Be a better programmer while still having a life: part 12

a waxing moon a little over half full against a deep blue sky
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Keep it simple!

It sounds obvious, but I have wasted so much time debugging problems that turned out to be something ridiculously simple like my browser cache being outdated, having forgotten to deploy my code, having made my updates in my local database instead of the staging database, etc, etc. Better developers are more productive, and you know what instantly makes a person more productive? Wasting less time!

Double checking extremely simple obvious things can save you massive amounts of time. Like I said earlier, a little self-doubt is good for you. If you can’t ever doubt yourself at all, you’re going to waste a lot of time on silly mistakes you could have just double-checked.

This can be really really hard to remember as a dev, so don’t feel bad if you mess it up sometimes. My best guess is that’s a side effect of working with complicated problems all the time, so we assume the problem has to be more complicated than just having deployed the wrong code like a dope.

Another great way to keep things simple is to build the simplest possible solution for your problem. This is such a common problem that we have an acronym for it already: YAGNI (you ain’t gonna need it). Before you write more code ask yourself “Do I actually need this?” Protip: if you actually need the thing it will be obvious. If you don’t actually need it, don’t build it. Yes, things should be somewhat flexible, but there’s a limit.

Names are a great clue to whether you’ve built something so flexible that all it’s really doing is adding complexity. If you can’t guess what your object/function/module is for by looking at its name, it’s probably too vague. Using Java reflection is also a bad sign :P

Another way to check whether you’re building something too flexible is to try to explain it to someone else. If they can’t follow what on earth you’re doing, it’s definitely too vague. Even if they can follow your explanation, another person who isn’t attached to the terribly clever idea you came up with may be a lot more willing to say “No, we don’t actually need this, this, or this. That part is really cool, though.”

You can also try asking yourself if there’s anything you could possibly take out of your design. If you were doing the thing manually (just imagine your database lookups are done in a filing cabinet or giant binder instead), what would be different? Would there be fewer steps? Fewer people/processes/forms/approvals involved? This can be a tough one for programmers because for many of us, super complicated “solutions” make us feel smart and we love to feel smart.

I’m not going to pretend I’m any sort of UI expert, but this definitely applies to UI too. Do you really need a setting for everything? No! Make a decision already, if you’re going to leave everything up to the user, what are you even for? At least provide a sensible default setting and hide the fiddly stuff no one cares about under an “advanced” tab or something.

You know who failed at keeping it simple? Yep, it’s Google bro. Hey, if he didn’t want to be used as a terrible example over and over he should have been a better engineer. Given the choice between ignoring all of the existing science about gender differences in humans and making up a ridiculous and complicated fairy tale about how even though sexism obviously exists that couldn’t possibly be the reason there are fewer women than men in tech (let’s just ignore the fact that programming started out as a job for women while the men physically built the computers), no it must be some bizarre feature of our silly ladybrains, and the simple and obvious explanation that sexism exists, dude went with the most complicated possible explanation.

The more complicated your idea, solution, or design is, the more chances it has to fail. That’s still true even if your argument wasn’t built on sand in the first place. Simplicity, on the other hand, tends to work a lot better. The fewer moving parts you have, the fewer things you have to worry about holding in your head while you build it. As a bit of an aside, if you’re ever wondered why even extremely expensive software produced by armies of highly paid contractors is so often terrible and buggy, it’s because there are too many moving parts for our poor fleshy brains to keep track of.

Simplicity is incredible timesaver, for both you and your team. Simplicity in your code reduces the number of bugs you create, and avoiding creating bugs is orders of magnitude faster than fixing them. It also makes it easier to fix your bugs when you do run into them. Simplicity in your design can be the difference between a project that actually goes into production and does something useful, and something that just never quite gets launched. Simplicity in your problem solving helps you catch silly mistakes that waste hours of your time, so keep it simple!

Be a better programmer while still having a life: part 11

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Don’t be a time thief. More precisely, if a decision has been made let it stay made.

This tip won’t necessarily change your personal output a whole lot, although you will have more time for your own work if you don’t waste it rehashing old decisions, but it will be fantastic for your team’s productivity. Being a better programmer isn’t just about how much you personally get done, it’s also about how much your whole team gets done. If you make your team better then congrats, you’re a better developer!

You will have to deal with decisions you don’t like as a developer. I’m not saying that’s a good time, but that’s not just life as a developer, it’s life in general. You can either accept those decisions like a grownup, or you can waste everyone’s time by fighting the same battles over and over.

Now, if something has substantially changed, like a new tool has been released or there has been an announcement that an open source library is no longer being actively developed, then it may make sense to reopen a closed discussion. But if you just don’t like the decision, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Even if you are technically right it’s generally faster to rework your codebase to recover from a decision that didn’t pan out than to have the same meeting over and over. It’s not just about the single decision, it’s about how you use your time.

It’s also about morale. It’s incredibly frustrating when you have meeting after meeting and finally decide something, only to have someone drag it all back up again a few weeks later. What was the point of all the earlier meetings if a decision that’s been made doesn’t stay made? If you want people to stop bothering to share their opinions, that’s the way to do it. Like I said last time, you have to be open to the idea that you could be wrong. You need your team’s ideas to make the best decision you can, and you can’t possibly get anyone’s real ideas when you convince them that it doesn’t matter what they say.

Arguing about things that are purely a matter of opinion is time-theft too. Curly brace on the same line as the method declaration vs the next line? tabs vs spaces? line width? No professionals bother to argue about that at work (the bar is a different story, however :) ), we pick a coding standard, set our IDEs to autoformat our code correctly and move on with our lives. Some arguments simply are not worth the time it takes to have them.

Speaking of arguments that have been had over and over and are a profound waste of everyone’s time, biology simply does not and never has explained the lack of women in computer science. We seem to drag this argument back up every few years in tech and every time it’s as foolish as it was last time. Google bro is simply the latest to waste thousands of hours of everyone’s time with ideas that have been debunked over and over. A grownup, not to mention a competent developer, would never have wasted everyone’s time with an argument that’s been hashed out dozens if not hundreds of times already. You simply can’t have someone like that on your team if you ever want to get anything done – even a competent developer, which Google bro certainly is not, couldn’t offset the collective productivity lost to rehashing well understood decisions over and over.

It’s perfectly normal to want to undo a decision you don’t like, just like it’s perfectly normal to want to stay in bed on a cold, wet morning and it’s perfectly normal to want to buy lunch and skip packing one. Wanting, however, is different from doing if you’re a grownup and you just can’t be a good developer without being a grownup. Even a lone hobbyist faces frustration and disappointment, you can either let those stop you in your tracks or you can set them down and make yourself useful.

Be a better programmer while still having a life: part 9

brown wooden wheel on an old cart with fallen leaves around it on the ground.
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Don’t reinvent the wheel! I’ve touched on this before, but it definitely merits its own post.

A huge part of becoming a better developer is understanding when you don’t need to write new code to solve a problem. The more code you write, the more code you have to maintain, the more chances you have to screw it up, and the more time it takes to write it. So before you write new code, see if there’s a library, a plugin, a product, a design pattern, or a best practice that solves your problem. At least see if anyone wrote an article or blog post about a similar problem and learn from what they did.

To be fair, sometimes what you need really isn’t well served by an existing trustworthy product or library and you do need to write your own custom code, but that needs to be an informed choice, not a reflex.

What I think makes a product trustworthy is active development and a large userbase. The main advantages of using a library instead of writing your own code is that you don’t have to update it and that most of the bugs have been worked out already because so many people use it. By all means use a small library that isn’t maintained if it’s convenient and not a core part of your project, but for the love of god don’t depend on a framework/database/core part of your project that isn’t actively maintained and/or doesn’t have any users. That will just end in tears.

You also don’t want to import a library for every little thing, the more libraries you import the more bloated your project becomes and the more chances you have to run into a bug in one of them (and let’s not forget the left-pad debacle), but for stuff that would take more than a few hours to write, see if somebody else already wrote it.

For example, writing your own regex to validate email addresses is almost certainly a waste of time. Are you really going to write a better validator than the Apache Commons EmailValidator? No, you’re not. And do you want to have to maintain it forever even if you do write a great validator? No, you don’t. So use the library and move on with your day.

Yes, writing code is way more fun than integrating a library, but when you’re at work your job is to get results. If writing your own code gets the best result, do that, but if integrating a library gets the best result, do that instead. Of course, to understand what gets the best results, be it a library, a whole product, an API, a design pattern or whatever else, that means you have to understand what’s out there.

As a bit of an aside, that’s why the Google bro is an incompetent engineer – his ridiculous screed shows he either didn’t read or didn’t understand any of the existing research about personality differences between men and women (spoiler: there aren’t any statistically significant ones). While junior engineers get a pass on not searching for or not understanding existing libraries, senior engineers do not. If you can’t Google (see what I did there :D) existing research or existing libraries, you simply are not operating at a senior engineer level.

Sometimes it is useful to reinvent the wheel – modern wheels with inner tubes and shock absorbers make riding in a modern car a lot more comfortable than riding in the first cars with their solid wheels (Google bro’s wheel, on the other hand, is square and the axel is off center, which is just embarrassing). If you can’t do better than existing wheels, just use what’s already out there and save yourself some time.

Ironically, admitting that you aren’t the greatest developer who ever lived makes you a better developer. Accepting that actively maintained, well-used libraries are often better than what you would write on your own not only saves you a lot of time, but also makes your final product better.