Friday, September 23, 2011

Code Writers vs Code Creators

It's occurred to me recently that one of the key turning points for a professional software developer is the realisation that you don't have to make do with the tools you've got - you can create your own tools. This is why 'The Pragmatic Programmer' recommends activities like learning scripting languages and using code generation.

What is your Goal?
As a software engineer, my key goal is to CREATE software. A lot of the time, creating will mean WRITING software (i.e. typing out a program), but that isn't always the case. Many pieces of code have large amounts of boilerplate, or contain elements that are repeated again and again across the code base. Usually this means that the code could have been derived from some description of the end result that was simpler than the code itself.  And wherever that is the case, the code is a candidate for being tool-aided or tool-generated.

What is a Tool?
Now, tools can take many forms.  Sometimes you just need to abstract a super class from some existing code, rather than copying code, and that base class becomes a tool for solving any similar problem. If you have a similar problem across a number of different applications, you might pull code out into a library that can be reused  across those code bases.

I'm using a pretty loose definition of 'tool' here. Basically I consider anything a tool if it has no function by itself, but can be used to create things which can perform a function. Base classes and libraries definitely fit this definition, but I hope that for the majority of developers this kind of reuse is bread and butter.

The kind of tool-creation I think we should aspire to is a little more high-level than this. At regular points in the creation of software, every programmer, and sometimes even whole teams, will come across problems where they feel awkward with the solution and with the process for creating it. So what I'm advocating is that developers and teams need to have the courage in these situations to put down the normal tools and say, "This isn't working. We need better tools for this task." Sometimes there will be existing tools for solving your problem, and sometimes you'll have to create the right tool yourself. But the key quality is to be on the lookout for situations where the productivity of your code creation is being hampered by something, and to be ready to say out loud, "let's take the time to fix this". The problem might be irrelevant boilerplate, repetetive details, or it may even be something not directly related to coding, like a randomly failing build or an automated process that sends you too many emails. Anything that's stealing time away from value creation and could potentially be semi-automated can become the target of tooling.

What's the Catch?
Of course, there's common sense to be used in deciding when to employ a tool or create one. If you're going to write your own tool, you need to make a really honest (i.e. pessimistic) estimation of the ROI (return on investment): Could the time it will take you to write the tool end up being longer than the time it will save you? Is this problem (and hence the tool to solve it) happening again and again or is it just a one off? Will the tool require ongoing maintenance that will significantly offset the gain it provides? You also need to have the discipline to create just the tool that YOU need, and to not try to solve the larger, generic set of problems that are like yours, but which you don't have. Remember: the purpose of creating a tool is to get you to the finish line faster, not to divert you from the race entirely because you're finding it uninteresting.

Are Your Eyes Open to Opportunities for Greater Productivity?
At the end of the day, though, I believe there will often come times for every developer where they find a problem that justifies the creation of a custom tool. If this hasn't been your experience, I'd like to challenge you to think about this: is the charge of your occupation to write lines of code as fast as possible, or to deliver working solutions as fast as possible? Assuming you're not paid by the line, you're really being paid to be a Code Creator, not just a Code Writer. That means you have a responsibility to use the right tools for the job, and hence a mandate to create them if they don't exist.

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  1. That goes the same for learning the tools that you already use. It drives me nuts watching guys type out complex things that are solved by just learning a simple keyboard shortcut.

    The weird thing is, I know plenty of guys who would never take the time to build tools who are some of the best "code creators" I've met. I honestly think the "Zen" of simply typing something they've typed a million times helps them to think through problems/solutions.

  2. Couldn't agree more regarding the importance of mastering your existing tools, John. It's one of the benefits of pair programming that knowledge like that is shared VERY quickly. I've learnt new things about tools I've been using for years from guys who've been using them for a week.

  3. Agree, Writing good tools is always great idea no matter whether its simple java program , shell script or stored procedure if it makes your life easy.

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