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Loving the wonderful book Code Complete 2

After two false starts [1], I am working my way through Steve McConnell's book Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction, Second Edition (links: author, book , amazon). He describes the topic as "an extended description of the programming process for creating classes and routines." Extended is right!

There are very good reasons why it is in the top 10 in software design at Amazon: After 1/2 way through, I've found the book is unique and very well-written. (I am not alone in this assessment [2].)

It is unique because it goes into a level of detail about coding that is specific and really deep. McConnell has given incredibly clear thought into the minutae of programming, and then shared it with fine writing. My boss chucked when I showed him that there are four chapters (table of contents here) on variables, one dedicated solely to naming them. Awesome! I've been writing software for a long time, and it was gratifying to find that McConnell has put into words things learned intuitively, such as Think about efficiency:

... it's usually a waste of effort to work on efficiency at the level of individual routines. The big optimizations come from refining the high-level design, not the individual routines. You generally use micro-optimizations only when the high-level design turns out not to support the system's performance goals, and you won't know that until the whole program is done. Don't waste time scraping for incremental improvements until you know they're needed.

But beyond being reminded of these (and there are many, many of them, for example: "Initialize each variable close to where it's first used"), a big payoff is the new-to-me ones, of which there are many. The book is simply too detailed to summarize the main points, so I'll just share some tidbits that jumped out at me:

  • "Upstream Prerequisites" ("programmers are at the end of the food chain. The architect consumes the requirements, the designer consumes the architecture, and the coder consumes the design.") His point: "the overarching goal of preparation is risk reduction. By far the most common project risks in software development are poor requirements and poor project planning." (Note: I found the StackOverflow question Software design vs. software architecture answered terminology confusion I had about those terms: "I think we should use the following rule to determine when we talk about Design vs. Architecture: If the elements of a software picture you created can be mapped one to one to a programming language syntactical construction, then is Design, if not is Architecture.")
  • Programming IN a language (limit thoughts to constructs the language directly supports) vs. INTO a language (decide what thoughts you want to express then determine how to do so using the language's tools).
  • "Wicked problems" (like software design): can be clearly defined only by solving it or solving part of it.
  • "Design is a sloppy process": is about tradeoffs and priorities; involves restrictions; is nondeterministic; is a heuristic process; is emergent.
  • Software's Primary Technical Imperative: the importance of managing complexity by dividing a system into subsystems. "The goal of all software-design techniques is to break a complicated problem into simple pieces. The more independent they are the better."
  • For the sake of controlling complexity, you should maintain a heavy bias against inheritance (and prefer containment): Inherit when you want the base class to control your interface. Contain when you want to control your interface.
  • Aim for loose coupling (the manner and degree of interdependence between software modules) and strong cohesion (the degree to which the elements of a module belong together).
  • Routine length (he generalizes procedures, functions, and methods as "routines"): Allow them to grow organically up to 100-200 lines (excluding comments & blank lines). (My routines tend to be smaller - I'll have to give this more thought.)
  • Routine parameters: pass <= ~7 of them. More implies too much coupling.
  • Design Practices - Capturing Your Design Work: code documentation, wiki, email summaries, camera (whiteboard) vs. a drawing tool, flip charts, CRC cards (I love 'em), UML diagrams.
  • The Pseudocode Programming Process: It was helpful to see this named and formalized. "Once the pseudocode is written, you build the code around it and the pseudocode turns into programming-language comments. This eliminates most commenting effort. If the pseudocode follows the guidelines, the comments will be complete and meaningful." Cool!

And many more. Bottom line: If you are serious and committed about improving your craft, read the book! How about you? What coding books have helped you be a better programmer?

[1] There were two reasons my first two attempts to read this hefty 900-pager failed. 1) I wasn't fully committed, and 2) I didn't have a concrete plan to read it. I resolved the former when I realized I'd been focusing on my work projects to the exclusion of professional development [3] (other than reading a handful of blog posts a week) and needed to shake things up. The second block was simpler to address - break the book up into manageable chunks and commit to reading one every day. I summarized this generally in Reading Books The GTD Way, but in this case I did a back-of-the-napkin analysis, working backward from an estimated chapter velocity:

900 pages, 35 chapters

  • 1 chapter/hr -> 35 hours
  • 1 hour/workday, 3 workdays/week -> 3 hours/week
  • -> ~12 weeks (~2.8 months)

I've been recording my minutes/page progress, which ranges between 1 and 2 1/2. With an average chapter being about 30 pages, this works out to be about 60 minutes/page. Good estimate! (Actually, I'm readming more chapters than three per week, and at my current rate I will be done at the end of April.)

[2] A helpful review was Matt Grover's blog: Code Complete Review, which pointed me to Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship by Robert C. Martin (Amazon link here). That book looks excellent too, though it apparently has less detail, weighing in at a svelte 500 pages.

[3] I was surprised to find few articles on the Web on the importance of professional development for software engineers, at least via a quick Google search. The main one was 10 Professional-Development Tips for Programmers. It is structured annoyingly as a slide show, meaning you have to click through to see the content (an SEO and advertising gambit?), so I've collected the titles for you:

  • Staying Current Requires Continuous Learning
  • Problem-Solving Skills
  • Communication and People Skills
  • Networking and Personal Branding
  • Code Documentation and Neatness
  • Master Naming Functions
  • Get Familiar With Agile
  • Get Familiar With a Native Mobile Platform
  • Project Management Skills
  • JavaScript, CSS and HTML5 Skills

Searching the two programming-specific sites I like (Hacker News and reddit.com/r/programming - what are your favorites, BTW?) was more fruitful. Here are a few:

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