely.
My next piece of advice is detail. Almost no one has too much detail on their resume, you basically can’t go wrong if you add more detail about exactly what you did, especially on projects you did as part of a team. When I’m looking at a resume, I want to know what you did. If you were involved in every part of the project, just say that instead of letting me wonder what you actually did. If you just did, say, the back end part of the project, say that! If I’m looking for a back end dev, I want to know if you have back end experience.
This one’s a little more subjective, but personally objectives on resumes take up space that could be used to tell me something more interesting. I mean, I know you want to work on software, it would be pretty dumb to apply for a dev job (co-op or otherwise) if you didn’t. That said, I’ve heard from other people that objectives make it easier to keep track of which position someone is actually applying for, which can be really handy if you don’t use an applicant tracking system and have a pile of resumes you’ve printed out. Basically, go ahead and include an objective if you want to, but don’t feel that you have to just because your teacher said so.
Job history is a tough one for students especially, I have two pieces of advice for you there. One, it is totally okay to have a projects section on your resume if you don’t have a lot of relevant work experience. Heck, even if you do have a lot of relevant work experience, if you have projects you’re proud of have a project section on your resume! Opinions differ on this one, but I think it’s perfectly fine to include school projects on your resume. What else are you supposed to do if you’re a student?
Two, you do not have to list every crummy summer job you’ve ever had. Especially if you took breaks from school to work to pay for your next semester, you do not have to use up half a page listing every retail/hospitality/whatever job you’ve ever had. If you took breaks from school to work it’s not a bad idea to explain that in your cover letter, but I’d much rather hear about cool projects from your classes than about stint #4 at $FastFoodPlace on your resume.
Readers, do you have any advice for students or anyone who doesn’t have years of dev experience to put on their resumes?
Back in part 1 I talked about how important it is to make sure you understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Today I want to expand on that because there’s much more to problem solving. Having a great understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve is great, but it’s not always enough. Sometimes you’re wrong about what the problem actually is. No matter how well you understand the problem you think you have, it’s not going to do you much good if you’re trying to solve the wrong problem.
Telling people to make sure they’re solving the right problem is all well and good, but an actual example always makes things a lot clearer. Conveniently enough, I saw a great example of this problem on workplace.stackexchange.com the other day. To summarize the question quickly in case it disappears someday, the questioner wants to know if there are any alternatives to doing code reviews because not everyone likes doing code reviews. To quote part of the question:
Are there any alternative processes that could replace the code review for the goal of improving the code quality? Would it be possible to have something else instead of this process? While review may be required where software bugs kill humans, could some weaker method be sufficient where the situation is far from that critical?
An edit clarified that the reason the question asker is looking for an alternative to code reviews is because people in their organization use them to play power games and prevent other team members from contributing to the project. At this point you may be developing a theory about why I think “what can we do instead of code reviews?” is the wrong question :)
This particular question did happen to contain a great clue – there’s really no substitute for reviewing your code if you want to improve it. That’s kind of like saying you want to be a better writer but you don’t want anyone to proofread your work. When your solution goes directly against your stated goal, there’s almost certainly a deeper problem. Sometimes that problem is fixable and sometimes it’s not, but there’s definitely something there you need to look into.
Given that the reason the question asker wants to find an alternative to code reviews is because team members are using them to jerk their colleagues around, I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to the conclusion that the real problem is that people are being jerks and playing power games when they’re supposed to be working as a team and that trying to avoid code reviews is just a workaround for a serious culture problem.
To be clear I don’t blame the question asker for trying to solve the wrong problem. I’m assuming they aren’t a manager and/or don’t have the authority to tell the power game players to knock that shit off and start acting like grownups, so finding some way to avoid code reviews without completely ignoring code quality is about all they can do to work around the real problem. But if you’re going to do that, and sometimes finding a workaround/bandaid solution is the only thing you actually can do, I still think it’s important to be honest with yourself that what you’re doing is putting a bandaid on the real problem. If you forget that, you’re going to get a nasty surprise later when it turns out the real problem has popped up again in a different form.
To keep harping on the code review example, just because you’ve removed one avenue for for jerks to play power games doesn’t mean everyone is going to start playing nice. If you do retrospectives or post-mortems of any sort, jerks are going to use those to throw their colleagues under the bus and/or to take credit for their work. Whatever system you use to assign work, jerks will try to abuse it to keep the interesting/fun/easy/politically valuable tasks for themselves and leave the dregs for someone else. And no matter what you try to do to control bad behaviour in your development process, you can’t prevent someone malicious from going to lunch with their dev manager buddy and complaining that that one feature sales keeps pushing for has to be postponed again because so-and-so just isn’t contributing anything (of course they’ll leave out the fact that the malicious dev won’t approve any of their pull requests), they’re such a drain on the team.
This particular problem is especially difficult to actually solve because the real solution is for management to do their jobs and enforce consequences for sabotaging team mates and otherwise refusing to act like a professional. Making anyone, especially someone who outranks you, do their job is never an easy task, so I completely sympathize with the urge to “fix” the symptom rather than the root cause. Some problems are simply above your pay grade, others may be so complicated or expensive to fix that it’s better for the business to keep working around them.
In other cases, fixing the root cause of the problem actually is doable and cheaper or more efficient than keeping a clumsy workaround. Even then, you can’t fix the root problem without knowing what it is, so keep asking why until you get down to a bedrock answer like “Because that’s how this company makes money.”
Getting really good at asking questions is also a great hack for looking like a better developer (it’ll also help you actually become better, but in the short term it’s a good hack). When you ask a bad question, like “My code isn’t working, can you help me?” people have to wonder what you’ve tried already or if you tried at all before giving up and asking someone else. If you ask the exact same question with more detail, especially about what you tried already, like “I’m trying to send an email but I’m getting an error message I don’t understand. I tried googling it but I got a bunch of different answers and I don’t know which one applies to my problem. Can you help me sort through them?” then it’s obvious that not only did you not immediately give up, but you also respect your answerer’s time enough to make it as easy as possible for them to help you. Telling them what you’ve tried already means they can skip suggesting things you already did, and asking a specific question means they don’t have to do the work of figuring out what the question actually is before they can even start thinking about how to answer it.
People love it when you make things easier for them, and when you show them you’ve put some effort into doing so, they’ll think you’re a better programmer than the person who makes getting the real question out of them like pulling teeth even if both of you are around the same skill level. That’s the hack part :) The becoming a better programmer part is that stating a question really clearly (yay rubber ducks!) and listing everything you’ve tried already may trigger that flash of insight about what you haven’t tried but should or what assumption you made that could be wrong. If you get into the habit of reflecting on what you’re doing, you’ll learn a lot faster than someome who sits around and waits for help.
One of the most common misconceptions I’ve heard about programming is that you have to be a math whiz to be a good programmer. I’ve mentioned this before but I want to attack that particular stereotype more directly.
It is true that there are similarities between math and programming – programming uses some math terms like function and variable, it’ll be a lot easier to get things onto the screen if you understand coordinate systems, and of course to do math or programming you spend a lot of time manipulating symbols and thinking abstractly, but you know, programming is also a lot like language. I mean, they call them programming languages for a reason. To quote Hal Abelson, Jerry Sussman and Julie Sussman’s book Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs:
First, we want to establish the idea that a computer language is not just a way of getting a computer to perform operations but rather that it is a novel formal medium for expressing ideas about methodology. Thus, programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.
Programming is fundamentally about communication. Not only are you communicating with the machine, you’re communicating with your future self, the rest of your team, and potentially other teams if you end up working for a large enough company. And that’s just when you’re writing code! You’ve also got to make sure you’re building the right thing and let other people who are waiting for that thing know how it’s going. You know what’s great practice for communication? That’s right, English classes! Sarah Mei has a great blog post about the same point I’m trying to make in this one, here’s an especially interesting quote:
The students I saw – all adults – came from a wide range of backgrounds. People with a math background did fine, of course, but people with a heavy language background often did better.
Nobody seems to have an official study on this, but I think there’s something there. Language requires just as much abstract thought as math does, with the added benefit (to your communication skills) of failing your classes if you can’t make yourself understood to anyone else. As a bit of an aside, the biggest problems I’ve run into at work have never been problems of pure programming skill (although those ones do suck a lot), they’ve been communication problems with team members, other teams, management, other departments entirely and other offices.
And to stick another nail in the coffin of the idea that programming is math, I’ve been a developer for ten years now and the most complicated math I’ve ever had to do at work is stuff like “if I have a div that’s x pixels wide and y pixels tall and I want it centered inside another div that’s a pixels wide and b pixels tall, what should my margins be?” I used to believe that programming was math, and some programming is certainly math heavy, but it’s hard to argue with the lack of math in my day to day job over ten years and four companies.
So given that programming is not math, why do so many people think it is? I’m going to quote Sarah again because she already said it really well:
When programming was just getting started, early in the last century, we used it to solve highly mathematical problems like calculating missile trajectories and decrypting secret messages. At that point, you had to be good at math to even approach programming. Tools, such as programming languages, were designed specifically to solve mathematical problems, because those were the ones we thought it was worth spending money on. Computers were for doing math.
I think another issue is the way we teach programming (credit where it’s due, I stole that idea directly from a comment on Sarah’s post). Computers are great at doing boring and tedious calculations, plus it’s easy to tell them how to do it, so why not start teaching programming by having students make the computer calculate something for them? It makes it really easy for the students to check their work too – assuming they’re able to do the math problem themselves, they can easily check if the computer got the same answer.
That assumption can be a real problem, though. If you can’t do the math problem or don’t care about the math problem, you end up effectively shut out of programming, something you could very well be great at, because of something that has next to nothing to do with the actual job of software development.
If you can do basic arithmetic and deal with the concept of variables, congrats, you can be a programmer! That is literally all the math you actually need!
Willpower is a big deal when you’re doing an inherently difficult and frustrating task like programming. It’s also something we tend to assume we either have or we don’t, but there are actually a lot of things we can do to improve our chances of making it through a willpower challenge whether that’s making yourself write boring documentation or resisting the urge to screw around on reddit all afternoon instead of doing your work.
Kelly McGonigal gave a talk called The Willpower Instinct (not so coincidentally also the title of one of her books) about that exact subject at Google. It’s a really interesting talk and I recommend watching it, but it’s also an hour long so I’m going to list the takeaways here. Full disclosure, some of these things will take up a little bit of time outside of work, but they will definitely not eat your life and will be useful for way more than just being a better programmer.
1 Sleep! Just getting enough sleep makes it much easier to make decisions that support your long term goals/resist choices that sabotage your long term goals. Meditation helps too, that was the tool used to improve sleep in the study Kelly McGonical referenced. That study was done on people in rehab for drug addictions, and even with an urge that strong to use drugs, simple sleep and meditation made the partipants much more resistant to relapse than the control group. Something really cool about that study was that the participants got those fantastic benefits from meditating for only 10-15 minutes a day.
There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in the talk about how different parts of your brain actually work together (or don’t) when you need to use your willpower to delay gratification or work toward a distant future goal, but I’m not out to transcribe the whole talk here, you’ll have to watch it for all the details :)
2 Stop beating yourself up when you make a mistake. Beating yourself up doesn’t actually improve your willpower at all. It turns out that the harder you are on yourself when you have a willpower failure, the sooner you fail again and the worse it will be next time. The worse you make yourself feel, the more you want comfort, and the more you want comfort, the more likely you are to turn to the exact thing you’re trying to stay away from, whether that’s chocolate, alcohol, cigarettes, or excessive youtubing. It actually works much better to have compassion for yourself and just try to do better next time.
3 Learn to identify with your future self. Most of us feel like our future self is a stranger, and the more you feel like that, the less likely you are to do things to protect that stranger’s health and happiness (like exercising or saving for retirement). Who here has cursed their past self for not commenting their code? We all know that we should, but we hardly ever do it. I think a big part of that is that we somehow don’t believe the frustration our future selves will feel when they have to work on another piece of badly commented code is as bad as the frustration our present selves feel.
One way you can get to know your future self is by writing a letter from them to your present self. This can either be a general letter about who future self is and what they’re up to, or a more specific letter thanking your present self for doing the work of exercising more, quitting smoking, or actually commenting that code even though it seems perfectly clear right now.
4 Imagine yourself failing. It’s totally counter intuitive, I know! The idea is to think about how things could go wrong for you so you can come up with workarounds. Say you want to exercise more, if you know that you’re likely to put things off until it’s too late at night to go for a run, you could leave yourself notes or set reminders to make sure you actually go for that run. If you keep track of what goes wrong for you and basically become a detective of your own failure, pretty soon you’ll have a comprehensive set of workarounds / ways to avoid the things that trip you up.
It’s also really helpful if failure doesn’t come as a shock to you – it’s easier to shrug it off and try again if you’re a little bit pessimistic and go “okay, I know I’m going to fail at this a few times, what am I going to do when that happens?” Sure, it seems obvious that the answer is “get back to the thing I was doing to reach my goal” but if failure is a surprise then it’s really easy to decide, “welp, I missed two workouts this week, I’m fundamentally a failure, no point in trying again so I might as well sit on the couch all weekend watching tv” even though two workouts are just not a big deal in the grand scheme of things and you could easily get back on the wagon by working out on the weekend.
5 Learn to tolerate discomfort. In her talk Kelly McGonical mentioned that the ability to hold your breath for 15 seconds is actually a very strong predictor of how well you will do in willpower challenges. There’s a technique called “surf the urge” that relies on that idea. When you “surf the urge” you give your full attention to your craving and trust that if you just sit with it for a while, it will pass. Immediately trying to repress the urge, whether it’s to have a chocolate bar or to screw around on reddit for three hours, just teaches you that the discomfort you’re trying to avoid is intolerable and you Absolutely Must Do Something About It Right Now. That’s just not true, you’re a grownup, you can ride it out. What you do by surfing the urge is break the link between feeling stress and opening that tab, which makes it much much easier not to give in.
And finally, here are some much less evidence-backed tips from me:
A Outsource your willpower if you can – browser extensions like stayfocusd (I haven’t found a really good mobile app yet, recommendations welcome!) that just don’t allow you to spend all afternoon screwing around on Facebook mean you can take all the energy you would have spent resisting the urge to open that tab and spend it on something else.
B Build habits. Once something is a good solid habit it takes way less willpower to keep doing it. Flossing, for example, is boring and a hassle but once it’s a habit it feels way more weird not to do it than to just get it over with. I recommend BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits course if you want to make more things a habit so you can stop thinking about them.
Today’s tip for becoming a better programmer while still having a life isn’t just good for you, it’s good for your whole team. That tip is documentation.
I know, nobody actually likes doing documentation. Fortunately, I’m not talking about dry design docs or endless specifications, I’m talking about a simple wiki (or whatever works for you), written by you and your team for you and your team. It doesn’t have to be polished, it doesn’t have to be formal, it doesn’t even have to be spelled perfectly. All it needs to be is correct and understandable. The idea is to explain things just like you would to another dev on your team, not to waste hours proofreading.
Great, but what should you document? In short, anything you’re going to want to know later. Especially useful things to write down are why architectural decisions were made, how parts of the system work at a high level, guides to testing certain features (great for complicated payment provider integrations, not that I’ve been fighting with those), and especially guides to setting up your development environment, whatever that thing is that you forget every time and have to look up again or ask someone about.
Just saving yourself time relearning parts of your codebase will help you get things done faster, which is basically being a better programmer, but explaining things (even if you’re writing to yourself) helps you understand them better. Explaining something forces you to think about every little detail, and putting something in your own words helps it stick in your brain – it’s the same principle that helps you remember things better when you take notes on them, whether or not you ever look at those notes. The better you understand your codebase, the better decisions you can make about how to add new features or fix bugs.
As a bonus, reflecting on why you made certain decisions and being able to go back later and see if the reason you did things the way you did holds up over time also makes you a better developer. You don’t even need to make a special effort to do this, if code gets used it gets changed. All you need to do is wait, eventually you will have to revisit the code you documented and by the time you do that, you will probably have forgotten the details and will need to go look it up in that handy wiki you created :)
Writing things down also helps you get that answer again without interrupting anyone, and the less you can interrupt teammates the better considering how expensive interruptions are for programmers. I couldn’t find a hard number, but I feel comfortable saying that it takes at least ten minutes to get back into a complex task like programming once you’ve been interrupted. It can be even worse if you get interrupted at just the wrong time. I have a terrible time getting into a task when I know I’ll have to stop soon for a meeting or appointment or whatever, which means an unfortunately timed interruption can kill a solid half hour of productivity even if it only took a couple of minutes to deal with the interruption itself.
All the benefits you get from making knowledge about your code available and searchable also apply to your teammates. If you just document how to set up your development environment, that can save hours every time someone has to set up their environment whether it’s a new employee starting or a long time employee getting a shiny new computer to replace an old one. It’s even better for everyone around you if the whole writing things down idea catches on – then they also get the benefits of explaining things and documenting the particular things they forget and need to look up as well.
And best of all, this is another work thing you can do at work that has no effect on your personal time.
As much as we would all like to believe that programming is about logic, not feelings, being able to deal with your emotions is incredibly important if you want to be a better programmer. For example, one of the best things you can possibly do for you career is to learn to take criticism. Logically everyone should be thrilled to get feedback on their work but you know what gets in the way? Yep, it’s emotions.
It can suck to hear all about what’s wrong with your code, especially if you worked really hard on it and thought that this time you finally got it right. Hearing about what you need to improve is incredibly helpful (who has time to make every possible mistake on their own? that would take forever!), but that doesn’t mean it never hurts your feelings. And when people’s feelings are hurt, it’s really hard for them to listen. Sometimes emotions get in the way of your improvement as a developer.
So how do you learn to take feedback even when it hurts?
First of all, you’ve got to accept that it’s normal to have feelings about being told that your code isn’t good enough. There’s no fixing a problem that you can’t admit is happening, after all. That absolutely does not mean you should be ashamed of having feelings – not only is it just plain wrong to shame anyone, including yourself, for being human, but it’s a huge waste of time. All it means is that if your feelings are keeping you from being able to take feedback, you’ve got to get a handle on them. You would debug a program that couldn’t handle certain inputs, right? Sometimes your mind needs debugging too.
One way to do that is to remind yourself that feelings aren’t facts. Just because you feel attacked or like everything you do is stupid and terrible and you’re never going to be any good at this and should just crawl into a hole doesn’t make it true. That’s just your brain freaking out, if you give it a minute it will calm down. Yes, it sucks in the moment to hear that your code needs work, but you’re going to feel fine tomorrow. With practice, you’ll get used to hearing what you can improve and start skipping the boring angsting step to go directly to fixing things.
A common thing programmers do that makes that way harder is to get really really really attached to their code. You should absolutely care about whether you’re doing a good job but you’ve got to remember that your code is not you. The quality of your code has nothing to do with your worth as a human being and any one piece of code doesn’t even mean much of anything about your skills as a programmer. Everyone has off days, making a mistake does not mean you’re a bad programmer, will always be a bad programmer and should just go find a hole to crawl into. Everybody makes mistakes, you’re not that special ;)
Quick side note: code reviews are never supposed to be mean. Aside from being a tremendous dick move and thoroughly unprofessional, it’s a waste of time to be a jerk when you’re giving feedback. If people hate doing code reviews they will find ways to not do them and the quality of code on your project will suffer. If you can’t be nice because it’s right, be nice because it’s effective. And if your team lead/senior dev/whoever does your reviews can’t at least be civil, find a new job. Life is too short to put up with dicks.
Something else you can remind yourself about when you’re having feelings about a code review is that nobody gives advice to people they don’t believe can do better. If you believe someone can’t learn you don’t bother giving them a code review, you quietly fix what you can while they’re not looking and hope they eventually get fired. Bothering to give someone feedback is a statement that they’re worth the effort.
The most important piece of advice I can give you, though, is that you need to be able to take a step back both from your feelings. Meditation is great for this, by the way. I’m going to steal Headspace’straffic metaphor here because it’s really good: training your mind isn’t about forcibly clearing it, it’s about learning to watch your thoughts and feelings go by like cars on the road and not needing to run out into the street and direct traffic. Having a feeling doesn’t mean you have to do something about it right then, you can wait a bit and see if it’s still important.
That stepping back thing is useful for more than just code reviews, too. Professional software development can be really frustrating for reasons that have nothing to do with writing code. Features get changed or cut, projects get dropped, companies change direction, sometimes things never make it into production no matter how much you believe in them or how hard you try. If you can’t step back from your attachment to a project and accept that things don’t always go the way you wish they would or even the way they logically ought to, you’re going to have a bad time in this field (or any other for that matter).
While you’re at it, literally step away from the computer now and then and do something else. Not only can you become a better programmer and still have a life, but having a life will make you a better programmer. Nerds tend to hyperfocus, which is great when you have a concrete task to get done but not quite as great when you lose all sense of perspective because you do nothing but code all day. Having other things you’re good at and other things to look forward to really helps put that one bad code review into perspective.
More stuff you can do to be a better programmer while still having a life!
The core of programming is really problem solving, but we’re kind of expected to pick it up as we go while we’re learning specific skills like programming in java. I have a strong suspicion that’s why so many new developers feel totally lost when they try to build something on their own: we’ve collectively done a bad job of teaching them how to break down problems and solve them.
Problem solving is a gigantic topic so I’m not pretending this blog post is going to be comprehensive, I’m just aiming to share a few tips to get you started.
First of all, don’t just start coding. It really helps to have some sort of plan for what you’re going to do. If you dive in and just start coding without any sort of plan you’ll often end up lost in the weeds because figuring out how to solve a problem and how to code that solution at the same time is so much harder than doing those things one at a time.
Ironically, it’s also hard not to do those things at the same time. It’s really common to feel like you’re wasting time planning and making lists when you should be writing code, or that planning is boring and no plan is ever perfect so why bother? It’s also not at all unusual for programmers to start coding without a plan because they’re worried about whether they can solve the problem, so they just start writing code and hope the complete solution will come to them.
Having a plan actually speeds things up because it cuts down on the feeling your way around in the dark that you end up doing when you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there. If you really can’t stand the planning part, programming may just not be for you – solving problems is the real job, code is just the tool we use to solve them. Making a plan may force you to admit that you just don’t know how to solve a certain problem which sucks, I’m not going to lie, but isn’t it better to figure that out right away instead of potentially spending days or weeks coding only to find out that your partial solution is never going to work? Trust me, that sucks way more.
So that’s all great, but how exactly do you break down a problem and make a plan to solve it?
One example is laid out in 5 Steps to Solving Programming Problems by Adrian Prieto. The step I want to concentrate on is “2. Solve the problem manually.” Seriously, write it down exactly the way you would do it if you had to do it manually. If part of the problem involves looking things up in the database, just pretend you have a gigantic binder or that you can call another department for the data you need. The imaginary manual procedure might sound really awful and tedious but that’s fine, computers are great at boring and tedious.
Example time! A common programming challenge question is to write a palindrome checker – you give it a string, it tells you whether or not it’s the same backwards and forwards. It’s really easy to look at a short palindrome like racecar and see that it’s obviously the same backwards and forwards, so let’s imagine we have a much longer string. Now how do we tell whether or not it’s a palindrome? One way is to look at the first character and see if it’s the same as the last character, then the second character and the second last one, and keep doing that until we get to the middle of the string (let’s assume for now that we don’t have to worry about spaces or punctuation). If we make it to the middle of the string it must be a palindrome, so we can return true. If any of the pairs of characters don’t match then it’s definitely not a palindrome, so we can stop checking right there and return false.
Now that we have a manual process, we can start adapting it for a computer to run. The thing you have to remember is that computers are really dumb. If you tell a person “stop when you get to the middle of the string” they’ll know what you mean and what to do if the string has an odd number of characters so there’s only one in the middle. Computers, on the other hand, don’t know what a “middle” is unless you tell them and don’t know what to do with a string with an odd number of characters either. For that matter, they don’t know how to tell they’ve gotten to the middle of the string.
In the interests of not making this post 5000 words long I’ll skip the specifics of telling a computer how to find the middle of a string, the important thing to know is that once you have an overall process you can dive into subproblems like “how can the computer tell when it has checked enough characters?” without losing sight of why that problem even matters and how it fits into the rest of your solution.
It really doesn’t matter how bad your first try at a process is. Writing down how you would do it manually is always good enough for a first try, and once you have a basic process you can start improving it or even trying totally different algorithms. The great thing about a simple set of point form instructions or even pseudocode is that it’s much quicker and easier to change than actual code, so you can mess with it to your heart’s content.
That works great for straightforward problems, but what do you do with an overwhelmingly large problem where it’s not obvious where to start? Let’s say you want to build a todo list app. Should you start by designing the UI? Or by figuring out what your data model should look like? How do you decide which features your app should have?
The question about what features you should have is one of the simpler ones: build the tiniest thing that could possibly work. You can always add more features later. In the case of a todo list app, I would start with being able to add new todos and being able to cross off existing ones. Don’t worry about subtasks, don’t worry about due dates or recurring tasks or anything else, just start with the simplest thing that could possibly be considered a todo list.
As for where to start, if I knew the right way to approach every problem I’d be a millionaire :) I personally like to start with the UI so that once I get down to the data model I already have a list of all the visible information that I definitely need to store. On the other hand, if you’re especially comfortable with data modelling it can be easier to start there. That can also save you from building a database that’s perfect for one screen and kind of terrible for everything else. It really doesn’t matter where you start as long as you remember to look at your overall design from different angles and see if it still makes sense.
At the “boxes and lines” diagram stage just like the point form description of a manual process stage you lose hardly any time at all if you sketch out a solution, figure out it doesn’t handle something well, then throw it out and start over. The important thing is to learn more about the problem, not to come up with a perfect design on the first try.
Like communication, practising problem solving doesn’t have to take up a single hour of your time outside of work. You can get all the practice you need on work problems while you’re at work and still have a life outside of work :)
In my last post about becoming a better programmer while still having a life, I talked about communication. Specifically, making sure you understand why you’re doing a task and what the eventual user of that feature wants to accomplish. That’s far from the only thing communication is good for, though. It’s not just about clarifying tasks, it’s also important to communicate status. Strictly speaking, this may not make you a better programmer in terms of getting things done. It does, however, make you easier to work with and that’s a big part of being a professional. And in the interests of full disclosure, I’m not always great at this, especially when I’m busy, but I try.
If you use slack, a good solution for my team and maybe yours is to post little updates about what you’re working on and how it’s going in your dev channel. When you share what you’re working on, people will have something useful to tell you surprisingly often. I’ve had coworkers tell me about existing code I hadn’t seen before that applies to my problem, ways they had already tried to do something and failed (super helpful because it narrows down what I have to try), or bring up potential issues I hadn’t thought of.
Team leads also really seem to like having a running list of what you’ve been doing and if you’ve hit any snags lately. In my office it’s common for people to work from home, which means my team lead can’t always rely on chatting with people in the lunchroom or on the way to get coffee to figure out whether our tasks are going well or not. My last set of updates were a series of complaints about how badly I was getting along with play 2.5’s requirejs plugin, don’t feel like you have to have positive or even particularly well thought out updates.
Nobody particularly likes to post a bunch of updates about how badly things are going, but that’s actually really useful for your team lead and the rest of your team to know. They can’t make plans about next week if they have no idea how much stuff is going to get done this week. Your team lead doesn’t just know what you’re doing or if you need help, you’ve got to tell them directly. If your updates are always about how badly things are going that’s a useful sign that something is wrong. It could be that you and/or your team lead need to find another solution because the current one isn’t working, it could be that your assignment isn’t at the right level for you and you need some help, it could just be that it’s an especially hard task and you’re not going to be available to do anything else for a while.
If something is going poorly, it’s always better to talk about that sooner rather than later. Seriously, waiting too long to raise the alarm kills projects. Now, it is true that in dysfunctional workplaces you may be blamed or punished for bringing up perfectly reasonable concerns. I’m not going to pretend that every boss you’ll ever have will be the perfect manager, but if you bring up a concern and get ignored or punished for “being negative” I want to reassure you that you are not the problem and didn’t do anything wrong.
If things are going well, you should talk about that too. Just like your team lead needs to know if they can’t give you another task, they need to know if they do need to get another feature specced out and ready for you to work on next.
Whether or not you ever show anyone else your list of things you got done (and it’s not a bad idea to have that handy for when annual review time comes around), just looking back at your list can help motivate you. When I feel like I haven’t been accomplishing anything, it can be really helpful to scroll back through the updates I’ve given and remember that while I maybe didn’t end up with a lot to show for my fight with requirejs, I did learn a lot about play 2.5 plugins and build processes and that will definitely be useful later.
If ongoing updates throughout the day are too much information you can do daily or weekly updates, the only essential part is giving updates on a regular basis. Definitely don’t feel like you need to write a novel for every update, status updates are meant to let people know what you’re up to, not to eat up time you could be using for your actual work.
Giving status updates regularly probably sounds like a really small thing, but it’s been incredibly useful for me.