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 10

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A little bit of self-doubt is good for you! That might sound weird but hear me out. Doubting yourself just enough to accept the fact that you don’t know everything and will be wrong sometimes is incredibly useful in software development. So many projects have died when the thing that everyone assumed would be easy (or at least doable) turned out not to be. If you can accept that you could be wrong and do a little double checking, you can save yourself so much pain.

While we’re on the subject, if you ever hear the words “it’s done, we just need to integrate it” you should be very very afraid. Not only is the thing not done, but it’s not going to be done any time soon. I admit I’m generalizing from a small sample here, but I’ve never seen the assumption that integrating a new feature will be easy turn out to be accurate.

In general, if you’ve never used that API before, don’t assume it will be easy. Read the docs really thoroughly too – just because it sounds like that API does what you need doesn’t mean it actually does. I’ve been burned by that before and you probably will be too. Same thing for libraries you haven’t used before. Just because you think a library should work a certain way doesn’t mean it actually does. In case you weren’t already worried enough, don’t forget that sometimes the docs are outdated, missing, or just plain bad, too. There’s more than one reason building a very simple proof of concept first is such a good idea.

Like I said earlier, don’t assume you understand the problem either. Talk to people until you’re sure you understand why that feature should exist, not just what it should do. Talk to your team lead, talk to other departments, ideally talk to someone who is actually going to use the thing (I know this isn’t feasible for everyone but it’s really great if you can manage it). The assumption that you’re right about what people need kills projects too. You would think that would be an obvious thing to check, but judging by the horror stories in the news about massive government projects that turn out not to do what the front line staff actually need, it’s not obvious at all.

Seriously, I can’t stress enough how dangerous assumptions are to projects. That’s how projects end up months if not years late and massively over budget if they get delivered at all. Refusing to admit you could ever be wrong kills projects too. The real problem, underneath the assumption that integrating that API will be easy to integrate, is the assumption that you’re right and don’t need to check.

In addition to killing projects, failing to question your assumptions can also lead you to make a complete fool of yourself, a la google bro. If he had questioned any of his assumptions, if he could have faced the possibility he could ever be wrong about anything at any time ever, he would be a far better engineer. As it is he clearly can’t be trusted not to make wild assumptions that will doom his projects, and if you can’t trust someone to check their own assumptions you simply can’t trust them to work as a senior engineer. One simple definition of engineering levels is that junior developers need adult supervision, intermediate developers can work on their own, and senior developers are adult supervision. If you can’t bring yourself to accept that you could ever be wrong about anything, then you can’t competently supervise anyone.

Too much self doubt is obviously completely unproductive, and you can never know everything there is to know about your project before you build it, but a little self doubt is enormously useful and tremendously underrated. In tech we seem to place so much emphasis on always being perfectly sure of yourself but not only is that an unreasonable goal, it’s not even useful. What’s useful is understanding that the most brilliant writers still need editors, and the most brilliant programmers still need input from their teams. Nobody is right absolutely all of the time, the word for people who think they are is “delusional.”

Admit you could be wrong and you’ll end up with the right answer a lot more often.

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

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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.

Rich Hickey – Hammock Driven Development

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A little while ago a friend of mine shared this list of Talks that changed the way I think about programming in one of the many Slacks I’m in and I finally started watching them.

Here’s my recap of one of the talks from that list, Hammock Driven Development by Rich Hickey. In it he describes his process for solving hard problems, which is obviously a huge part of what programmers do and is probably useful for just about anyone else too. There are a couple of technical examples in the talk but almost all of it should make sense to a non-programmer.

I put numbers on these steps to make this blog post easier to follow, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow this process in this exact order. The first couple of steps really do need to happen first, but after that you may want to iterate over the remaining steps a few times and possibly even go back to the beginning to make sure that you really do understand your problem in the context of all the new stuff you’ve learned while you were trying to solve it.

Step 1: state the problem. Say it out loud, talk with team member about it, write it down if nothing else.

Step 2: understand the problem. What do you know already (facts, context, constraints)? What don’t you know? For example, if you know you will need input data, where does it come from? if the primary source goes down, is there a secondary? Are there related problems? Hint: there are. Your problem is almost certainly not unique in the history of the world. And if you’re going to bother to figure all that stuff out, write it down!

Step 3: be discerning. Not everything is awesome! Look for problems in your proposed solutions and try to solve those too right away up front. Do you think there aren’t any tradeoffs in your proposed solution? Not likely, it’s much more likely you’re missing something. You should have questions – nobody knows everything! If you don’t have questions, you’re missing something. Write all this stuff down too.

Step 4: more input better output. You can’t connect things you don’t know about. Read in and around your space (not just your exact problem, also similar stuff so that you can let that simmer and let your brain make connections). Look (critically!) at other solutions too. Great solutions can come from tearing apart someone else’s idea.

Step 5: tradeoffs. Everybody says design is about tradeoffs, but you need to look at at least two possible solutions and figure out what’s good and bad about those things before you can really say you made a tradeoff. Write this down too! You may be seeing a theme here :)

Step 6: focus. This is where the hammock comes in. One of the great things about the hammock is that if you lie down with your eyes closed, no one knows you’re not sleeping and they won’t bother you because you might be sleeping so you can focus completely on your problem without interruptions. The computer is a prime source of distractions – you need to get away from the computer if you want to focus. You can’t do everything – if you really focus on something you’ll drop other balls like returning phone calls or emails, or remembering to run that errand or fix that bug you said would be really quick. Let your loved ones know what you’re doing and why you’re not going to be super responsive for a while (as an aside I really liked this point about treating people who matter to you as if they, you know, matter to you). An interesting detail Rich includes in this step is that you should close your eyes to really focus – at this point you’re not looking for any external input at all

Rich has a bunch of interesting stuff to say about what he calls your waking mind and your background mind (in the Leaning How to Learn course they call it focused and diffuse modes of attention, if you’ve taken that course this will all be pretty familiar). He uses his waking mind to assign tasks to his background mind and to analyze it’s products. Your background mind is where you solve most non-trivial problems but you can only feed it, not direct it. You need to spend enough time thinking about something for it to become an agenda item for your background mind to get anything useful from it.

Step 6 has two substeps, loading up your background mind and then letting it work. To load up your background mind you review everything you wrote down in the previous steps and really focus on it. Because your waking mind can only keep track of so many pieces of information at once (7 +- 2, as far as I know), you need to have written everything you know about your problem down so you can swap those pieces back into your working memory when you need them. To load all of this into your background mind you need to survey everything you’ve written down to give your background mind the chance to make connections between different things that your working mind didn’t realize could be connected. Rich stresses that you can’t do this at the computer, you need to go somewhere and have no external input. He recommends going somewhere you can close your eyes but not go to sleep so you can sort of switch your brain from external to internal input(all that information about your problem that you just reviewed).

The other substep is to leave the problem alone for a while and let your background mind do its thing. Sleep is a great way to do this, or going for a walk, or anything that gets your waking mind off of the problem. If you’re working on a hard problem you should sleep on it for at least one night, more if it’s a really hard problem. Just because you have an idea right away doesn’t mean you won’t have a better one in the morning. And once you have an idea, analyze it, don’t just run with it. Just because you slept on it doesn’t mean that solution that popped into your head in the morning is perfect.

Optional step 7: don’t stay stuck. If you have another problem to work on, do that when you feel stuck instead of just sitting there and staying stuck. If you don’t have another problem or really need to stay focused on your current one, gather more input, talk with more people if you can, and go through the whole process again.

A caveat to this whole process is that if you do have more than one problem you’re working on, you may spend hours loading up all the information about one problem and wake up the next morning with the answer to a different problem. That’s a thing you just have to accept, brains are funny sometimes. If you can’t switch to the other problem, at least write down the solution you came up with before going back into gathering information and loading it up for the problem you really want to solve.

Rich’s talk is really good and I highly recommend watching it yourself, but if you don’t have 40 minutes to dedicate to sitting in front of your computer then I hope this recap was helpful.

Be a better programmer while still having a life: part 8

The big tip for post #8 in the be a better programmer while still having a life series is to become a witch. A Terry Pratchett style witch, to be precise. Terry Pratchett’s witch characters are really great at two things: first sight and second thoughts. To quote him directly:

First Sight and Second Thoughts, that’s what a witch had to rely on: First Sight to see what’s really there, and Second Thoughts to watch the First Thoughts to check that they were thinking right.

And no, I’m by no means the first person to connect Pratchett-style witchery with programming or design. Hint: go read that blog post, it’s really good.

Back at my original point, first sight is seeing what’s actually there, not what you wish was there or what you thought was there or what you meant to put there. Does that remind anyone else of debugging?

Fortunately for programmers, we have tools like debuggers and IDEs to help us see what’s actually there. We also have techniques like simply getting up and taking a walk, or explaining our problem to a rubber duck (or maybe another programmer if it’s a really hard problem), or commenting out half of our code and then half of that half and so on until we find the problem line. Let’s just not think about how much programming must have sucked in the days before friendly IDEs that highlight mistakes for you :)

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Another part of first sight for programmers is also your attitude. If you don’t want to see the problem, you’re just not going to no matter how observant you are normally. I’m by no means perfect at it myself, but I’m convinced the most useful attitude you can bring to debugging is the simple acceptance that you got at least one thing wrong. The longer you spend insisting that your code should work, the longer it takes to figure out what’s actually wrong with it.

Moving on, second thoughts are thoughts about your thoughts. When you think you know the best way to build something, why do you think that? How do you know you’re right? Is that actually the best way or is it just the first way you thought of? How would you know either way? What constitutes the “best” way to do something? Is “best” the most performant, the easiest to read, the easiest to change, the quickest to write, the easiest to test? If “best” for your project meant quickest to write yesterday, does it still mean that today? How would you know when that changes?

Checking up on yourself like that is really hard to do and that’s why this post is more for me than for you – I’m trying to remind myself to question my assumptions.

One of the traps I fall into most often is looking for an example of what I want to do in our existing code and then assuming the first thing I find is the right way to do it. Shockingly enough, codebases change over time. Just because something worked well when it was written doesn’t mean nobody has thought of a better way since then or that the rest of the app hasn’t changed enough to make the old “right way” completely different from today’s “right way.” Just like you look for a couple of sources that agree with each other when you’re Googling what an error message means, look for a couple of examples in your codebase and if they’re different, check which one is newer.

Getting into the habit of thinking about how you think is not easy (at all!), but it’s useful and, like the other installments of this series, not something that you have to devote all of your free time to. It’s also useful in pretty much every area of your life. When you have any problem to solve, how do you know you’re right about how to solve it? For that matter, how do you know you’re right about what the problem is?

When I’m stressed out, every little thing drives me absolutely crazy. I can end up convinced that what’s bothering me is that this stupid freaking feature won’t work no matter what I do when the real problem is that I’m trying to hit a tight deadline and marketing keeps changing their minds about what’s important and half the QA team is sick so they need extra time to test everything and that means I need to deliver even sooner and everything is terrible!

Okay, so what do you do about that? For starters you really should read that blog post I linked earlier, Amy Hoy goes into a lot of detail about learning to notice yourself thinking. My big tip is just to get into the habit of asking yourself “Why? Why did I decide that? Why is that the best way? Why is that bothering me so much?” Sometimes the answer is going to be stupid simple: I decided to go to cafe at the front of my building for lunch because the weather was hideous and I didn’t want to go outside. Sometimes the answer will lead to more questions, like when you ask yourself “Why did I decide to put that config file in that directory?” In my case the answer was “Because that’s where the other config file lives” which leads to another question: “How do I know both config files should go in the same directory?” From there I learned all sorts of stuff about which files were supposed to go in the original directory and why, and where the other file that was related but not the same type of config ought to live.

This is the kind of thing that takes a lifetime to master, so don’t feel bad if you don’t get it right away. Asking yourself those questions is still worth it even if you only remember to do it sometimes.

The wall

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I was talking with a friend who’s learning to code the other day, and the subject of the wall came up. Not the one that keeps the wildlings out, the one everybody slams into when they’re learning to code. Learning to code starts out great, there are so many tutorials that break things down really clearly, but once you’ve got a handle on the basics and want to move on to building your own projects, that’s where you hit the wall. It’s a huge leap from following tutorials where all the hard decisions are made for you to building your own projects with no one standing by to tell you where to start or what database to use or what your UI should look like.

The single thing I most want you all to know is that hitting the wall is normal. It happens to everyone. It absolutely does not mean that you’re dumb or not meant to be a programmer or that you’ll never get over the wall.

As a bit of an aside, I think the number of beginners who hit the wall and assume they’re just not smart enough to be programmers says more about how bad we collectively are at teaching programming than about the intelligence of anyone who hit the wall and walked away. I’m suspicious there’s a connection between how easy it is to write total beginner tutorials and how many of them there are, and how much harder it is to teach people to break down a problem and how few tutorials there are for that.

But anyway, I have some ideas for people who have hit the wall or who can see it in the distance and are getting worried.

One of the coolest things about programming is how many open source projects there are. Find one that you like and take it apart to see how it works. Search for text from the UI in the code and see if you can change it. Throw log messages all over the place to make the code show you what it’s doing. See if you can find some constants in there you can mess with. And don’t feel left out if you want to make games, those can be open source too.

Once you’ve found a project you like and have some idea how it works, see if you can change how it works. Let’s say you found a simple todo list app. Can you add due dates to your list items? Or subtasks? Could it play a sound and/or an animation to congratulate you when you check something off? Could you add a new feature like recurring tasks or email reminders? If you don’t have an open source app handy, just take a tutorial and mess with that.

Speaking of tutorials, if you do enough of them you’re going to start seeing similarities. Most apps have some sort of UI, some sort of data model, maybe a way to save that data for the next time you open the app (that’s pretty advanced, though, don’t worry about it right away), some logic about what users are allowed to do (like due dates can’t be in the past or players can’t have more than x hitpoints no matter how many health packs they use), maybe some communication with other APIs (but again, that’s advanced, don’t worry about it right away), and honestly, that’s pretty much it.

You can try mashing up different tutorials or open source projects too. Let’s say you have a tutorial for a driving game and one for a game where you run around and collect coins or stars or whatever. What if you could drive around and collect stars? What if you had tutorials for a todo list app and a weather app and mashed them up to make a little morning dashboard for yourself?

Don’t forget, you don’t have to do it all yourself. There are great communities like CodeNewbie, /r/learnprogramming, CodeRanch, (and lots more if you do a little Googling) full of people who will help you out.

Be a better programmer while still having a life: part 8

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Testing! Getting better at testing will make you seem like a better programmer even if your coding style doesn’t change at all. No matter how beautiful and clear your code is, if it’s full of bugs it’s not good code.

It’s kind of ironic that I’m writing a post about testing because honestly I’m not very good at it. Better than I used to be, especially since I started working at a company that actually has unit tests and insists they all pass before you push anything to production, but testing is still not one of my strengths. You don’t have to be amazing for it to be worth doing more testing, though. Some improvement is always better than none.

The thing most programmers, including me, seem to struggle with the most is not being able to think of anything but the happy path through our code. It’s like how when you’re trying to proofread your own writing you see what you meant, not what’s actually there in terms of typos and missing or repeated words. We test the way we meant our code to work instead of thinking of how it could break, and then we decide testing our own code is a waste of time because QA always finds more bugs anyway.

One of the best strategies I’ve found for avoiding getting stuck in the happy path is to plan out how you would test your code before you write it. You can’t get stuck only testing the way you meant your code to work if you haven’t written it yet :) You do need to have some idea how the feature as a whole is going to work, but if you don’t have that then you shouldn’t be worrying about testing anyway. Figure out what it’s supposed to do and then you can think about testing.

This works even if you’ve gotten as far as defining interfaces. Just take a minute and jot down some notes about what values could possibly get passed into those interfaces. Not what should be passed in, not what would ever be passed in by a reasonable human being who doesn’t personally hate you, but everything that the language itself would ever allow. This blog post On Testing is an extension of a joke tweet but is actually a great place to start if you’re not sure what sort of input you should be testing. And if you work in Java like me, make sure you handle nulls. Just because that parameter should never ever ever be null doesn’t mean you don’t have some messed up data somewhere in your system that will produce a nothing where there should be a something. And don’t forget to test with bad data so you can make sure errors are displayed when they should be and are spelled correctly.

If you do unit tests at your company testing thoroughly is a lot easier, but even if you don’t you can still manually test at least a few different cases. It’s just embarassing when you go to demo your new feature to someone and it immediately blows up.

Another part of testing, and for me the hardest part, is testing for my changes affecting existing code in non-obvious ways. It’s really easy to fix “surprise that parameter can be null” bugs and much harder to figure out why on earth adding a new feature would break an existing one that didn’t seem to be related. On the upside for developers like me, the entire reason regression testing exists is to catch bugs like this. Unfortunately, full regression tests aren’t feasible at every company for every release.

All I can really recommend to prevent the weird bugs is to isolate functionality as much as you can, which is good coding practice anyway. That is, if your app formats emails, all of the email formatting code should be in the same class if possible or the same package if you need more than one class. The less different features interact with each other, the less chance you have of those features getting in a fight :)

To bring this back to becoming a better developer, the fewer times QA (or god forbid, your customers) have to kick back a feature because it has bugs, the better a developer you are. Taking the time up front to make sure your code works is absolutely worth it for the time savings later and the increase in quality. Even if you deliver more slowly than programmers who do less testing, QA/your project manager/your team lead will notice whose features zip right through QA and whose get sent back over and over. And if they don’t, you should remind them repeatedly :) Going to QA first means nothing when it takes try after try after try to get approved.

One of the best things about testing thoroughly is that it’s a work thing you can do at work that doesn’t affect your personal time. It’ll even save you time in the long run!

Be a better programmer while still having a life: part 7

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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 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.”


Link of the day

Julia Evans has a great guide to asking good questions, you should read it :) Asking good questions is such a useful skill, I wish programming education spent more time on it.

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.

Be a better programmer while still having a life: part 6

Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

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.